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Tobago 1677 shows value of historical heritage
Oceans Discovery Tobago Ltd
On April 3, the T&T Guardian published an article by Joshua Surtees titled Tobago history film lost at sea, about the film Tobago 1677. This is a response to the review from Oceans Discovery Tobago Ltd, producers of the film.
Over a career that has produced more than 50 documentaries for an international market of over 112 countries, as well as numerous other productions, we are well accustomed to reviews of all kinds. We respect the reviewer’s right to judge our work and welcome critique as an important part of the professional landscape of film production.
We do, however, expect film reviews to be based on fact.
In this regard, we regret to have to take issue with several assertions in Mr Surtees’ report which have the potential to damage and discredit the work of the hundreds of people, most of them from Tobago, who placed their faith in Tobago 1677 as an important documentary on two significant historical battles in the Scarborough Harbour.
It is particularly worrying that these inaccuracies served to support Mr Surtees’ claim that unnamed “members of the T&T film industry” found Tobago 1677 to be “a demeaning, Eurocentric account of Caribbean history which neglected local expertise.”
Mr Surtees singles out the presence of “Tobagonian actors in non-speaking roles” playing “black French mercenary soldiers” when in reality, all the actors, whether Tobagonian or non-Tobagonian, playing black or white soldiers, had no speaking roles since Tobago 1677 is entirely narrator-driven.
His claim that “the historical and archaeological section of the film ignored local academics entirely” in favour of a “French-naval military historian and a US-based Russian marine archaeologist” is not only completely unfounded but worrying since our T&T associate Kevin Kenny had corrected this view when Mr Surtees raised the issue with him at the screening.
For the record, Oceans Discovery Tobago Ltd (ODTL) had contacted several local historians to appear on camera to talk about the two sea battles. The historian who had come most recommended to us was Susan Craig-James. In March 2013, ODTL invited Ms Craig-James for a discussion at our Tobago offices.
However, Ms Craig-James, who holds herself to very rigorous professional standards, declined to go on camera on the grounds that she did not feel she had detailed historical expertise on the sea battles of Tobago.
It should also be noted that from the very beginning of the Tobago 1677 project (2006), ODTL’s main local historian for the film was Edward Hernandez, museographer and curator/trustee of the Tobago Museum, an institution of the Tobago Trust and an expert on this battle. Until shortly before he passed away, Hernandez was closely associated with Tobago 1677. He made a lot of his own research available to the script. His efforts were invaluable to the film and were recognised at the Tobago premiere and in the credits, as was Ms Craig-James.
ODTL would also like to restate the fact that nearly 200 T&T nationals and over 40 T&T companies and government departments have been involved in Tobago 1677.
Given the film’s core focus on the French naval fleet and two famous naval battles launched from France and Holland, ODTL considered it appropriate to bring in a French naval historian. This is a decision any serious film maker would have made.
Regarding Mr Surtees’ reference to the “US-based Russian archaeologist,” ODTL wishes to point out that Kroum Batchvarov, who is actually of Bulgarian descent, is hired by the Tobago House of Assembly as the chief archaeologist responsible for all archaeological work related to the shipwrecks in the Scarborough Harbour.
Mr Batchvarov has been working on the THA Harbour project since 2012/13, a fact that is open knowledge via the Internet. ODTL was fortunate to be able to access Mr Batchvarov’s expertise on location.
Relevant information on Mr Batchvarov’s role in the THA Scarborough Harbour project is available online at:
http://nauticalarch.org/projects/2014_projects/Rockly Bay Research Project (Tobago).
It states in part: Kroum Batchvarov (University of Connecticut)
Since 2012, INA and UCONN have been working to discover the wrecks from a 1677 battle between a French squadron and the Dutch West Indies Company, in Scarborough Harbour, Tobago.
This project aims to 1. identify, map and record the remains of the 17th-century Dutch warships; 2. determine construction characteristics of these vessels and obtain information on life aboard a West Indies Company frigate; based on the data from the excavation, establish the dependability of historical sources on late 17th-century ship construction and provide comparative data for the interpretation of Vasa, the Swedish 17th-century warship built by Dutch shipwrights and 3. study and interpret the archaeological site as a naval battle site, investigating the tactical aspects of the battle.
Whether intentionally or not, Mr Surtees introduces the rather sinister idea of “an unnamed local company that co-funded the project” which stands to benefit from the film, along with the two German producers, Rick Haupt and Sylvia Krueger.
The producer of Tobago 1677 is Oceans Discovery Tobago Ltd, which was incorporated in T&T in 2008. There are no “unnamed local companies that co-funded” Tobago 1677. The media folder that was given to Mr Surtees contains a diagram that indicates all the local stakeholders and main contributors to Tobago 1677.
Tobago 1677 cash contributions
Process Energy Trinidad Ltd 34%
Oceans Discovery Tobago Ltd 27%
Proman AG Trinidad Ltd 14%
Ministry of Tourism 11%
Caribbean Nitrogen Company Ltd 4%
Mr Surtees’ assertion that the film has been “bought up” by UK-based Skyvision is inaccurate. All rights remain in T&T with the relevant investors. As is also stated in the media folder supplied to Mr Surtees, Skyvision has acquired only the distribution rights to the film.
Your reporter’s comment that “One important element missing entirely from the film was the transatlantic slave trade” and that the African slaves are “referred to once but aren’t seen,” seems to suggest that these persons were written out of the script. In the context of the story told in Tobago 1677, the explanation for this reside in historical documents which indicate that Vice Admiral Benkes had all the enslaved persons removed from the island and put onto the supply ships.
We quote this excerpt from the original historical document:
“Another concern were the 300 slaves, which had been captured during our campaign. The general consensus was that they might revolt during a critical moment of attack. They therefore were placed under strict guard on the Gouden Monnik one of the supply ships. All those unable to take an active part in the defence, such as the old and sick, women, children and babies were placed aboard the Sphera Mundi.”
Mr Surtees carries his point further with a quote from Jonathan Ali, identified as a “film critic:”
“It’s racially inconsiderate...It privileges white lives over black. The slaves are firmly secondary in the narrative. I don’t know who the target audience is, but it definitely should not be shown in schools.”
Your reporter goes on to comment: “The film would have been improved by a greater emphasis on that side of the story. It’s fair to say schoolchildren won’t be seeing the film. Aside from the fact it is out of whack with the Caribbean Studies syllabus, it’s the kind of film that would make students fall asleep.”
Working with the definition of history as outlined by the Caribbean Examination Council (www.cxc.org), we find nothing to suggest that well researched historical facts will be ignored by the school curriculum.
The research for Tobago 1677, has come foremost from Edward Hernandez who worked countless years on researching the Battle of Tobago, as well as from the French National Marine Museum, the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, the Library of Congress and from world-renowned historians like Dr James Pritchard, professor emeritus of history, Canada, (his books on 17th-century history are in every university library worldwide), and Prof Andrew Lambert, Kings College London, UK, and Ab Hoving, author and researcher of Dutch Classical Shipbuilding.
Research from innumerable original letters and documents, written by contemporaries, were used in developing the script in an attempt to meet the rigorous international standards for the historical docudrama genre to which Tobago 1677 belongs.
Contrary to your reporter’s view that Tobago 1677 “panders to the image of the Caribbean the world wants to see, a Pirates of the Caribbean-style adventure-book colonial storytelling, with men in silly wigs and tights blowing each other’s ships out of the water with cannonballs,” we wish to restate what has been said in all our publicity, that the costume designs were meticulously researched down to the button and handmade shoes and accessories in order to ensure the historical authenticity of the production’s costumes.
Mr Surtees also takes issue with the fact that artefacts found in our undersea explorations were left in the sea and asks: “How will they be studied, documented, dated and exhibited if they aren’t retrieved from their watery grave?”
To this, we point to the well-established archaeological practice of leaving found artefacts where they are found, “in situ,” in cases where there is no adequate facility/laboratory for treating them. The THA is currently building a specialised facility for storage and treatment of the historical artefacts found in the Scarborough Harbour. The procedures involved are quite expensive.
While Mr Surtees reports that the film ends with an “ominous warning that ‘the third battle’ of Tobago is about to be waged—to wrest history from the waves,” the reality is that this sentence relates to the ending statement from the project’s chief archaeologist, Mr Batchvarov, that these irreplaceable artefacts should be preserved for the people of T&T for future generations, before they are completely destroyed by time and human influences.
Regarding the general tone of his report, it should be pointed out that as a historical docudrama, the central focus of Tobago 1677 is the sea battles between France and the Netherlands in 1677. The film was motivated by the need to tell the story about the incredible cultural heritage that lies on the seabed of the Scarborough Harbour and to explain how it got there, while highlighting the urgent need for preservation of this historical treasure.
While Tobago 1677 focuses on the two battles as told by the surviving Dutch commander, we recognise that, as with every historical event, there are many perspectives from which the story can be told and we encourage other film-makers and storytellers to engage this particular event from their many different perspectives in order to increase public knowledge and understanding. The value of Tobago’s cultural and historical heritage deserves no less.
Reviewer Josh Surtees’ response: The accusation that the article is littered with inaccuracies is desperate.
In fact, the only error was that I identified the marine archaeologist as Russian not Bulgarian.
While there isn’t space here to dispute all of the claimed mistakes, I will restate that the film did ignore local historians, the profits (I was told by Kenny and Haupt) will be shared between Oceans Discovery, an unnamed local company and Sky Vision, who do have rights to distribute it internationally.
Tobago 1677 is a terribly disappointing film and my review could have been a lot harsher.