The Tomb Raiders …. Return to the Quest for El Dorado

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Tombraiding has been Hollywood glamourised through the Indiana Joneses and Lara Crofts and a range of new video games that play on this land-based version of the kind of piracy that used to prevail on the high seas around the Caribbean. And it dates back to the Caribbean as a target in the quest for El Dorado so many millennia ago. Not to be confused with body snatchers, it ranges from the activities of hobbyists seemingly innocently eager to hoard a bit of history so they comb graveyards to gather bits and pieces from or off tombs, to petty thieves looking to earn a quick shilling, to highly organised crime networks trading in black market heritage goods with complicity by individual collectors or even museum dealers participating in a very lucrative heritage trade market.
It has been a raison d’etre of interest in the Caribbean since

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the first European explorers cast their eyes in this direction in the quest for El Dorado. With the world re-awakening to the value of culture and heritage and the Caribbean being a repository of histories and heritage of migrant streams from all the continents of the world, El Dorado is not just the bullion or traditional objects of value as gold and jewelry, but artefacts that may be believed to fetch high prices in the world market, or become part of heritage collections that may one day be sold to museums and archives for high prices. These lie underwater, on land, in documents and in the oral memory and traditions we hold.

This siphoning out of such assets and heritage, deprive local communities and populations of enjoyment and appreciation of their heritage but also of creating and generating incomes from legitimate heritage-based industries and activities. It was partly in response to this that UNESCO developed its albeit convoluted sets of conventions related to protection of natural, cultural, built, knowledge and information heritage, assets all aligned to a complex series of processes and procedures and international legal instruments. (See list below.) 

It is the stuff of movies, but as real as daylight. A range of these activities have gone unmonitored in Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed much of the Caribbean.
With little or no oversight mechanisms in place, it is virtually open season for heritage hunters and hoarders, regardless of motivation, to gather and dispose of as they wish – evidence of which we encountered on the inaugural LiTTour – Journeys Through Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago and described in the previous blog. 
Inadequate local legislation, deficient local structures and institutions, incompetent monitoring and enforcement authorities all contribute to making this a lucrative activity. High sounding national plans with little supportive resources, funds or mechanisms for implementation become recipes for failure.
Historic animosities fostered and entrenched between and among our populations also transfer to institutions that have grown up around heritage often piecemeal and hardly thought-out. Several institutions, most of them with overlapping jurisdictions, duplicate each other’s activities, holding heritage assets in a stranglehold whereby none can adequately perform their functions, and none can benefit. For instance there are at least six  public institutions, and several private ones and individuals with listings of heritage assets, duplicating each other with very little coordination among them.
Suspicion, mistrust, lack of confidence hang over these institutions which include bureaucratic government departments, agencies that include such front line institutions charged with guarding such assets as the National Trust and museum.
Indeed, an archaic museum model, run on a massa-type structure, borrowed from an old colonial rule (when those countries have evolved significantly more sophisticated systems) designed for a time when a country could have boasted of a single national museum still prevail, when a number of district and private museums now form part of the collective heritage system.
Even those charged with safeguarding heritage, foster a patronage approach and jealously guard their territory in obstructionist stances, holding culture and heritage in their deathgrips when they could be better served through collaboration and cooperation to release the full potential of the heritage sector for the development of communities.
Actions for heritage have in the large been shortsighted, piecemeal, often reactive, crisis oriented, a stop gap response to an immediate situation to avoid embarrassment or deflect from public rage until such rage can be redirected elsewhere and generally not thought out in ways that they can be of lasting and permanent benefit. And most are all-too-willing to state it is someone else’s problem and leave it there.
Deficiencies in the line agencies charged with heritage preservation Government agencies like the Trust itself, which is key as a frontline institution in heritage preservation and which glaring deficiencies have gone without being addressed for years.
But if you were to talk with anyone in the Trust, (s)he would also be pointing fingers in several other directions, including other government ministries and departments, who are also pointing at each other, the  National Museum of the lack of a proper museum system operating on an archaic model at a time when museums can no longer be regarded as static doormat institutions but are an active part of our living heritage (and maybe both point to one and the same obstacle).
I have spoken to several conservationists prior to and during this aroused interest in the Ganteaume tombs and the deep degree of distrust and lack of and loss of faith in the public institutions charged with heritage conservation (among others) and whose frustrations are no less than mine or my associates on that tour – and all with various degrees of a sense of powerlessness. Some have even also become tomb and beach combers and hoarders of heritage, taking for “safekeeping” because the institutions and persons charged with this function are not doing so. The argument that such activity helps in safeguarding such heritage predates the great battle between Egypt and England over the Sphinx or the Greek and British over the Elgin Marbles or the Indians and British over the Koh-i-noor Diamonds.  
And if you were to ask almost anyone in the conservation and heritage arena, they would tell you that the solution is with the local authorities – local NGOs or local Government who are falling short; or politicians or Government Ministries, Minister and officers; or the private sector (and as the old European childhood story says, ‘another ant took another grain of corn’ – lots of action and noise and committees and reports with no progress and no solution); at least no solution in which each sees himself/herself/themselves as a pivotal point to the problem(s). 
And therein is the problem: if we cannot take personal responsibility then of course, we have the situation like the McLeod House demolition; or the Ganteaume tomb, shedding tears after the fact and then go back to our business and lives until the next person highlight some other act of defacement or destruction.
How can we harness the energies of all the enthusiasts and institutions and others with direct and indirect interest to move forward with sustainable solutions and actions?
As I communicated to Mr Ganteaume, none of it is beyond any of us; it has been done by hundreds of other nations of the world; some much less resourced and much less enriched by the multidimensional and microcosmic heritage that we enjoy in Trinidad and Tobago; except that we often do not see it as such, but instead prefer to treat it as an albatross that some of us would prefer to pretend is a burden of no real significance.
The solution is to get on the same page.
From the range of all very positive and encouraging responses: ‘likes’ and comments and suggestions and emails and calls and contributions – I have received from around the globe on my last posting on the defaced tombstone in Mayaro, including some very distressed Ganteaume family members, it is clear that national sentiment for protection and conservation of heritage assets are high.
So why aren’t we doing something about it?
While we sit around in committees in grand talk sessions, drafting communiqués and reports, and plan PR site visits Rome burns, or rather, McLoed House is demolished and the tombraiders gather up their loot from graveyards and some of the other most valuable heritage around us and literally under our noses. I am heartened by the many responses I have had from persons who have been labouring, many of them behind the scenes, in heritage, and want to see us move forward in this in a constructive and positive manner, including Mr Henry Peter Ganteaume himself who has expressed an openness to help us work towards solutions. This is not an effort for any one of us; but for all of us. If we succeed in this, we have all of us to thank for it; if not, we then become little more than tombraiders. .krisrampersadglobal/home/about-me/books

The UNESCO Conventions and Instruments:
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You can support our efforts by purchasing copies of LiTTscapes, commissioning LiTTours & LiTTevents; or ask about collaborating on our upcoming publications on Caribbean heritage for ages 3-103. That way we all win through sharing knowledge and information. See krisrampersadglobal/home/about-me/books
For collaboration details email or call 1-868-377-0326


VANDALISED Centuries-old heritage tomb spanning Caribbean global diaspora in 5 continents vandalised

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Defaced & Vandalised
Historic tomb of prominent T&T families in pieces

The marble tombstone of one of Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest, wealthiest and most influential lineages involving the genealogies of some 20 prominent families with ancestral ties through European, North and South American, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, has been vandalised and defaced.
We discovered this on the inaugural LiTTour – Journeys Through the Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago, on our way to ‘save’ another heritage building – the old Mayaro Post Office which is represented as a key literary house in my book LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago as the setting of several of the novels and short stories of Michael Anthony.
The lineage represented by the tombstone of the first family of Ganteaumes in Mayaro includes admirals and captains, planters and slaves, legislators, ministers of government and the church, clergymen, businessmen, judges, media moguls, derby winners, sportsmen
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in cricket and football, historians, bankers, insurers, educators, senior civil servants, national and international award winners among them with blood ties to our Spanish, French and British colonial history, their interaction with subsequent migrant streams from Africa and Asia, all with a significant number of still influential descendants to the present day.
One of the pieces left behind carried the cryptic graveyard abbreviation R.I.P.
These descendants include not just the Ganteaumes as business magnate Peter Ganteaume; clergyman Father Ganteaume and cricketeer Andy Ganteaume; but also the Seigerts (the founding family of the world-famous Angostura Bitters), the Pantins (including deceased Archbishop Anthony Pantin, Father Gerard Pantin and Minister of Education Clive Pantin), Rostants, Bessons, de Verteuil, de Silva, de la Bastide, Quesnel, and de Monteau among them. It also bears relations to Spanish/Venezuelan lineages of the Torres; of Portuguese origina as de Freitas and Carvalho and British heritage as the Hamel-Smiths as well as Agostinis, O’Connors, Guisseppis and Ciprianis and Scotts and those of Chinese lineage as the Chens among others.
The defaced Ganteaume tombstone marks the graves of Mayaro’s first administrator under the British, Francois Alphonse Ganteaume and his family. He was the grandson of the man credited as the European founding father of Mayaro which also had vibrant native peoples communities at the time of his entry as several native people’s middens in the district attest. He was a French planter who was shipwrecked on the coast enroute to Venezuela from Martinique in 1794 during Spanish colonial rule and was granted land under the 1783 arrangement between French and Spanish rulers to populate Trinidad called the cedula of population.
I believe the story of this early colonial period – of the neutralising of Spanish, French, Portuguese and British animosities towards each other in Trinidad is one of the defining moments in Trinidad and Tobago’s exemplary multicultural journey. It is succinctly captured by Sir Vidia Naipaul in The Loss of El Dorado. If only our literature is taught the way it should be to the young.
Such defacement is exactly the kind of actions that we, through our LiTTours, LiTTscapes and LiTTevents, are hoping to educate and sensitise our populations and the diaspora against; to appreciate and value their heritage and recognise and appreciate that from it we can have stronger, more vibrant and more connected communities. If people understood their literary heritage, their cultural heritage, the built heritage, the oral lore that resides in the memories of the elderly, how such heritage elements can also bring sustained economic value to themselves and their communities through heritage tourism beyond the petty sale of pieces of its marble, they will be less inclined to destroy them. They might even be less inclined to commit other kinds of crimes as well. That’s why we are talking of community ownership and acclamation of their heritage as the first stepping stone to building viable communities.
And by community we do not only mean villagers. It implies families as well, who really are the first line of interests when it comes to heritage and who may have the resources to secure the site in the first instance, but also to prepare it for appreciation of as part of the national and indeed international heritage asset that it is. No amount of legislation can correct that if we do not have that sense of ownership and responsibility. This incident is so similar to the recent insensitive demolition of the historic McLeod House in central Trinidad.
It is appalling that such a sense of neglect surrounds this site, that might be a family tomb, but is also a significant national landmark given that it speaks to early European settlement dating to the time of Spanish rule by people of French origin who have contributed to Trinidad’s multicultural milieu.
What is even more distressing is that this picture of neglect and indifference is smack in the heart of Trinidad’s most prolific oil-producing Mayaro-Guayaguayare district. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at what percentage of GDP the resources of the families linked to this site might represent.; nor what percentage the resources of this district contributes to the GDP. Why then was it in such a state? And think too of the Mayaro Post Office, a monument dear to villagers of Mayaro which  is in most parts without a floor and a condition of disrepair – almost ready to crumble in fact. That is the story of much of our heritage.
What was most touching was that the handful  of us standing sadly and distressed around the tomb, trying to put together the scattered fragments of the headstone, had no personal relations to those buried there; and can only lament the neglect of this significant aspect of the story of us as a people. We were people with a keen interest in heritage, history, research and conservation who had come together to share our appreciation for legacies like these. We are willing to work with anyone interested in and who shares this vision and interest.  
Why do we have to wait for a few enthusiasts to point out the value of our heritage? Why do we have to beg and plead for some attention to elements to which some of us have no real personal connection but based on small sentimental ties to Mayaro where we share fond memories of beach outings? Incidentally, Mayaro’s most popular beach is at Church Road, named for the Church which some of these early Ganteaumes also helped to build.
All in all, this example encapsules the sad state of heritage conservation in Trinidad and Tobago and the range of processes that needs to be addressed in reversing this, from local/community/family sensitisation, to involving local, national and international authorities. I have visited so many tombs and sites like these across the globe which function as vital elements of community integration, solidarity as well as visitor magnets and dream of similarly sharing our unique heritage with the world. It does make for deep retrospection when we celebrate Independence from colonial rule what such rule meant.

The LiTTour journey 
The inaugural LiTTour, pitched as The Reading Room Outside The Reading Room, marked initiation of a partnership with the Know Your Country tours of the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC). It included historian Michael Anthony, Rawle Mitchell who is a restoration architect and heads the Minister of Works’ Historial Restoration Unit, conservationist Heather Dawn Herrera, sketch artist Anthony Timothy; head of the Rural Women’s Network Gia Gaspard Taylor; UWI Librarian Tamara Brathwaite and a few other enthusiasts. We came upon the defacement quite unexpectedly. As were entering Mayaro, I began describing how the coconut industry appears under the IndusTTry section of the book LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago as it forms the backdrop of the action of several works of fiction, including providing the bat for cricket games described in stories as Anthony’s Cricket in the Road and as such must be regarded as part of the industrial literary heritage.
Michael Anthony joined in as we had been doing through the tour, explaining how the tombstone of the man Francois Alphonse Ganteaume and his family who introduced coconuts to Mayaro lay on a hill in St Joseph Village which we were approaching. Francois was the grandson of one of the original settlers of the district, a Frenchman who was shipwrecked off the Mayaro coast. He was also the first unofficial Mayor of Mayaro, Anthony said, and became the district’s first warden, responsible for its entire development – schools, health, roads and other systems under the British. As we neared the village, out of curiosity and a lifelong fascination with cemeteries as a repository of history, on impulse I asked the driver to make an impromptu stop as the easy format of our LiTTour’s open appreciation allows.
We climbed the few stairs up the hill to the tomb, which is itself at risk from a landslide. We looked to inspect the headstone which Anthony said would contain the names of the Ganteaume family members, and were horrified to see that it was missing. When we looked around, around our feet, we saw broken bits of the headstone that carried fragments of the inscriptions, but many parts were missing.
Rawle Mitchell, head of the Ministry of Works’ Historical Restoration Unit who was part of our LiTTour, speculated that the tombstone was vandalised for its marble and those bits with the engravings which perhaps could not be sold was left scattered around.
A visibly shaken and upset historian, Michael Anthony, while trying to piece together broken bits of the marble, explained how the tomb held the remains of one of Mayaro’s foundation members, Francois Alphonse Ganteaume and four other family members. Sketch artist Timothy Anthony set down his sketchpad and began to speechlessly gather the pieces, assisted by Tamara and others.
We sadly tried to piece the bits of the headstone together but could make no coherence from what was left of the headstone. Bits of letters here and there could have formed a jigsaw but many parts of the puzzle were already carted away by the culprit(s).”
While Anthony notes that the tomb contains the remains of five Ganteaume descendants whose presence in Trinidad dates into the eighteenth century, my research found the Ganteaumes’ have sired more than 20 of the island’s most prominent families with ties to European, South and North American and Caribbean diasporas. Ganteaume family records date back to pre 17th century Marseille in France through the French Court of Louis XV. The lineage includes admirals and captains, planters and slaves, legislators, clergymen, businessmen, judges, derby winners, sportsmen in cricket and football, historians, bankers, insurers, educators, civil servants, national and international award winners among them through Trinidad and Tobago’s Spanish, French, Portuguese and British colonial history to the present day.
Anthony explained that the first Mayaro Ganteaumes were buried on the hill in St Joseph Village where they had established their estate, and the coconut industry in Trinidad. Other members of the lineage are buried at Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port of Spain.
The tomb in Mayaro contains the remains of the first Ganteaumes (Nicolas Edouard and his brother Pierre Nicolas) who were shipwrecked in South East Trinidad enroute to Venezuela from Martinique in 1794 and settled in Mayaro. They applied to the then (last) Spanish Governor Don Jose Maria de Chacon for land through the Cedula arrangement of 1783 between the French and the Spanish to populate the island and founded a cotton then sugar cane then coconut estate originally Beausejour Estate, later renamed St Joseph’s Estate as it is still known. They founded a dynasty in Mayaro, and had so established himself that by the time the British took over the island they became true British subjects (read V.S Naipaul’s The Loss of El Dorado). Under Lord Harris’ Governorship, the grandson was made the first warden of North Naparima and became the chief administrator and responsible for this district’s total development – health, education, roads, and all other systems and services.
 While Anthony recalls the family’s significance to Mayaro as one of its ‘most powerful’ families – with some descendants still resident there, my concern is about what these tomb and the tombstones mean to the globalised Caribbean diaspora as the genealogy of the family reads like the virtual Who’s Who of descendants of the French Creole families of Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela as well as its value to completing the world story of migrations and migrants from East to West. The French, including Ganteaume’s descendants, fled the repercussions of the French Revolution from MArseille to settle in Martinique and fled poor crop yields to land in Trinidad. Today, such migrant flights find impetus in fear of crime and social and economic hardships.
If revolutions are the impulse of change, then it could only take a revolution to heal the hurts and rifts and divides that still haunts – a revolution through reading.
More of these historical cycles in my upcoming discourse with Queen Elizabeth II Letters To Lizzie. Visit www.kris-rampersad.blogspotfor more.
Dr Kris Rampersad is a researcher, educator and heritage facilitator/consultant, and author of the book, LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago on which LiTTours – Journeys though the Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago are based.
CAPTION Above: In Pieces: The vandalised marble tombstone of the Ganteaumes in Mayaro, encountered by (from left) LiTTscapes author and heritage specialist, Dr Kris Rampersad; head of the Historical Restoration Unit Rawle Mitchell; historian/author Michael Anthony, sketch artist Anthony Timothy and Gia Gaspard Taylor of the Rural Women’s Network during the Inaugural LiTTour from Port of Spain through Sangre Gande to Mayaro. Photos by Kriston Chen, Courtesy LiTTours (c) Kris Rampersad 2012.

Please respect our copyrights
You can support our efforts by purchasing copies of LiTTscapes, commissioning LiTTours & LiTTevents; or ask about collaborating on our upcoming publications on Caribbean heritage for ages 3-103. That way we all win through sharing knowledge and information. For specific collaboration details email or call 1-868-377-0326