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Return of the First Nations

Published: 
Sunday, August 18, 2013
A Warao homestead in 1900

In parts of Trinidad, there are places with the names Indian Trail or Indian Walk. These have nothing to do with Indo-Trinidadians but with the first peoples of the nation. Many roads that wind sinuously atop ridges also follow old footpaths beaten out through centuries of traversing. In the 17th century, encomiendas or estates were formed by the Spanish colonists where the native Amerindians were herded to become de facto slaves. Only slightly better were the missions established by Capuchin monks from 1687-90 and 1758-86. By 1770, the Amerindians had been decimated by disease and ill usage. Those belonging to the old missions in the north were marshalled in 1786 to a new allotment around the church of Santa Rosa in Arima and the arrangement was described thus in 1857 by Louis A DeVerteuil: “The village of Arima was, for a long time, an Indian mission. Soon after the settlement of the colony, these Indians had been formed into two missions, at Tacarigua and Arima. But as the formation of ingenios, or sugar estates, was proceeding eastward, they were removed to the quarter of Arima, where a village was formed, and houses built by them, on about one thousand acres which had been granted for the formation of a mission, along the right bank of the river, and as the full and unalienable property of the inhabitants. The mission of Arima was settled and governed on the same plan as all such establishments in the Spanish colonies. The Indians had their own municipal government, the first and second alcalde being chosen from among themselves, but under the control of the missionary priest.”

 

In the same year, those settled in the south at the foot of Mt Naparima were sent to the Mission of Savanna Grande (Princes Town) in order to make way for the new town of San Fernando. While the people of Arima prospered and mixed into other populations, those at Savanna Grande were seized by apathy due to abuse from those appointed to oversee their welfare. By the time the mission was scrapped in 1840, the Amerindians had fled to South America to live among the Warao of the Orinoco Delta or else had retreated to the high woods. By 1850, there remained almost no evidence that Savanna Grande was once home to the second largest indigenous population in Trinidad. Nevertheless, a strange return occurred every year which saw first peoples coming out of the mangrove swamps of the mainland to visit Trinidad hinted at by EB Underhill in 1862: “The village retains the name of “The Mission,” and has still its Catholic church; but the Indians have long abandoned it, a few only once a year coming over from the continent of South America to pay a brief visit to the graves of their ancestors, and to gather the fruits of the forest in which they formerly lived. They bring with them a few rude baskets and mats for sale.”

 

With the passing of the years, those who left Trinidad died but this did not stem the flow of communication between the first peoples and the land from which they were driven. San Fernando Hill (Annaparima) is a sacred place to the Warao and regular pilgrimages were made to this place. The landings would take place on beaches of the south coast such as Erin and Quinam with the silent men and women scantily clad, as was their custom, making their way along long-forgotten pathways to visit their ancestral places and also to trade. San Fernando was a major destination and their arrival never ceased to cause a stir as the ladies of the town sometimes cast clothing on the women to cover their nakedness. Baskets, hammocks and parrots were the trade goods and sometimes gold nuggets from the El Callao mines. Into the well-stocked mercantiles of High Street they went and bartered for shirts, cloth and sometimes fancy items like alarm clocks. Once, an intolerant inspector of the constabulary had a hapless band of these people arrested for indecency owing to their nakedness. These visits were common well into the 1930s but seemed to wane with the advent of World War II and the heavy military presence in the waters around Trinidad. All the same, there are sources who tell that as late as the 1960s canoes were beached at Puerto Grande near Erin and these ancient peoples wended their way across paths known only to them, returning before sunset and departing over the horizon.