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A champion of our story

Saturday, February 6, 2016

I’ve started reading a recent publication of my friend and fellow columnist Angelo Bissessarsingh. The book, aptly titled Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago, is an absolutely riveting read. In the same spirit of his columns, Angelo spins what could be sinewy material into compelling reading with the application of gripping historical anecdotes, stitching together a lush tapestry of T&T’s nascency. 

Under the heading Vignettes and Reminiscences, for example, there is a brief exploration of the history of whaling in this country. While several Caribbean islands had a tradition of whaling, (the oil rendered from blubber was used in cosmetics, soaps and lamps) it is a legacy which is perhaps not widely known.

His prowess really lies in curating the historical records, gleaning from them the more interesting accounts. For example, in Whaling in the Bocas there is an account of whalers confronting sharks which would invariably throng the whale carcass in the thousands as men processed the mammoth beast. The ravenous sharks were cavalierly whacked on the head by the whalers if they ventured too close! 

The thought of men swatting sharks like flies seems something only the motion picture industry could imagine. Enlivening history through storytelling has always been Angelo’s way. He cuts through the mundanity of dates, names and figures with stories that reel you in, make you invested. This is an invaluable talent for someone committed to heritage conservation through education. 

But today’s column is more life review than book review. I first met Angelo in 2009 when I began work on my television series The Road Less Travelled. He was recommended by a friend and described as a young man in his mid-twenties with a passion for history. Ever the sceptic, it took some doing to unburden myself of incredulity. A young person obsessed with history was, to my mind, a unicorn. Yet Angelo quickly became an historical consultant of sorts to the show. 

In our interactions, he effortlessly weaved historically significant dates and names with very human stories that allow glimpses through a portal back in time. 

In an interview at McLeod House, a former estate house and landmark in Freeport, he shared a story in which the ornate edifice (regrettably, now demolished) had come to be known as the house with 100 windows. 

The story goes, when the governor at the time of the building’s construction learnt that it was designed with 100 windows, it was ordered that one of them be boarded up as it was decreed that no house should have more windows than the governor’s mansion. 

That simple anecdote echoes the highly ordered society of colonial Trinidad, a civilisation built on strictly enforced edicts, even if unapologetically classist in nature. 

I have also always been moved by Angelo’s amenability. Working with a skeleton production team places singularly onerous demands on all participants. 

Interviews were frequently interrupted by changing light conditions, rain, heat and the incessant noise that is an inescapable part life in this country. 

Through it all, including pot hounds that would instinctively begin barking as soon as recording began, Angelo remained unruffled, pausing and picking up where we left off. 

His easy manner, but more importantly, commitment to seeding the value of our history in a broadly apathetic public consciousness gave meaning to our struggles.

Angelo’s comprehensive grasp of local and world history and ease of recall I always put down to his genetic encoding. While some people can’t even be sure of today’s date, Angelo could always be relied upon for accurate dates or reasonable approximations. 

Some of us have only fleeting memories of the droning somnolence of our history teachers in secondary school. 

Angelo, it seems, was able to see past the tangle of detail and mine the more intimate histories of early society. 

Every week this young historian takes readers of his column on a guided tour of our history with stories that have either been lost to time, or actively subverted in service of some anti-colonial narrative of post-independence politics. 

He has harnessed the power of the Internet to further preach the gospel of heritage conservation through his popular Facebook page The Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago. 

Sadly, Angelo is waging a war against something even more pernicious than our systematic erasure of the past. 

Stricken with illness, this young man is facing a challenge far greater than this country’s collective ignorance. Yet, even as Angelo battles this formidable enemy down to the last cell, his work and his passion are undiminished. If ever there was a citizen worthy of the nation’s highest honour, it would be him. 

To my friend, I say, what you have done and continue to do is nothing short of a national service. 

Fight for as long as you can, with all the sweat, blood and profanities you can muster. If gratitude were a cure for your condition, you would long since have been freed of it. We are the grateful masses, forever indebted to you for enriching our lives by holding open the door to our past.


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