True Story: “In 1919, more than 80 years after emancipation, a Trinidadian petitioned the King for compensation for 31 freed people who had previously belonged to his grandfather and who he claimed had never been paid.”
This is one of the amazing stories told by Professor Emeritus Bridget Brereton in her recently published book, History Matters: Selected Newspaper Chronicles, 2011-2021.
The selection of 138 of the 248 columns she wrote for the Express during this period represents such a diverse range of subjects that I had to walk away from them when other subjects thoughtlessly interrupted her.
She had written about the inadmissible claim in 2016, under the title “Compensation”, explaining that a historian friend of Trinian origin, David Trotman, had sent her the related correspondence he had found in the British National Archives.
Briefly, George Mathias Martin, grandson and heir of Régis Vincent, former owner of the Mon Repos sugar estate, had 31 slaves at the time of Emancipation. Martin thought he should get his hands on the dirty money, so he wrote to the Colonial Office demanding his inheritance.
Instead of firing him, Brereton wrote in disbelief, they actually “examined the records carefully and established that compensation for those 31 human beings at Mon Repos had indeed been paid, in 1836, to two people holding a mortgage on the estate, one in Scotland and one in Port of Spain. Mr. Martin de San Fernando has failed in his extraordinary attempt to obtain money for the slaves held by his grandfather so long ago”.
I had been asked to review the book for UWI TODAY (out tomorrow), the St Augustine campus monthly newspaper, and thought I’d share this remarkable collection with Wired868 readers.
It seemed more than fitting for many reasons, one being that during the decade she wrote for the Express newspaper, Brereton constantly reviewed books of all genres.
“I want to notice” such a book, that’s how she often started those potted reviews (because of space), which somehow still seemed unbiased and thorough.
Among other compelling reasons to bring this book to your attention is that it is an excellent collection – which may have its roots in Professor Brereton’s historical context, but is an example of engaging writing, entertaining and erudite which is a rare combination, especially among academics.
And unlike many, it doesn’t manipulate data to serve hidden purposes. You can trust his information. Indeed, in her columns there are a few cases where she corrected the misinformation of others, with the firm tact that she mastered.
In doing so, she righted many historic wrongs that might otherwise have been inadvertently passed on. She had embarked on a mission to educate the public, she says in the preface, and she did so in many ways, one of the simplest being the way she explains the meaning of words that do not not commonly found in the vocabulary of a newspaper reader, such as an anthropologist.
Her columns were fairly topical, drawing on the events of the day, except when she was reviewing books. This last section of the six is the longest, devoted to these opinions, and without them we would never have experienced the surprising volume of writing coming out of the region, or the range.
Other headings cover events, people, debates, celebrations, holidays, heritage, a mix that offers such an impressive array of regional life that it should be included as essential reading for schools from primary school upwards. and for everyone else.
As I wrote in UWI TODAY review, it’s a smart way to educate our children about themselves and their Caribbean and a chance to learn more about their heritage.
Thinking how far such a book can go as an educational tool that reduces the blinking effect of the information silos that currently define school curricula – this is social history at its best – I wondered on the possibility of drawing from the world mainly journals for collections which have the same potential.
A few names immediately came to mind. For the Express, Richard Charan has done a marvelous job with his beautifully written and well-researched articles on generally obscure stories.
Dominic Kalipersad has been spectacular with his offerings on social media platforms (those wonderful photos!). The work of Angelo Bissessarsingh, Louis B Homer, Shamshu Deen, Dennis Hall and so many others, who have collectively published enough tantalizing tales of our history that would make it a joyful mind-excursion – rather than the tedious drudgery that characterizes for many.
This could be a really productive push for the Ministry of Education.
We are a people steeped in the tradition of storytelling. Reading Professor Brereton’s collection reminded me of his powerful impact.
We have fallen into a barbaric environment, where rage has taken precedence over reason and where violence is its expression. I believe it is fueled by a sense of alienation from a significant portion of our population, who believe that systems exist to oppress, institutions to reject, and rulers to render them invisible through their callous indifference.
I urge the Ministry of Education to take a leap of faith — it’s not a big step because there’s nothing to lose — and invest in creating these collections for schools.
Let our children hear stories about their world. Let them feel part of it. Make them proud.
History matters, it really does.
Editor’s Note: History Matters is available from Paper-Based Bookshop in Normandy, Metropolitan Book Suppliers on Ariapita Avenue, Tales N Treasures on Delhi Street, St James and UWI Bookshop.