This is a tribute to those who came before us and have lived in a time when things were uniquely Trinidadian. They have witnessed the transition from the simple life of limited economic activity and deeply-rooted cultural norms (that hark back to their relatively not-so-distant immigrant origins), to the 'modernity' occasioned by radical economic expansion and marked by increasing cultural complexity. In the present era of digital vicissitude, theirs is a time that risks being erased from our national memory.
- Richard Acosta
The Dancing Cocoa, Running Rails Project began as an idea in 1998 at the University of Miami where I was president of the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Association. I was aware that 1999 was declared the International Year of the Aged by the United Nations and came up with the idea to illustrate the history of Trinidad and Tobago using the stories of our people.
Members were instructed to collect images of their grandparents and stories of their lives in Trinidad and Tobago over the Christmas break that year. The images and text would be displayed during the University's International Students' Day and used as educational tools to inform other nationalities of the diversity of Trinbago's people and history. Unfortunately no one collected the data and the idea lay dormant.
Twelve years later, I decided to revisit the idea of illustrating a segment of Trinidad's history through people who had lived it. I chose the focus group of nonagenarians and centenarians who had lived as youth in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Of course, the stark contrast of life in those decades and in the first decade of the new millennium speaks for itself.
It is baffling to most of the younger generations to consider life without many of our modern amenities but there was a time when people not only lived, they thrived, without them. How does one exist without a washing machine or a television? What would life be like without a cell phone and a computer to communicate with friends? There are people who can answer these questions and share their rich experiences with a smile.
It seemed to me that there was a direct parallel to people born in the early twentieth century (1900s) and those born in the last decades of that century that contradicted the contrast in lifestyles. In the early 20th century, modern technology -- electricity, household telephones, automobiles and the combustion engine, air travel and highways -- was in its infancy. And in many ways, in the new millennium, we were experiencing a similar technological dawn that our grandparents would have experienced.
In twelve years cell phones, Wi Fi and Google have transformed our lives irreversibly. Advancements in Nano technology, synthetic diamond technology and stem cell research aim to boost this progression, so that in many ways we, who are experiencing the dawn of a new techno boom, have no idea of what’s to come -- much as our elders could not have known of all our present advancements in the 1920’s when they were roaming Frederick street illuminated by electric lights and dodging the odd auto mobile.
Such a boom was heard around the world in 1938 with the advancement of Hitler’s war machine. The combustion engine and our own Oil industry were about to goose step well into a time warp of human innovation. And it is this growth spurt that defines Trinidad’s entrance onto the world stage. In the period before 1938, Trinidad was a struggling cocoa colony of the British Crown, hardly anything to fuss over. The average wage of the working man was not more than $30 and the mass of the population lived a life of subsistence, farming and hunting.
Cocoa was king and a struggling entrepreneur, Randolf Rust, was losing money in his exploration of petroleum. Natural gas was well known and so abundant in the Guayaguayare region that it escaped all over the forests there, and its only known value was for hunting fires. It was however with Rust’s leap of faith the first corporate exploration for oil was made. On the international scene, with the advent of WWII, the combustion engine became a mainstay in tanks, submarines and jeeps and the automobile for the working man; Hitler’s own idea the Volkswagon. By the hand of God, Trinidad was to grow from its agricultural bedding.
The people who made this happen...
Boochoon was a single child whose parents died when he was four years old. He then went to live with his uncle in a carat house. At age seven he stopped going to school and began to work on the sugar estates. At age eleven, Boochoon was paid 15c a day cutting 'para' grass from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon.
Their father worked in agriculture "trimming cocoa and making garden" on his estate while "mom was home." Their father was born in Trinidad (his parents having come from Caracas) and their mother was "African and mixed" heritage. As children they lived in a carat house made from the leaves of the carat palm. On evenings, children were not allowed to play outside but if they heard the familiar greeting "bonsoir" as a visitor came calling they would seize the opportunity to sneak outdoors. At the sound of "Ayo", however, they would be sure to get back inside as the visitor left. They spoke Spanish and Patois but were taught English in school. School was very close to the church (Maracas Valley Roman Catholic Church), which "was made from stone and sand from river" and still stands in Maracas Valley today.
Arthur was born at Penal Rock Road. My father came from China, my mother [also of Chinese descent] came from Guyana. My father was a Buddhist but did not practise, my mother was Anglican and she didn't drink out of the same cup as others. They spoke Cantonese and ran a shop in Penal that sold everything including liquor…we had a rum shop attached.
Known locally as "Attiman" this iconic figure of Paramin lives modestly in a two room wooden hut sheltered by sheets of galvanize and lit by a single incandescent bulb. Part of his family lives in the more modern dwelling below. His great grandfather came from Africa "on de boat". Attiman fathered fifteen children, the first at age 15, which makes his eldest daughter 92.
Ilva Marjorie John's parents had 10 children. Her father worked at the Bonanza store, time keeping and taking messages at Ross drugs. But his skill was as a blacksmith; he made coal pots, irons, baking stoves and grid irons. "I would carry food for him in the evening 'cause he worked through the night…people would rent coal pots from him."
I was born in Icacos [the south westernmost tip of Trinidad]. Well, we lived in a wooden house on stilts…no not too far from the ground but high enough as a child you can fit under it and play. We had two roads in the small village, the inner road [normal road] and the beach [which they used so much they considered that to be a normal road].We would walk the mile to school and pass on the beach at low tide.
Joseph was born in Brasso Seco, he had(sure?) two brothers and two sisters. His father was East Indian and "Bajan" [African heritage]. His mother was "trini Spanish". In the hills of Brasso Seco you still get a feel of what little Joseph had experienced as a young boy walking barefoot on the pebble strewn tracks through the fields of cocoa trees.
Lakiwantah had three boys and four girls. She practised Vedic Hinduism. Her parents came aboard the Fatel Razack. She lived with her parents on the sugar plantation barracks in one room with three beds. For 10c a day, Lakiwantah worked on the plantations carrying cane on her head to the truck to be transported to the factory.
Louise's family lived a subsistence lifestyle. She was one of seven children. "My father had a gun, double barrel, he used to hunt wild meat…We had plenty fruits." Her mother and siblings would make bread from the cassava they grew. Any extra bread they made they would walk eight miles to sell. Cassava bread was sold for 6c (large) and baked in a dirt oven, which she remembers sweeping out before baking could begin.
Ayers' father was a gardener on the Herrera Estate and a musician. His mother, a worker on the same estate, would meet his father and marry him at age 30. The marriage arrangements were made through the parents. Born in Rock River, Moruga, Prince attended Rock River RC School. After primary school he worked at a cocoa estate but then moved over to the oil fields.
William 'Will' Payne’s parents, Reverend Thomas Payne and Gladys Payne migrated to Trinidad from Barbados. His British father was a Minister of the Baptist Church, London Baptist Missionary Society who worked in Princes Town, Moruga and environs in Baptist Churches known as the Fourth Company, Fifth Company and the like.