Is Caribbean history still relevant?

by Curlan Campbell, NOW Grenada

“For Africa to me… is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.” 46 years ago in the New York Times (April 1972), world-renowned poet Maya Angelou wrote, that for a people to determine their future, they must first know of their past.

Robin Walker, historian for the Centre for Pan African Thought, said that the psychological effects of being deprived of one’s history is detrimental to the future of any nation, since one’s personal self-esteem is dependent upon one’s racial esteem, and one’s racial esteem is dependent on the information available of one’s racial achievements.

The Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) has observed a recent decline in student interest to sit Caribbean History at the CXC level. In December 2017, a CXC governance meeting was convened in St Kitts. Among the outcomes was the establishment of a regional committee to provide recommendations to make the syllabus for Caribbean History relevant to students.

Recommendations put forward include:

  • Making Caribbean History compulsory
  • Lobbying governments and education ministries to promote history more aggressively
  • Placing more emphasis on training for history teachers

The narrative of Caribbean History within the school curriculum has left out a significant part of African history before colonisation and enslavement. That history is now being challenged with social media which was not previously available. It is no secret that Caribbean culture has been shaped by its past, but researchers are now taking a more critical look at the region’s history of turmoil, largely told from a Eurocentric perspective, in a bid to rewrite history textbooks.

John Angus Martin is a Grenadian historian who is constantly challenging the existing information on Grenada’s history. Martin holds a Master of Arts in History (1999) from Clemson University, South Carolina. He is the author of twi books: A–Z of Grenada Heritage (Macmillian Caribbean) which chronicles Grenada’s recent political and cultural history, and Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada: 1498–1763 which analyses the colonisation by the French. Martin is a lecturer in History/Caribbean Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences at St George’s University.

He believes technology has played a role in the decline in interest of students wanting to sit Caribbean history at the CXC level, coupled with archaic methods and information taught in schools which no longer have relevance to a younger generation.

Martin, who once served as the Director/Curator for the Grenada National Museum recalled an incident with a group of students during his tenure, which further proved a clear disconnect between today’s students and their African heritage, exists. “For many years, I think most people looked at any connections to Africa as being negative. I remember one time I was at the museum and a group of kids came in, and we were talking to them about different things, and they went over to where we had some African masks, and they were talking about how ugly they were. I think there is a general perception of that negative connection, and a lot of it has been borne by slavery. I think we know enough now, that there is no need for us to restrict the way we teach history to ‘once the ship left Africa,’ because that’s what a lot of people concentrate on. I think there is no reason for us not to include and connect to cultural stuff that is going on, now and historical.”

Martin said the students’ disinterest to sit CXC Caribbean history points to a much larger societal problem. “We are not encouraging our kids to do history and to learn. Because the communication between parents and kids have changed because of our technology, we don’t have that transfer of knowledge, so we need to come up with ways of how kids learn today. We invented the whole classroom structure back in the industrial revolution; time has moved on, and we are still using the same model to educate our children. Because we are living in a digital age and the concept of sitting in a classroom singing songs and reciting things is passé, we need to move on, and if we are not able to change that, we will be in the same place asking the same questions 20 to 30 years from now.”

Martin recommends introducing Caribbean history and civic education at the primary level. “Secondary school is connected to the primary school, and if you don’t emphasise history in primary schools then by the time they reach secondary schools, they will not express an interest in it. I believe it is a combination of things and what is being taught in the curriculum. I think we cannot continue to teach history in the manner it is being currently taught. If students continue to perceive history as boring or just dates and figures, I think there will continue to be a problem. This is something that has been going on for quite a while, and we should have paid attention to it and not wait until the last minute when we only have a handful of students that are interested in history.”

Statistics show that Grenada has seen a steady decline in the number of students sitting Caribbean history at CSEC level.

At the Ministry of Education, in analysing data compiled over a 14-year period, Deputy Chief Education Officer Michelle Peters–George said although there continues to be a steady decline, over the last 10 years the number of students sitting Caribbean history exam has stabilised, with between 200 to 300 students being registered. However, comparing recent figures with that of 15 to 20 years ago which had double and sometimes triple the number of students registered, continues to be of great concern. Peters–George said this decline could be attributed to some factors.

“The clash between Caribbean History and other subjects is a possible reason, and in some schools the subject may not be offered at all. There are some schools where Caribbean History is not being taught at that particular level. However that is a subject of the school curriculum from the Ministry of Education’s standpoint. I think probably what is happening is that some people are complaining as to the point of introduction. Whereas maybe in the last 20 years we had History being taught at the Form 1 level, but the curriculum was revised some years ago so now it is basically introduced at the Form 3 level, so that can be an indicator as to why we are seeing the numbers quite lower than in previous years.”

At this rate of decline, Peters–George said there needs to be a revision in how Caribbean history is being taught with a view of making the subject and teaching methods more relevant. “We need to make Caribbean history more alive and interesting so that the students will really want to do the examination. I believe we as a ministry really have to see what can be done in assisting the schools in marketing the subject so that it is an attractive option as compared to other subjects that may be competing.”

One recommendation stemming from the CXC governance meeting is to make Caribbean History compulsory. Peters–George said this as a practical solution must be assessed. “That is something we can look into, but I don’t think we should rush into it. We should conduct research first to make sure that we have data that will indicate to us that this is a possible option, but I do believe even though it is not made compulsory, at least we should have a high percentage of students sitting the exams.”

At the CAPE level, the low number of students venturing on to pursue Caribbean History continues to dwindle. The T A Marryshow Community College (TAMCC) is taking steps to ensure that students have a more hands-on experience.

TAMCC students learning how to make mud bricks

Latia Wilks, a student at TAMCC, is preparing to sit Caribbean History exams at CAPE level. She said the module at the CXC level is outdated since it lacks balance and fails to equip students with a thorough knowledge of their ancestry pre-transatlantic slave trade. “As it is now, learning about Christopher Columbus’ conquest and discovery of the New World in 1492 — how does that help me? There were people here before Columbus arrived; that in itself has no relevance to me but learning about the development of African kingdoms and knowing that my history didn’t start from slavery, I hold that far dearer to my heart than hearing about Columbus slaughtering native people.”

Wilks spoke highly of the CAPE module at the college level which she finds more applicable to the Caribbean post-slavery. “At TAMCC the syllabus is split up into modules, so each module has a specific focus which all relates to the Caribbean. For example, in the first year, we get to focus a lot on an in-depth analysis of slavery, slave nutrition. You read articles on how Britain needed the Caribbean to finance their development, and you even get to see the great part the Caribbean played in America’s independence. So for the CAPE syllabusm it’s far more relevant and gets more in-depth, and you really get the opportunity to take a bite out of the material.”

With this shift towards affording students the opportunity to receive a more hands-on experience to Caribbean history outside the classroom, TAMCC organises site visits to La Poterie, St Andrew, which is home to a number of Amerindian historical sites recently excavated by archaeologists from Leiden University led by Professor Dr Corinne Hofman.

One of many Amerindian roundhouses being erected at La Poterie

At La Poterie, students who are either majoring in Caribbean History or have chosen it as an elective are given the opportunity to help re-construct a Kalinago Village as part of their requirement to complete the course. That particular site in La Poterie which is owned by community activist Dolton Charles, is in the process of being transformed, by restoring the Amerindian village which once inhabited that area. At La Poterie, students learn how to re-construct Kalinago houses in the exact manner they were built in the 16th century, using ancient methods. The reconstruction is based upon excavated floor plans and detailed descriptions of the property. It is the vision as articulated by Charles to one day proclaim that particular area in La Poterie as an international heritage site.

Students who have chosen to take Caribbean History as an elective spoke of their experience learning outside the classroom. Year 2 student, Jessica Fereire was very appreciative of the opportunity to come and explore Caribbean history from a whole new perspective. She said, “The real reason behind [the decline in students’ interest to sit Caribbean history for CXC] is because they have this mindset that once they go into the field of work, there is no reason to apply history. But knowing about your history and what your ancestors had to go through and how our modern society came into being is a really good thing… you can always pass it on from generation to generation. It is what keeps history alive.”

Year 1 student Traci Ann Ollivierre said Caribbean History at the tertiary level is far more intriguing than at the secondary level. “I heard so many versions of the story of the Kalinago, and I didn’t realise that there was more to their story. It is very important for people to know where they come from and what their ancestors did because today’s young people are only interested in their technological devices, but to see and do what our ancestors did that is a very good experience. So, it is good to teach Caribbean history in secondary school.”

Gevonte Williams, another Year 1 student, said he prefers practical hands-on experience. “I didn’t enjoy so much history in secondary school because it was more complicated with a lot of dates to memorise, but history as being taught now is a lot easier and more fun to learn.”

Angeleau James believes more opportunities need to be afforded to students out in the field to have a better understanding of history.“I think that we should be doing more activities like this. By going out into the field and having people who are actually related to our ancestors who could speak to us, because the basic knowledge from the teachers who learn the information from textbooks, it may not be 100% relevant.”

Kyle Sylvester has commended Dolton Charles for taking the bold initiative to recreate a Kalinago village. “I am a history major, and before I came here. I didn’t have the full story. The person who is building the village here is doing a very good job, because he is teaching us where we come from, and giving us a better understanding of the Kalinagos.”

Dolton Charles relating the history of the Amerindians to the students of TAMCC

TAMCC History Lecturer, Louisa Chase-Lewis, said the college is more focused on teaching students the practical aspect of Caribbean History, which is seeing a renewed interest in students to include history as part of their academic journey.

She said, “It is important for history teachers to give students a very practical approach to history, and I think a lot of students get the misconception that history is only about learning facts and dates and regurgitating the facts, but history is not like that at all. With my students, we started off with a number of field trips to the Museum and even around the Town of St George to learn about its origin. We also studied maps, and many of them didn’t even know certain parts of Grenada and some of the histories that would have taken place. So history lessons should invoke a lot of questions and answers and show students how to think and carry out research because when history is taught well, students learn how to become responsible citizens.”

Charles says the history of La Poterie and its early inhabitants was orally transmitted to him by his mother, whose great-grandmother was a Kalinago chief of the area. Charles believes that our Caribbean history has not been given its proper context and therefore has not been able to attract a new generation of people. As part of his research, Charles pointed to the false narrative documented by the French of the leap of death by the Caribs at Leapers Hill in St Patrick, as a prime example.

“1649 was the year when the French came to Grenada and basically massacred the Amerindians, during what they described as a full moon feast night. So, the Amerindians were drunk in the full moon feast which took place in the Capisterre in La Poterie. The same story of the Caribs who went to Leaper’s Hill and jumped over, that same story is being told in places like Martinique and other islands; so how can the same occurrence take place on every island? Now they would have written that story to show a sign of power, but in actuality, that did not happen. How could the Caribs leave La Poterie and run to Sauteurs and jump over at night while the French were anchored in Sauteurs, and they left Sauteurs and came into La Poterie?”

CXC has taken up the mantle to revive Caribbean history. Would that be enough to attract once again the interest of students to study Caribbean History? The impact on today’s students is yet to be seen.

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