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Culture of the Caribbean—A Trinidadian perspective

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By George Wong-Chong
Special to the Beacon

When we think about the Caribbean, we immediately have visions of fun, beaches lined with coconut trees, clear blue waters teeming with vivid colored fish, hot music and picturesque sunsets.
But to fully appreciate these amenities of the Caribbean, one must realize and recognize the price in human hardship that produced today’s Caribbean.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus, seeking a westerly route to the Asian spice route, discovered the Caribbean islands. He claimed this new world in the name of Spain. The Spaniards seeking gold and other mineral riches colonized the larger islands, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba and Jamaica.
The English and French eventually gained possession in the 1600s. The English possessions were Antigua, Nevis and Montserrat (1636) and Jamaica (1655). French possessions were Port of St. Kitts (1627), Dominica (1632), Martinique and Guadeloupe (1635), and the western part of Hispaniola (Haiti-1664).
The Spanish colonialist decimated the Amerindian population, enslaving them for their gold mines in Mexico and South Africa, and pearl fisheries in Isla Margarita, Venezuela. The net result was a shortage of manpower for the sugar cane fields of the English and French colonies; the solution was the African slave trade, which brought thousands of African slaves to the Americas.
Sample statistics show that in the English colonies there were more than 400,000 African slaves out of a total population of 500,000 people. With the abolition of slavery in 1834, the landowners turned to indentured servants from India to supplement their labor requirements. Thousands of “east” Indians came to the Caribbean.
In 1806, Chinese immigration to the Caribbean started with major influx as indentured servants to Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana. With the dissemination of the native population, the culture of the Caribbean took on the vistas of its new population; the Africans, east Indians, Chinese and Europeans.
The soul food of the southern USA is identical to that of the Caribbean, originating as the survival fare of the African slaves. The one pot rice and beans with smoked hog fat (undesired by slave owners) is similar to the rice and beans “pelau” of Trinidad. Today this dish has been embellished with okras and pumpkin (a type of butternut squad), and better cuts of meat and poultry. In Trinidad, there is “buljol,” a dish of shredded salted codfish garnished with onions, tomatoes and peppers; this dish is probably an adaptation of a European (Portuguese) dish.
Then there is the East Indian influence with its spicy, curry dishes and Chinese influence with its unique flavors depending on the origin of the immigrant. In Trinidad, the majority of Chinese immigrants even in 1806 were from the Canton area, today Guangzhou. Their contribution would be dishes like crispy skin roasted pork, barbecue pork steam buns, and an assortment of dim-sum finger foods.
The African drumming is probably the most influential in Caribbean music. The drumming of all sorts of misplaced items including pitch oil cans, garbage cans, and waste steel drums first provided music for the displaced African slaves.  Drumming of the later steel drums led to the invention of the musical steel pan about 1930 to 1945. Today, Trinidad’s’ steel pan music is synonymous with Caribbean music. The musical steel pan is widely recognized as the only non-electronic musical instrument invented in the last 80 years.
The European colonist brought religion: Roman Catholicism by the Spaniards and Anglican by the English. They also provided the government structures by which the individual island nations govern themselves today.
To learn more about Caribbean and other cultures, make plans to attend the Intercultural Festival Saturday, Sept. 8 on the grounds of Odell Williamson auditorium. The all-day festival includes entertainment, food and education from a variety of cultures. For more information visit online at http://www.bcifestival.org. Look in next week’s Beacon for additional information on the upcoming festival.

George Wong-Chong, a 6 year resident of Brunswick County was born in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies of Chinese parentage.