Land, Labour, and Power in a Colonial Catholic Mission in Trinidad

Colonial propaganda that masks “humanitarianism” behind self-interest, and breeds euphemisms that are inversions of reality, constitute the recurring subjects of the critiques produced on Zero Anthropology. Little of what we encounter in the present is either new or “original”: much of the “foreign policy” language of elite geopolitical strategists is in fact derived from much older sources and prior histories of conquest and attempted dominance. In colonial Trinidad as elsewhere, Catholic missions for native “Indians” were the “strategic hamlets” and “model villages” of their time—missions were tools of both commerce and counterinsurgency, aiming at both pacification and incorporation. The one difference is that, in the present, the ideological and military aspects of “humanitarianism” are emphasized, whereas in the past, explicitly economic and financial imperatives also stood out more clearly. Thus the lucrative cocoa industry in Trinidad was first founded by Catholic Indian Missions.

The Mission of Arima was also an act of state-protected patronage in service of the landed oligarchy, orbiting the slave plantation economy. Allegedly, all of this was done to “save the souls” of Amerindians, and to liberate them from their “savage” ways. Embracing and appropriating the motif of “savagery,” we encounter a certain “Captain Sylvester” (whose name may be read etymologically as “Captain Savage”) who led a bruising resistance against plantation owners and the Catholic Mission of Toco on Trinidad’s North Coast.

Colonial Myth-Making

Focusing on the history of the Arima Mission in the Island of Trinidad, ostensibly a mission for Indigenous people, the documentary at the end of this essay features what was learned from the baptismal registers of the Mission of Santa Rosa de Arima—in conjunction with historical texts, government documents, and official memoranda and reports of the time. What we encounter are four main “myths,” or working fictions:

  1. the myth that the Mission was for Indians alone;

  2. the myth of “Christian protection”;

  3. the myth of assimilation; and,

  4. the myth of extinction.

The film, and the book on which it is based, argues that a proper understanding of the history of the rise and demise of the Mission has to be in relation to the slave plantation economy. Broadly speaking, we are dealing with a story at the intersection of land, labour, and power under conditions of oligarchic domination and the creation of poverty out of plenty.

Perhaps one of the unexpected realizations from this research is that the narrative of extinction, popular with local elites and generations of social scientists, was at least partly motivated by embarrassment: the difficulty in acknowledging that the colonial civilizing mission had been a failure. Rather than have to give an honest, public account of the failure of an ideology, its assumptions, and its methods, it would be easier to simply dismiss recalcitrant natives altogether.

Another of the surprises was that this so-called “Indian Mission,” was mostly a fig leaf for the slave plantation economy. More than that, it became a barely indirect manner of supporting and subsidizing slave plantations. Indeed, it would have been difficult to explain how Arima could have survived as a pocket of “free labour” in an ocean of slavery dominated by the plantation system.

Knowledge Repatriation and Public Anthropology

Apart from the contents of the research, the mode of delivering the material was rather different from much of what I had done previously. In order to ensure maximum independence from the limiting dictates of academic publishers and the profit motives of commercial publishers, I opted to publish the work through my own imprint, Alert Press. This also allowed me to control the format and appearance of the printed book. This had certain unexpected consequences however: the book is still expensive to print and ship, and many Trinidadians have foreign exchange restrictions on their credit cards, which makes it more difficult for them to obtain copies of the book. The large size of the format also meant that Amazon.com refused to distribute it, until it is made into a trade paperback or hardcover. Not being a professional publisher, and not driven by the need to sell books—only to make the book available—I did not travel to Trinidad with boxes of books to sell during my recent trip which lasted from the start of December to the middle of January.

Research that went into the book, Arima Born, on which the documentary below was based, became part of my “knowledge repatriation” strategy. This was accompanied by a series of events that, for some, would be examples of “public anthropology”.

First, copies of the book were deposited for free in various key access points: in Canada, copies were deposited with Libraries & Archives Canada, along with an e-book; in Trinidad, copies were deposited in the Heritage Collection of the National Library (NALIS), the Arima Public Library, and the West Indian Collection of the Alma Jordan Library of the University of the West Indies.

Second, free copies of the book were delivered to the Santa Rosa First People’s Community, in addition to providing copies to select members of the Arima community more broadly, including the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Church.

Third, an offer was made to the leadership of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community to republish and print the book locally in Trinidad, under an imprint of its choice, with the majority of revenues going to the SRFPC.

Fourth, public presentations based on the book were made at the community centre of the Santa Rosa First People’s Community on December 10, 2019, and at the Arima Public Library on January 8, 2020. The slides below accompanied those public presentations, and are being made available for download:

Fifth, awareness of the issues presented in the book, and in the public presentations, was heightened by the publication of three separate articles by different authors in the national media in Trinidad & Tobago:

  1. Arima mission a ‘slave colony’,” in Newsday (Oct. 22, 2019), also available here.

  2. First Peoples want HDC house for Carib Queen,” in Newsday (Dec. 12, 2019), also available here.

  3. Counting ‘Indios’,” review by Bridget Brereton in the Daily Express (Jan. 29, 2020), full text available here.

Sixth, the documentary below is the latest form of public presentation of the knowledge gained from this research. The film is available both on YouTube and Vimeo. The film runs for 53 minutes. Let me know what you thought of it.

2 thoughts on “Land, Labour, and Power in a Colonial Catholic Mission in Trinidad

  1. Pingback: Land, Labour, and Power in a Colonial Catholic Mission in Trinidad – Repeating Islands

  2. Pingback: Terra, trabalho e poder em uma missão colonial católica em Trinidad | vinteculturaesociedade

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