KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, Feb. 16, IWN – In April 2012, as the fallout from his unlawful arrest in New York continued, this country’s envoy to the United Nations, Camillo Gonsalves, observed that while social media was being used to topple governments around the world, some of his compatriots use it “to amplify commess (gossip)”.
“It’s like a megaphone through which we engage in all sorts of things that are not productive and they are not progressive,” he told a gathering of Vincentians in New York then.
And, this year, the diplomat — son of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves — is leading by example by using this country’s U.N. Mission’s Facebook page to disseminate information about the Black history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
This month, as the United States observes Black History Month, the ambassador, who is based in New York, has been using the rubric “Vincentian Black History” to disseminate daily, information on Facebook about the Black history of SVG.
His posts include a chart showing that £592,508.18 –worth £29,323,220 today — was awarded to slave owners in SVG for the value of their slaves, even as the newly-freed slaves received no compensation for their unpaid labour.
Another post shows two paintings of Kingstown from approximately 1795 to 1815, and types of dwellings from 1774 and 1926, respectively.
The ambassador’s posts also give insights into the struggles of SVG’s indigenous people — the Calinagos.
In explaining the idea behind the post, Gonsalves told I-Witness News via email that at the United Nations, many countries carry with them “an acute sense of the historical forces that shaped their nations and peoples”.
To understand and interact with these countries effectively, he said, one almost has to become an amateur historian, “with at least a surface-level understanding of nations’ historical narratives”.
He said that, as with many young countries, SVG, which gained independence in 1979, hasn’t paid as much attention to history and symbols as many older nations have.
“You hear some Vincentians saying that we have a national anthem that neglects the Grenadines or sounds like a tourism jingle,” he observed.
Others Vincentians, he added, say the national flag “was changed on a whim by someone who sketched it on the back of a napkin.
“Others still question the wisdom of forging ties with African or Latin American countries, wondering what we have in common with them.
“The result is that some Vincentians — a minority, but a significant minority — see our country as rootless, lacking a significant history, or as inconsequential among other countries of the world,” ambassador Gonsalves further told I-Witness News.
But this 150-square mile, multi island nation of 110,000 people has“such a spectacular Black history, which is a subset of our overall history that goes back well before the arrival of Africans to our shores,” he said.
Gonsalves further noted that during the the last 350 years or so, shipwrecked Africans escaped from a slave ship and found a home among the indigenous people of SVG — the Calinagos, and eventually intermarried and gave rise to the Garifuna.
SVG became a magnet for runaway slaves from neighbouring islands. “We (SVG) were one of the last countries in the Caribbean to fall under the colonial yoke,” Gonsalves said.
He underscored the fact that two wars were fought between the Garifuna and the British and that the Garifuna not only forged alliances with the French, but also forced the British to sign a treaty with them.
It was one of the first treaties between an indigenous people and the British in the western hemisphere.
“The Garifuna conducted an organised and systematic resistance against colonialism and external domination. We had rebellions on slave ships. We had enslaved Africans rising up against their plantation owners and killing them, both on St. Vincent itself and in the Grenadines. Tens of thousands of Africans were brought here as slaves, and tens of thousands died from their labours. We had one of the few forced exiles and genocides of a pre-colonial people in the Western Hemisphere,” Gonsalves said.
He was speaking of the exile of the Garifuna to the island of Roatán off the coast of present-day Honduras after the death on March 14, 1795 of Chief Joseph Chatoyer, during the Second Carib War.
“Yet, from this history of exploitation, war and conflict, we have managed to form a relatively harmonious society that has gone on to accomplish great things in culture, sports, business, the arts, academia and politics. And of course, based on such a rich history, we can be confident that the best is still ahead of us,” Gonsalves told I-Witness News.
The idea for the post, the ambassador said, sprang from a conversation he had with a young Vincentian college student in New York, who was actively involved in his university’s upcoming Black History Month events.
“He made a comment indicating to me that he didn’t fully appreciate the depth and richness of the Black history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the ambassador said.
But while the student “knew of the name ‘Chatoyer’, the word ‘Garifuna’, and had a passing knowledge of more recent Vincentian Black History, … he was very surprised to hear about our own unique tales of struggle, triumph, and resistance,” the ambassador said.
So Gonsalves, who is a lawyer and has a degree in journalism, said he thought it might be a good idea “to share what few titbits I had with other young people, in an easily digestible format” and added that the Mission’s Facebook page is one of the few tools he has to do so.
He told I-Witness News that while SVG has many accomplished historians who have written extensively, or who contribute to newspapers, those contributions are “either too ‘dry’ and academic or they are not easily located and reproducible online and in social media”.
And while SVG does not have a Black History Month, many Vincentians are aware of the month’s significance in the United States.
“I thought I could ‘piggy back’ on that awareness and play some small part in injecting some Vincy flavour into the discussions of Black History that we’ll all be seeing on television or online,” he said.
The aim of the postings is to spark an interest in the minds of young Vincentians.
The ambassador also hopes that the postings will lead to these young Vincentians’ own independent research and exploration of Black History in SVG, and Vincentian history, more broadly.
“From my own very limited knowledge and sources, I try to pick little nuggets of information that may be interesting to a casual browser, or that may cause them to stop and think for a moment about our history.
“Maybe someone who is fully versed in Vincentian Black history may see some data that sheds new light on something they already knew — a graph or a map or a chart.
“Maybe its just a photograph or artwork from our past that makes the viewer pause to consider how far we’ve come as a nation. I don’t know enough to teach anyone a comprehensive history of Black people in SVG, but luckily Facebook doesn’t lend itself to that sort of comprehensive education, anyway.
“What I can do is drum up some interest in Vincentian Black history, and hopefully young people will then embark on their own journey of discovery,” he told I-Witness News.
The information comes from books, articles and other resources the ambassador has on his bookshelf. He also uses information on the Internet that can be found “if you’re inclined to do a little digging”.
Some of the books are by English settlers, governors and magistrates from the time of the Garifuna Wars.
“Although the narratives in those books are often racist and self-serving, they contain a great deal of really fascinating information,” the ambassador, however, said.
The photos, maps and artwork posted are either available online or have come from other books on Caribbean history.
And, as the month progresses, the ambassador said, he will refer to other sources, and hopefully move the focus of the postings beyond the period of slavery and the Garifuna Wars.
“Hopefully I’ll … post about F.O. Mason and Mike Findlay blazing the way for Winston Davis’ world records in cricket, or Kevin Lyttle’s Billboard smash, or Shake Keane’s artistic brilliance, or the world-class talents of Adonal Foyle, Sancho Lyttle and Sophia Young in basketball, or the heroism of Dr. Cecil Cyrus in the medical field,” he told I-Witness News.
Gonsalves says the feedback has been “wonderful”.
“I’ve received a number of emails and telephone calls asking for more information about the postings, or asking for additional information — which was essentially what I was hoping to achieve. Beyond Vincentians in SVG and the Diaspora, a number of Hondurans, Belizeans and Guatemalans of Garifuna descent have also contacted me.
“I also welcome Facebook users to ‘like’ or ‘share’ the postings, and quite a few people have done that. I’m encouraged by the response, and I hope that the momentum can be carried forward, not only by laypersons like myself, but by Vincentian historians who have much greater knowledge and resources at their disposal,” he told I-Witness News.
A visit to the Facebook page shows the positive feedback that the postings have been generating.
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, the ambassador posted a link to data about the slave trade to SVG. Clarence Wyllie commented: “Since this month is Black History I am anticipating a lot of information on the Garifuna people who were [exiled] from svg. As a student back then I was made to believe that they were cannibals, savages and the likes.”In response to the Feb. 6 post about punishments of apprentices in St. Vincent 1835-36, Philip Ricky Thomas wrote: “What’s been hidden to the wise and prudent has been revealed to the babe in this TIME. Thank U for the INFO. Each 1 teach1: 1 LOVE.”
And when Ambassador Gonsalves posted on Valentines day a map of St. Vincent from an 1823 book, Shanelle Jacobs commented: “Oh thank you very much. What a wonderful Valentine’s gift. I was searching for this map to include in my project. I thought all hope was lost as the University Main Library only has a framed copy.”
Ambassador Gonsalves has taken information for his post from the following books:
“An Historical Account of the Island of Saint Vincent,” by Charles Shephard — an 1831 book,available on Google Books for free.
“History of the West Indies, Comprising British Guiana, Barbadoes, St. Vincent’s, St. Lucia, Dominica, Montserrat, Antigua and St. Christopher’s” by R. Montgomery Martin — also available on Google Books for free.
Joseph Spinelli’s 1973 PhD Thesis called “Land Use and Population in St. Vincent, 1763 – 1960.”
The ambassador also recommends Colonial governor William Young’s “An Account of the Black Charaibs in the Island of St. Vincent’s”, which he says, offers “an insight into the mind of the colonial exploiters of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and for a number of original documents of the era”.
He also said “Saint Vincent in the History of the Carib Nation 1625 – 1779” by Vincentian Edgar Adams, published in 2007, “is a great resource” that has references to a number of French documents from the era, which contradict many of the British narratives of that time period.