Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
April 10, 2005
Special brands of creative calendars have been appearing from time to time over the past decade. These have included an excellent series published over a number of years by Clico in Trinidad, featuring in one year, drawings of municipal scenes from a selection of towns across the Caribbean; in another, a suite of paintings by James Isaiah Boodhoo; and in yet another, watercolours by Derek Walcott. Then a different slant was taken by the agents for Stihl power tools in 2003 with a bold and provocative collection of twelve young ladies, one gracing each month of the year.
This year Demerara Mutual has gotten into the act with yet another different fashion of creative exhibition. Their Calendar for 2005 features Amerindian Folk Tales from the Caribbean. There are twelve tales from different sources and different Amerindian nations, from a collection compiled by Dorothy Muriel Bland St Aubyn, a writer, columnist and folklorist resident in Trinidad and Tobago. She and her husband Douglas St Aubyn are said to have collected and recorded more than 2,000 folktales and Amerindian proverbs during their lifetimes.
Mrs St Aubyn (1909-1995), was born Dorothy Muriel Bland Terrill in Georgetown at Barrack Street, Kingston. She joined the Guyana Public Service in 1928, working in the Agricultural Department. She married Douglas St Aubyn in 1944 and they were both transferred to another section of the British colonial service, moving to the Social Welfare Office in British Honduras (now Belize). They returned to Guyana for a short time before eventually settling in Trinidad in 1953.
They were described as prolific writers who won prizes, and Mrs St Aubyn became feature editor and writer of the Dear Marion advice column, before becoming Chief Librarian with the British Council. They were certainly prolific collectors of folk material, judging from the sample of tales and legends published in the calendar.
Amerindian Folk Tales from the Caribbean is a valuable collector's item because of the range and types of the stories it features. They include myths and legends reflecting the lifestyles and cosmic outlook of different indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, Central and South America. The author obviously benefited from the time she spent in Guyana, Belize and Trinidad.
The twelve narratives presented do not make very dramatic reading, despite the style of their narration. St Aubyn obviously adapted them from their sources to fit a particularly Trinidadian forest setting among a variety of creatures including fowls, owls, parrots, bats, monkeys and mocking birds. They have a particularly Trinidadian character because the chief narrator or storyteller is Morocoy, a species of land turtle known in that island and associated with tales, myths and legends there. This kind of adaptation and re-writing might well have robbed the narratives of their original colour, rhythm and indigenous characteristics, leaving them fairly flat and placeless. Yet, they may be traced back to a number of different locations and Amerindian mythologies.
At least six or seven of them are versions of similar tales found in Guyana and belonging to different indigenous peoples there. Demerara Life gives us Mrs St Aubyn's reworkings of the traditional oral literature of the Patamona, the Warrau, the Arecuna and the Carib peoples of Guyana. These tales have been printed in other publications, such as Amerindian Legends of Guyana by Odeen Ishmael, and some of the most important volumes Animism and Folklore of the Guiana Indians by Walter E Roth, Guyana Legends by W H Brett and Legends and Myths of the Aboriginal Indians of British Guiana, Rev William Brett's reworking of some of the same tales in verse.
Some of them are expressions of mythology, like How the Caribbean Got its Name. This is one of many 'creation myths' known among these peoples, and tells of how the whole nation of Caribs came into being and spread their population across South America and the Caribbean. The tale even sets out to account for the legendary warlike qualities of the fierce Caribs.
The Demerara Life rendering of the history sets the story among "the Warrahoons," and tells of how the first Carib was born the son of a Water Spirit and a "Warrahoon girl." The girl's brothers slaughtered him and cut up his body into small pieces. She was so grief-stricken that she cursed her tribesmen declaring that a race would rise from her son's blood to bring woe on all Warrahoons. To her amazement, a gigantic Carib warrior rose up fully armed. He and his descendants took revenge on the Warrahoons, driving them from South America and from island to island across the West Indies, waging war on all the other tribes and giving their name to the Caribbean Sea.
Brett lists it as a Carib legend called The First People in both his prose and poetic versions, while Roth records two versions of it called The Origin of the Caribs. The first is set among the Warraus, which clearly became the "Warrahoons" in the Demerara Life text. The Warrau girl's lover in Roth's tale was a large snake, "the water camudi," who was cut into pieces by her brothers. The grieving woman gathered the pieces and each bit turned into a Carib, growing "strong and numerous until they became a nation." They lived in peace and harmony with the Warraus until the woman out for vengeance, caused a blood feud between them, "the Caribs finally overwhelming the Warraus."
Roth also records what he says is "the Carib version of the story" told to him on the Upper Pomeroon by "one of the oldest local survivors of the tribe." The woman used to meet her camudi lover, who turned into a man by night, by the waterside and had a camudi son. Both father and son were killed by the brothers. The baby snake was cut into pieces and men grew out of the fragments. These men lived in households in the forest until the brothers discovered them. They set upon the brothers but were persuaded not to kill them. What is ironic and significant is that the Caribs, instead of being warlike, were friendly and hospitable. The two groups "made good friends and all drank paiwarri. And thus the Carib nation arose from a water camudi." Far from being warlike, the Carib version of the myth contains no bloodshed, but promotes brotherhood.
The story of How the Mocking Bird tricked the Alligator in the calendar is the tale that explains Why the Alligator Hates Other Animals in Odeen Ishmael's collection. Dorothy St Aubyn's How the Wild Animals Came to the Earth seems to be an adaptation of another myth recorded in two variants by Brett. One is a Carib tale called The First People and the other is the Warrau's, The Discovery of the Earth. Ishmael narrates his own variant titled How the First People Arrived on the Earth.
Some of the tales reproduced by St Aubyn are of the type regarded as quasi-historical legends. These include The Great Kanaima who turned into a Water Chute, The Legend of Amatuk and The Legend of the Falls. For these the storytellers claim that there is living evidence that what is narrated actually took place, as in the story of the falls recorded with different titles and explanations by all the other collectors, Roth, Brett and Ishmael. The background to this one is perhaps the most interesting of them all, and deserves to be looked at separately in its own right.
Jenny Wishart and Samantha Samuels of the Amerindian Research Unit, University of Guyana