Tuesday, May 30, 2006

D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?; or, The journey not the arrival matters

It is Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago, the anniversary of the landing of the first Indian indentured immigrants in 1845, the day when we officially commemorate and celebrate the origins of close to half the country's population.

As far as I know, none of my ancestors was aboard the Fatel Razack, the ship that brought the first 227 immigrants across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic; but Caribbean bloodlines are complicated, so I could well be wrong. Still, I can't help thinking today--in between reading a big stack of magazine proofs and putting in an appearance at the CSA conference in downtown Port of Spain--about the long, often arduous, sometimes improbable journeys that all our ancestors endured to end up in this bewildering little corner of the world that is the Caribbean.

In my younger days I made some effort to trace a family tree, and of course I've heard stories from older relatives about eccentric predecessors, and discovered in obscure history books an occasional name that I know I'm linked to somehow. One of my great-aunts owned a little volume printed in France some time in the nineteenth century describing the early genealogy of the Pantin family--my father's mother's family--from which I know that some of my far fore-parents were Breton nobility. There were Pantin estate- (and slave-) owners in Trinidad since Spanish days. I know I also have some de la Bastide and Ganteaume blood. Laughlin is an Irish peasant name that suggests descent from the Viking raiders--the lochlanns--of the Middle Ages. One of my great-great-grandmothers was an O'Connor. My father's father's mother was Venezuelan--the family name was Pulgar, and I know nothing about it. My mother's mother's family was solid English lower middle class--my grandmother's maiden name was Main, you can't get more solid than that, and her parents were low-ranking colonial civil servants. My mother's father was born in British Guiana, the illegitimate son of an unnamed mother described on his birth certificate as "coloured" and an unnamed father who family tradition says was one of the Seaforths, Guyanese plantocracy of German derivation who changed their surname to something more English-sounding around the time of the First World War.

I suppose I wish I knew more about all these various lines of descent, knew more names and places and dates. But, for the most part, when I think of personal ancestry, of "roots" or "routes", anything further than three generations back is an abstraction. I can see how the choices and opinions and actions of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents have influenced or determined various elements of my own life. But those old ladies and gentlemen of five generations or five centuries ago? Characters in a story. I suppose I wish I knew exactly when my ancestors first arrived in Trinidad, and maybe a few days' research at the National Archives would turn up some answers, but I find I'm far less interested in the moment of arrival itself and far more interested in the new journey that "arrival" begins--in the process by which wanderers, exiles, prisoners, and explorers make of the disjecta membra of many old worlds something new and strange and perhaps, in the original sense of the world, wonderful.

We reach. And the journey now start.

Bon voyage to us all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

HI Nicholas,
I am researching my family tree and I am not yet ready to accept what you have - I still want to know some more before I decide that it doesnt really matter!, Joan Seymour