Do crimes against humanity really matter, if they happened 500 years ago?
For 59-year-old Ricardo Bharath Hernandez, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Hernandez is chief of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, a group formed in 1970 of more than 200 people who are descended from this island’s first inhabitants of Amerindian descent.
The very first “Trinidadians” included Amerindians of the Kalina, Warao, Kalipuna, Nepuyo, Taino, Aruaca and Carib peoples. Some lived here as long as 7,000 years ago. For many centuries, these peoples evolved their own civilisation. Trinidad’s Amerindians were part of a large inter-island and island-to-mainland trade network. The Warao of Venezuela, who still exist, used to visit Trinidad regularly for centuries, right up until 1930, to trade parrots, hunting dogs and hammocks.
Thousands of descendants of these different peoples still exist in Trinidad, Hernandez believes—but they are scattered throughout the island, and their lineage has become so changed from centuries of miscegenation and cultural shattering that they may not look Amerindian, self-identify as Amerindian, or even have any clue that Amerindian blood runs through their veins.
Hernandez himself has some East Indian and Spanish heritage, but identifies most closely with his Amerindian roots.
Hernandez admitted he was unaware of the full meaning of his own Amerindian heritage until he started on a personal process of self-education and self-discovery many years ago, triggered by talks with elders and meeting other indigenous peoples.
Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas outlined some of the more extreme brutalities of the early years of Spanish colonisation in the Caribbean, which included stealing Amerindians’ food and land, killing the men, enslaving and raping the women, and various tortures, including slowly roasting Indian leaders alive on griddles in Hispaniola, and slashing open the bellies of Amerindian prisoners, even old men and pregnant women.
In Cuba alone, Las Casas said 7,000 children were killed in three months. The slaughter across the region was huge.
As English barrister and noted historian Dominic Selwood aptly wrote in his Sept 2, 2014 blog in The Telegraph, called Columbus, Greed, Slavery and Genocide: What Really Happened to the American Indians: “It was an orgy of looting and butchery.”
Mass death, Amerindian slavery
According to historian Angelo Bissessarsingh, the genocide in Trinidad really stepped up after 1592, when the Spanish set up their first town in Trinidad—St Joseph—right on lands belonging to the cacique Goagonare.
The Spanish encomienda system systematically brutalised the Indians by stealing their freedom, forcing them to labour on Spanish plantations located in Aricagua (San Juan), Tacarigua and Arauca (Arouca), and forcibly converting them to Christianity, stripping them of much of their culture. Many died along the way.
First Peoples in Trinidad were captured to work the cocoa fields in the Northern Range and the tobacco gardens in the encomiendas in the Siparia-Erin area.
Most of the clearing of land in the present East-West corridor and the uplands of Naparima and Oropouche was done by Amerindian labour, state the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, the group which the T&T Government today recognises as the legitimate representative of T&T’s remaining indigenous people.
The East-West corridor itself was once an ancient Amerindian pathway connecting the original Nepuyo villages of Aricagua, Tacarigua, Arauca, and Caura.
In 1786, states Bissessarsingh, remaining Amerindians at Aricagua and Tacarigua were moved to Arima, with a smaller number being moved to present-day Princes Town. He referred to their utter “despair and defeat” in his recent article Strong Case for Reparation, in which he traces in detail what happened to the First Peoples in Trinidad, and advances a case for property rights for the Arima descendants.
Learning about his heritage
“I was born and grew up in the area that was considered to be the last home of the Amerindians, in Calvary in Arima,” shared Chief Hernandez on Monday, speaking at the Heritage Village in the Arima Velodrome—part of the First People’s Heritage Week of events from October 10 to 18.
“As a child, I grew up with my grandmother, Olive Eccles (nee Hernandez), and my aunts and great-aunts, and even had the great good fortune of knowing my great-grandmother and great-grandfather…My grandmother talked to me religiously about the Amerindians, about the different tribes and their history…Many of the elders have passed, but I learned from them.”
“I developed an attachment to the Santa Rosa festival. Why? Because it brought together family. There was a community spirit, a togetherness, a sharing. That attracted me, and grew stronger as I went on.”
The Santa Rosa Festival is a celebration within the Catholic Church that harks back to Arima’s days as an Amerindian Mission village.
Hernandez explained how he saw the festival declining as elders of Amerindian roots died, ties to the land and agriculture faded, and younger ones left to make a different kind of living.
So at the age of 16, he decided to help keep the festival alive. He helped start monthly meetings to keep everyone connected, and although he left for a while to work in the US, he returned every year to help organise the festival.
“I am mixed, but I knew I had strong Amerindian roots…At the time I didn’t know the details of the heritage —the culture and rights…” But though connecting with others, he learned, and educated himself about his own people’s history.
Time for meaningful recognition
Hernandez has been a consistent advocate for more meaningful recognition of First Peoples rights here.
He acknowledges First Peoples were recognised by Cabinet in 1990; at that time a small subvention of $30,000 was granted annually to the Santa Rosa First People’s Community. Later, in 1993 the community received a Chaconia Silver National Award for work in culture and community service.
“These things will not empower you as a people to survive. It is token recognition. It does not do anything to uplift and empower the community to move from one stage to the next.”
Land rights in limbo
“I strongly believe that many government officials do not know the history of the First Peoples, and especially, the issue of land rights when it comes to the First Peoples of Arima. They don’t know. It is only now, some of them are becoming aware, because we are discussing it.
“They may feel: this is just another group looking for handouts. But indigenous people have a unique, inherent right to the land. All peoples need the land for survival, regardless of if you are indigenous or not, but indigenous peoples have a unique right—all peoples met us here first.”
Hernandez explained that he is not talking about giving individual plots of land to people of Amerindian heritage; he is talking about having a permanent, single land area of reasonable size to be owned collectively, to build a sustainable village. The village would have a cassava processing plant, a museum, a herbarium, and would operate eco-tours in the forest.
First Peoples could develop their arts, crafts, and music there. There could be a guest house for visitors.
“These activities would allow our people to be self-sustaining,” stressed Hernandez.
“Under the last government, five acres were given,” said Hernandez. “Then when the new Government came in, they rescinded that, and gave the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community 25 acres to build a model Amerindian Village.
“But because the land is in a forest reserve area, there are many legalities and complications that have prevented us from starting to do anything. They say they can ‘de-reserve’ it for use by the community…Will it be leased? Will it be a grant? Will it be allocated for use? We don’t know…A Cabinet committee will study it, under the National Diversity ministry, and make recommendations to Cabinet.
“We would like a larger portion of land to be allocated to the First Peoples,” said Hernandez.
“Under the Panday administration, we asked for 200 acres. Some felt it was asking for too much; we wouldn’t get it. But they do not understand. They feel that you are asking for 200 acres of land to bulldoze it! And that you really do not have the capacity to work it, so you are mad. That is how some look at it.
“But the forest plays an integral part in the indigenous culture. So most of this land would be kept in its pristine state. We need the forest for harvest materials for craft, for housing, for medicines, for farming. Just a small percentage would be for buildings.
A history of land theft
“The Amerindian people were brought to Arima in the establishment of the Mission in 1759, which was neglected for 30 years, then enlarged in 1785…The Amerindians in Arima numbered more than 600 at that time; and they were granted, collectively, 1,000 acres of land. The land was held in trust by the Church for the Amerindians—there were no individual deeds…Then another governor came and added 320 acres of land to that original 1,000. So in all, the Amerindians of Arima owned 1,320 acres.
“And under the British, all the lands were taken and sold, because they asked the Amerindians for a deed. In Christ’s name, where would they have gotten a deed? Who would have given them a deed?…And that is how the Amerindians lost their land. All 1,320 acres were taken away from them. It was essentially theft.
“I am being realistic and practical. I am not asking the Government today to give us back 1,320 acres. But to give us back just 25 acres is an insult. It is ridiculous.”
“First Peoples were the foundation of this country. It is important we know that. Civilisation did not start with Columbus.”