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History alive at lapeyrouse
Maybe it was the blistering sun beating down on me as I stood outside Lapeyrouse Cemetery, but I swear I could hear the voices of my children in the very distant past asking me, “Can we go to visit the dead people today?”
Ijanaya and Zino had been fascinated with Lapeyrouse from the first time they went with me and Daisann McLane, the American calypsonian, who talked us into a trip to the cemetery so that she could take pictures for a project she was doing on cultural retentions in burial practices. Lapeyrouse, we all discovered, was a great place for a Trinidad history lesson.
I was reminded of this two weeks ago when I stood outside of Lapeyrouse for the rededication of the Perry Gateway just across from Tranquillity Primary School on Tragarete Road, Port-of-Spain. It was a grand, red-carpet event. Police cleared the streets for the T&T Regiment Band to parade up and down the empty street cordoned off from the public.
US naval officers in their pristine white uniforms and white sailor caps stood at attention with their hands clasped behind their backs, and I stood across the street from those sailors thinking: this is one of those rare times when I get to feel connected to my history—both the American part and the Trinidad part all linked together by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, an important naval officer in US history.
I grew up not far from Lake Erie on the northern border of the state of Ohio in the US where Perry fought his famous battles with the British in the War of 1812. There, a monument to Perry rises 352 feet above the Great Lake. What our American history books didn’t tell us was that after the war, in 1819, President James Monroe sent Perry to Venezuela to speak to freedom fighter Simon Bolivar about piracy in the Caribbean.
Perry contracted yellow fever and died on the way to Port-of-Spain for medical treatment. British Governor of Trinidad Sir Ralph Woodword had Perry buried in Lapeyrouse with full military honours. In 1923 a group of Americans in Trinidad commemorated the area where Perry’s body entered the cemetery with a regal gate and plaque. All of this historical information faded and corroded like the gate itself, which became a symbol of the dilapidated state of the cemetery in general, until Louis Homer resurrected Perry’s story.
Somehow the Heritage Committee, US Embassy, Ministry of Works and the Tourism Development Company joined forces to rededicate the gateway. It was a symbolic act milked for political purposes to supposedly show that T&T cares about preserving its history.
There was so much talk at that event about our rich history and rich architecture that made me sink into my seat from embarrassment because we really don’t do enough to preserve and promote our history.
Yes, the Perry Gateway is important, but it should be more than a fancy façade for a deteriorating cemetery with bountiful historical importance, much of which has been vandalised by vagrants who have made Lapeyrouse their bedrooms. My children knew that cemetery when we could see and feel the history of the people who were buried there. Each section of the cemetery reflected the ethnic group buried there.
The Chinese section with its simple grey and white marble slabs made a silent statement about a people who quietly came to Trinidad and silently tried to blend into society. The Syrian section with its elaborate mausoleums and equally elaborate wrought iron gates and wrought iron fences demonstrated a feeling of honouring and protecting the dead by isolating the grave and setting it apart from everything around it.
The grave stones of African descendants were painted in blue and decorated with seashells and pipe fittings so that souls had a way to cross the ocean and return home to Africa .Every section said so much about the culture and history of the person buried there.
Inside Lapeyrouse there are many people who are important to our history, like M’Zumbo Lazare of the 1903 Water Riots and Jean Michel Cazabon, the famous artist. There are calypso characters like the Mighty Popo and countless ordinary people who silently sewed the cultural fabric of this nation. Those gravesites need to be protected and restored in a dignified manner.
I have visited burial sites around the world, from the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, where Mogul emperor Shah Jahan erected a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz, to the gravesite of Cuban poet turned freedom fighter Jose Marti, who is buried in Cementerio Santa Efigenia in Santiago de Cuba, and I have seen how countries honour their history—even in cemeteries.
This week, as we all return to school from the Easter vacation, I will close my eyes and imagine a teacher in Tranquillity Primary School taking her class across the street to read the two new plaques marking the Perry Gateway. I am hoping that teacher will wonder about that gateway to history and what lies beyond it. I am hoping that we will have more opportunities to show our children that history does not only live in a textbook.
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