In today’s blogpost I want to talk about the voice of indigenous peoples in the historical record. As you can imagine, history books are by and large witten from the perspective of the dominant social group or power. In the case of the Americas, and specfically the Caribbean, where I grew up, this has meant that the historical narrative of colonialism and slavery has until fairly recently been told almost exclusively from a European perspective. The Danish, English, French and Spanish records are sadly replete with one-sided, at times racist and paternalistic accounts of everything from seminal historical events to mundane daily life. However, the voice of indigenous peoples is completely absent. Like an echo chamber one can only obtain information and opinions that reflect and reinforce the dominant European viewpoint.
One may ask, perhaps naively, why this is the case? Surely there is a logical explanation. And some might even rationally offer up an answer that most indigenous people were illiterate and therefore could not record their side of the story. Yet, I would challenge this assertion wholeheaetedly. There were indeed mostly (semi-)literate indigenous peoples, however, there were certainly a few among them who were capable of writing and articulating their perspective to the Europeans with whom they were in contact. A case in point is Chief Joseph Chatoyer (one of the main characters in my upcoming historical fiction novel – Children of the Ocean God) of the Garifuna (Black Caribs) who wrote a proclamation in fluent French during the Second Carib War. There were no doubt many others like him. So I’m unconvinced that such a rational argument holds water.
What strikes me as being far more plausible is that the perspective of indigenous peoples was not of interest to the Europeans. So they just ignored it and did not deem it worth reporting. This arrogance no doubt had its advantages when it came to seizing their land and enslaving them. There was no counternarrative to contend with. So essentially the Europeans had a carte blanche to do as they pleased without accountability or semblance of moral responsibility. And unsurprisingly no one questioned this one-sided monolithic perspective for centuries! (Interestingly, I see parallels with our present–day mass media, which has a tendancy to peddle one-sided black-and-white narratives.)
In spite of this, against all odds, the invisible voice of indigenous peoples still managed to be heard even if it was barely audible. Recently, I came across a tragic lament (recorded somewhere in the 18th Century) by a Carib Indian, about the demise of his proud people at the hands of Europeans:
Tooking ma kanari
Minara tanara manaricou
Kimabouisi cana kivacou
Destroyed our strength;
myself without birthright, food or weapon.
Without strength my plants, our land and water;
Without weapons I am destroyed.
Our strength is without defences, fortress or land
[Source: Carib lament from the records of Fort St. Christian, St Thomas U.S. Virgin Islands]
These haunting lines poignantly capture the catastrophic despair and suffering of the Caribs. They give voice to the voiceless indigenous people of the Caribbean and the holocaust that they experienced. Yet sadly these words fell on deaf ears. The hegenomy of the Europeans endured for another two centuries unabated. It was to say the least a tragedy for the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.
On that note I’ll stop here today. I promise more will follow soon. As always thanks for stopping by and please feel free to leave a comment below if this post has triggered you. Also, if you would like to receive more updates about my writing please consider joining my newsletter mailing list by subscribing below.
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