by Kellon Bubb
The picturesque vistas at the northernmost part of the town of Sauteurs are replete with historic imagery. In some ways, it is a metaphoric juxtaposition of the wider history of the island of Grenada (formerly Camerhogne) and its relationship with conquest, conflict, colonialism and slavery.
The main attraction in Sauters is Leapers Hill, where legend has it that the Kalinago inhabitants of Camerhogne jumped to their deaths instead of submitting to white French invaders who would have otherwise destroyed their culture by way of enslavement, subjugation, Christian religious conversion, and murder. This is ostensibly the white European version of these events, and since the victims of this tragedy are unable to tell their side of the story, the victors have managed to shape the narrative of their interaction with the native settlers for centuries after allegedly discovering the “New World.”
The Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin was right when he proclaimed, “history is written by the victors.” I suspect that if time travel were possible, the native Kalinago civilisation, estimated by independent archaeologists to be almost 8 million at the time of the European invasion of these jewelled isles in the 15th century would in all likelihood tell a different story.
I imagine that the first settlers of Camerhogne would share harrowing stories about the hundreds of diseased French invaders who repeatedly raped their wives and daughters, and kept them as sex slaves in the cabins of their maritime flotillas. They would tell stories about the pillage of the land and its rich agricultural resources, and about the enslavement of their fellow native men.
They may even speak about the extent to which they were forced to convert to Christianity under duress and torture; methods which might have included being burned at the stake, mass public floggings and hangings much to the horror of an already traumatised people unaccustomed to such violent encroachment. It is also very possible, extrapolating from the accounts of abolitionists and Quakers who kept copious notes about colonial exploits in the “New World” that many of these invaders were also killed in battle by Kalinago warriors. We will sadly never know the names of the many Kalinago warriors and heroes who would have resisted the French in a manner similar to Julien Fedon and other brave slaves.
The French, British and Spanish invaders, apart from introducing slavery, white supremacy and colonialism to this part of the world also “evangelised” Christianity to the “savages” and “cannibals.” Bartholomew Las Casas, revered by Western historians as being “the protector of the Indians” and defined as a benevolent Catholic priest sanctioned and personally participated in the murder, rape and torture of the first peoples of the Caribbean as a means by which they would forcibly accept to a belief system unfamiliar to them. To add insult to injury, these purveyors of Christendom perpetuated the talking point that their theological precept was to be viewed as superior to that of the “savages” and therefore prescribed the bitter medicine of conversion even through brutal means. It is no surprise that modern Christianity still propagates the idea that to be non-Christian is to be heathen, demon possessed, cursed or worse.
The Kalinago peoples of the Caribbean are believed to have been polytheists. They, like their counterparts in the Northern Caribbean, perceived the world and everything in it as alive with supernatural power, including features of the landscape – mountains, caves, rivers, trees, and the sea – as well as the souls of animals and people. They believed the earth to be a thin interface between the watery depths and the expanse of the heavens – a flat disk floating in the vast cosmos of water and stars.
Similarly, while the historical record of the Kalinago peoples is sparse with respect to ancestor worship of their dead, we find clues by way of their nearest counterparts in the Northern islands. According to historian Erik Seeman, when the native settlers on the islands of Puerto Rico and Martinique venerated their deceased ancestors, they built zemis which were sculptures made of many materials such as wood, stone, ceramic, bone, and shell. Seeman discovered that in some instances, the zemi sculptures contained on the inside, the bones and sometimes the skull of the dead. Externally, the zemis were sculpted to resemble the departed spirit and varied in size according to the social status of the villager. These wooden structures were then reposed in the homes of surviving relatives where it was meant to bring good fortune and ward off bad luck to the affected family.
Given the traumatic and tragic circumstances of the demise and mass murder of the original Grenadians at the hands of savage colonisers, I find it incredibly offensive and highly insulting that a government chose to erect a Judeo-Christian monument to honour members of a civilisation who weren’t remotely Christian, and whose religious sensibilities were far removed from any Christian theological context. While one can advance the counter-argument that the colonialists perverted Christianity, one cannot deny that Christian symbolism to the Kalinago people were symbols of oppression and torture. Using these symbols which would have engendered fear in the hearts and collective psyche of a group of exterminated people bears no difference to the way white racist Southerners view the Confederate flag and Robert E Lee as symbols of brutal power and supremacy over enslaved Africans. One can only imagine the outrage Germany would receive if it were to erect a Hitler statue or symbolisms associated with the Third Reich at the gates of Auschwitz or Dachau, two notorious sites of the Jewish Holocaust.
Contemporary American historians and social activists of colour are in the middle of leading a concerted campaign to secure the removal of Confederate statues and monuments in former slaveholding states. These activists believe (and rightly so) that these monuments do not belong in public places since they represent and give voice to America’s ugly history of slavery and institutionalised black oppression. Similarly, any monument erected to honour the native people at Leapers Hill should strictly represent their cultural identity and history, and not the identity of a middle eastern-Jewish religion introduced under duress in 15th century Grenada.
The proponents of heritage on the island at the Willie Redhead Foundation (tWRF) are very fixated on preserving the Eurocentric Georgian architecture in The Town of St George, and on protecting Camerhogne Park from state sanctioned destruction, but have offered no perspective on the insulting monument in Sauteurs. The Willie Redhead Foundation should, as a matter of priority, seriously consider partnering with the Kalinago community in Dominica which is the closest ancestor to their counterpart in Grenada to come up with ideas for converting Leapers Hill into a memorial park that would properly celebrate and acknowledge our first nations people.
The process of repurposing Leapers Hill should first remove the current monument and replace it with several zemi structures, and should also serve as a site for Kalinago education. While this can be defined as important symbolic gesture, a much more tangible action should entail conducting a systematic re-education campaign in schools to discard the words “Carib” and “Indian” in the lexicon of our history books, and instead follow the model of Dominica when, in deference to the remaining native residents on the island utilised the names the natives preferred to be called, as was the case for hundreds of years before Columbus’ facile “discovery” of “India.” The “Carib Indians” are in fact the “Kalinago People”, and therefore should only be referred to by that name. The “Carib Stone” in St Patrick as well as the “Carib artefacts” should all be decolonised and given its original names as is the case in Dominica.
As a matter of historical fact, the word “Carib” is a Spanish word whose original meaning is derived from Caribales which meant cannibals in the Iberian Lexicon. Fortunately for students of history engrossed in a deeper pedagogical understanding of the Kalinago culture, there is the Carib-French, French-Carib dictionary published in 1650 by a French missionary who lived among the Kalinago people in Dominica from 1641-1651 who learnt their native tongue. This should be an instructive starting point for us as an island imbued with such an eclectic historical past to give serious thought to reimagining and rethinking the definition of heritage and the impartation of history through generations.
Some scholars of history and public advocates of reparative justice do acknowledge the need to decolonise Eurocentric narratives that our contemporary societies have not questioned or critically examined. Leapers Hill should, therefore, become a seminal site for decolonisation and a place from which we begin to finally upend the white colonialist narrative that continues to have an intellectual and psychological stranglehold on our collective abilities to critically question and disrupt the violent history of European colonisation, genocide, and slavery in the “New World”.