Island time

As Claire Robertson records tales told by inhabitants of St. Lucia, she’s helping them preserve their history and identity.

In the late 1990s, Claire Robertson was looking at the Caribbean island of St. Lucia as a potential vacation spot. What she discovered was a country rich in African heritage that would become her next research project.

Robertson, a professor of history and women’s studies, took a nine-month sabbatical from 2002 to 2003 to research St. Lucia’s oral histories. Through her project, Preserving the Past to Inspire the Future, she hopes to provide future generations with both an individual and a collective sense of identity.

In 2005, she received a grant from the College of Humanities to further her research. Using questionnaires she had developed in conjunction with the St. Lucia Historical Society, she talked with inhabitants about topics ranging from slavery to politics, from cooking to medicine, from religion to disasters. To date, with the help of many assistants over the years, she has compiled some 250 interviews on several hundred CDs.

Robertson’s goal is to create a documented oral history archive to be housed at St. Lucia’s Folk Research Centre. “The history of small places tends to disappear when generations die,” she said. Lost are the beliefs, experiences, songs, and stories traditionally passed down by word of mouth. Robertson believes that without them, the world’s history becomes stereotyped and thus less reflective of humankind’s diversity.

Situated between Martinique and Barbados, St. Lucia has a turbulent history. The earliest inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, were driven out by the Carib Indians prior to European occupation. Following two attempts by the British to colonize the island in the early 1600s, the French gained control and signed a treaty with the Caribs in 1660.

The British continued to dispute the island’s ownership until 1814,when St. Lucia was ceded to Great Britain. Thirty years later, it was named one of the British Windward Islands, which consisted of the now independent states of Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines.

Although St. Lucia gained its independence in 1979, the mix of people, culture, and language that colonization brought to the island remains. It’s that mix that presents the greatest challenge in documenting oral histories in a land small in size, yet rich in diversity.

During one of her visits, Robertson happened upon three men in their late 70s sitting on a porch singing. While the song sounded African in origin, the men, having learned it from their grandparents, couldn’t provide a translation.

“The process of collecting oral stories can be slowed by language barriers,” Robertson said. English is the island’s official language, but older inhabitants still speak Kweyol (French Creole). “It becomes an adventure in that you never know what you’ll find,” she said.

In another serendipitous instance, Robertson spotted a baobab tree, native to Africa, growing on the island. When she stopped to ask the locals how the tree came to be in St. Lucia, she found yet another story to add to her collection.

Milton Xavier recounted the tale of an ancestor who had brought a baobab seed from Africa during the time of slavery and planted it as a sign of hope for safe return to Africa. Instead, the tree, with its knobby branches and huge trunk now spanning 10 feet in diameter, became a symbol of endurance and permanence.

Robertson also recorded the story of Virginia Felicien, who recalled days long past when she was queen of the La Rose society. Each year the group held a carnival similar to Mardi Gras, complete with elaborate costumes.

In documenting the stories of everyday people, Robertson hopes to save the island’s identity from being obliterated by American culture.

“The youth of St. Lucia don’t know their own history; they don’t listen, don’t want to hear. With the arrival of the American media, watching American Idol is more important to them,” she said. “However, those who were born here tend to maintain strong ties to the island.”

Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright of African, Dutch, and English descent, was born in St. Lucia in 1930 and migrated to the United States to teach. His epic poem Omeros is a 20th-century retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in the Caribbean. And like Odysseus’ return home after years of wandering, Walcott has returned to St. Lucia to build a home.

The lure may be a combination of the sense of history found on the island and what Robertson terms its cosmopolitan sensibility. With an economy based on agriculture and tourism, and a high percentage of educated citizens, St. Lucia has come a long way since its days of colonialism.