Angelo Bissessarsingh: back in times

For Trinidadian Angelo Bissessarsingh, what started as a childhood obsession with yesteryear artefacts grew into a passion for researching and writing about history that’s helped reignite public interest in T&T’s complicated past. Judy Raymond tells the story of a young historian’s archive and love for what once was

Angelo Bissessarsingh at home, surrounded by his library and collection of artifacts. Photo by Mark LyndersayAn 1804 embroidered sampler from Barbados, from Bissessarsingh’s collection. Photo by Mark LyndersayThe cover of Bissessarsingh’s second book, published in February 2016Christmas tin from 1914, sent to British soldiers at the front during the First World War. Photo by Mark LyndersayAngelo Bissessarsingh sits on his 150-year-old four-poster bed at his home. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

“He got excited about the drainpipes!” said the astonished reporter. She’d been assigned to write a profile of Angelo Bissessarsingh to introduce him to Trinidad Guardian readers in early 2012, when he began his weekly historical column in the paper. As a suitable backdrop for an author photo, the photographer chose an old building, the nineteenth-century Old Fire Station in central Port of Spain, and Bissessarsingh was thrilled by its drainpipes — because they were the original ones.

If you’ve met — or read — him already, you won’t be surprised that the ebullient, chatty Bissessarsingh was enthralled by guttering. Bridget Brereton, professor emerita of history at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, describes him as “a man with a mission to convey his own passion for — and deep knowledge of — his country’s history to the whole world.”

He’s been that way since he was a small boy, when he began collecting historical artefacts. Born in San Fernando, south Trinidad, in September 1982, Bissessarsingh is the eldest of three, brought up in a home “filled with old books and all sorts of interesting knickknacks that all told a story,” he recalls. “All my relatives always had time to answer questions, and never said ‘Doh bodder mih . . . yuh arksin too much question.’”

His aunt, Professor Ann Marie Bissessar, “always jokes,” he says, “that as a child, when other kids wanted to be taken to the mall, I wanted to go to a cemetery and read gravestones.” The family would also visit a relative on the south-coast beachfront in Los Iros, where young Angelo found potsherds and other relics in a small Amerindian midden. (Amerindians inhabited parts of Trinidad until after it was colonised by Spain, and later Britain, from the end of the fifteenth century.)

Bissessarsingh’s own family, as his surname suggests, is mostly Indian. But his light-coloured eyes and sandy beard give away other ethnic origins. Naturally, he’s researched his own genealogy: “I have information on my ancestry going back at least ten generations, to Benares.”

His great-great-grandfather Thomas Bissessarsingh was the first to arrive, in 1867, buying a cocoa and sugar estate in Rousillac, south Trinidad. His son Emmanuel, also a cocoa proprietor, and an interpreter of Hindi, Spanish, and French, married Edith, “a mixed woman of Irish and French Creole ancestry.” One of their six sons, an artist and sculptor, married the daughter of a schoolmaster and a white Vincentian Anglican missionary — they were Bissessarsingh’s grandparents. His father Rudolph is a teacher and artist, married to Carmen, daughter of a cane farmer.

Bissessarsingh’s brother and sister are both teachers, and he also obviously has not only a creative but also a didactic streak. But he studied not history but agribusiness at UWI, thinking it a more practical choice. After that, he worked in public relations at T&T’s Ministry of Local Government, then in 2009 joined its disaster-management unit in Siparia, where he was “very happy.”

 

Meanwhile, history was taking over his life. Bissessarsingh’s collection had become “wide and varied, ranging from some sixteenth-century trade beads to a Meerschaum tobacco pipe . . . After a while,” he says, “I stopped looking for stuff, because word got around and it started finding me.”

He had also been reading local history for years. Two books that had a major impact were a photo album of nineteenth-century Trinidad by Gérard Besson, and The Years of Revolt, by Fr Anthony de Verteuil. “They were given to me at age ten by my aunt [Bissessar]. My West Indian library [alone] is now over four hundred volumes.” These early influences explain Bissessarsingh’s own approach when, at age twenty, he started writing history himself: “short narratives . . . which I shared with a few friends and advisers, who encouraged me to keep writing.”

Besson’s influence shows in Bissessarsingh’s colloquial — and often, influenced by nineteenth-century sources, florid — style, and his eagerness to entertain as well as inform. He too tells tall stories. For instance, there’s the one about a vagrant living in the tomb of early-twentieth-century tycoon William Gordon Gordon at Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port of Spain: the vagrant, Bissessarsingh claims, orders pizza by cellphone from the pizzeria opposite, then collects it over the cemetery wall.

Thanks to de Verteuil, whom he venerates, Bissessarsingh’s work chimes with what Bridget Brereton has called the French Creole school of history. So, telling how one of Columbus’s lost anchors reappeared, centuries after he passed by Trinidad in 1498, Bissessarsingh praises him as “the Great Discoverer” — not a popular view in this day and age. His writings about the deeds of the colonial ruling class or the buildings they constructed can betray a nostalgia for the grander ways of what he would call “yesteryear”: nineteenth-century royal visits to Trinidad, the San Fernando Regatta, the armies of vendors and domestic staff who serviced the mansions of the planter class. Professor Brinsley Samaroo, whom Bissessarsingh names as his mentor, notes this nostalgia, as well as “a constant regret that there is no maintenance of the physical or spiritual memories of what should be a prideful heritage.”

The other influences Bissessarsingh acknowledges among “authors who dared to show . . . that we are a people with a past” include Brereton and writer Michael Anthony. He’s also grateful to the late Peter Harris, “the godfather of local archaeology . . . what I learned from him can never be fathomed.”

Hence he has personal anecdotes, too, about finding a midden marking the site of Governor Lord Harris’s hunting lodge on Mt Tamana, east Trinidad; coming across crumbling estate houses lost in the bush; and spotting flints and carvings made by the First Peoples who lived here for millennia.

 

Bissessarsingh really began writing history in 2006, when novelist Lawrence Scott and Professor Kenneth Ramchand of the University of Trinidad and Tobago asked him to help research and write the story of a small cane village in the Naparimas. That became the UTT-produced book Golconda: Our Voices, Our Lives (2009), and in turn encouraged Bissessarsingh to strike out on his own — after being rejected for a job at the moribund and resource-starved national museum.

Instead, around 2008 Bissessarsingh realised his collection of photos and texts was an archive in itself — and that through Facebook he could “share these treasures and network with people of like interests.” So he set up a page called the Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago (it was hacked in November 2015, but he’s building a new version). Because his “museum” was online, it was instantly accessible: readers didn’t have to go to a library or track down a book to read these bite-sized vignettes about a single topic, personality, or event — the introduction of pipeborne water to Trinidad, or the story of the first local man killed by a motor car. And because it was interactive, they could post their own pictures and ask questions or comment.

The response, says Bissessarsingh, “was overwhelming . . . I was disillusioned by the callousness Trinis show for their history, and the great feedback VMOTT received certainly restored my faith in people. I had no idea so many folks were avidly interested in history.”

For him, within the Caribbean region, Trinidad’s history, with its rich mixture of cultures and ethnicities, is “infinitely more fascinating . . . The fusion of so many collective pasts in Trinidad sets it apart from the rest.” But history and its conservation have been neglected in T&T for decades. “The anti-colonial national mentality that emerged post-1962 [the year of independence] immediately rubbished anything before that date,” Bissessarsingh concludes. But over fifty years later, “We can no longer blame ‘massa’ for our problems . . . perhaps it is time to rediscover our colonial past.”

A great deal of local history has been and is still being lost through official and public indifference. But Bissessarsingh can take credit for much of the current resurgence of interest. As well as running the Virtual Museum, he’s visited schools and produced two books, self-publishing the first, Walking with the Ancestors: The Historic Cemeteries of Trinidad, in 2014.

He says documenting old cemeteries has been a lifetime’s work, describing them as “repositories of history and archives unto themselves” — while admitting that, thanks to the subject matter, it was “a morbid undertaking,” which he tried to make more attractive by focusing on the people and stories they contained. The book sold well and is being reprinted. Brereton agrees, describing it as “marvellous.” “His great strength is the way he searches out the human story behind the event,” she says, “the way he gives us the quirky or unexpected aspects of the past.”

Bissessarsingh’s second book, A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago, published in February, is largely a collection of his newspaper columns. Of all he’s done, the columns are Bissessarsingh’s proudest accomplishment. “Not a day goes by that I don’t meet a fan of the articles of every age and background,” he says. “I feel blessed to have done a bit to help make people aware that we have a rich and storied past.”

 

His column has continued weekly, despite a major challenge Bissessarsingh has faced for the past year. In January 2015, he was scheduled for gastric bypass surgery, but it was halted when the surgeon found his liver was inflamed. An oncologist diagnosed Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Bissessarsingh had possibly only two months to live.

In the event, after aggressive chemotherapy, “I am still here in reasonably good nick, eleven months later,” he says. Still, the cancer is inoperable; barring new drugs or a miracle, Bissessarsingh has at most a couple of years left.

Facing his terminal diagnosis with exemplary courage and characteristic humour, he talks openly about it. He broke the news to his online fans a week after his diagnosis, to explain why he needed to cut back his activities and would be offline during chemotherapy. He was, he says, “overwhelmed by the love, support, and kind wishes of the fans and many good friends [who] have rallied around me to ensure that I finish as much of my life’s work as possible.”

He’s been too ill to go out to work, but has made full use of this time, “still writing history vigorously.” He’s almost completed a sequel to his second book, and has branched out in other directions: he’s finished a draft of a series of linked short stories based on local folklore, inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street, and has written a play “which tells the linked stories of some vivid characters in 1920s Port of Spain.”

“So,” he concludes, “I have some work to occupy me for a bit.”

Of his physical archive, Bissessarsingh says matter-of-factly that he’s leaving it to his aunt, “with instructions on its division to a couple institutions where I believe they will be preserved.” His own favourite objects from it aren’t necessarily the most valuable — such as two antique linen samplers from Barbados, embroidered by two sisters in 1804. They’re very rare (cloth does not weather a tropical climate well), and he treasures them for their “poignant and simple” execution, and as a link with an extinct past.

Another, which he wrote about in his second book, is “my 1914 World War One Christmas tin, which was a gift from a British princess to soldiers . . . It must have meant the world to a warrior in a muddy ditch to get this little box with some candy and tobacco in it.”

As for his intangible legacy, in October 2015 he received a special award from the NGO Citizens for Conservation for raising awareness of the importance of preserving local history. Brinsley Samaroo describes him and his passion for “finding out more and more about the exciting, diverse origins of his native land” as remarkable.

Bridget Brereton, too, stressing Bissessarsingh’s enthusiasm and ability to communicate that love, shares the heartfelt wish of the thousands of followers of Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago and his other fans. “He’s making a huge contribution to researching and, above all, sharing the country’s historical legacies,” she comments. “Long may he continue to do so.”