It took a Prime Minister of Hindu ancestry to grant a public holiday to the Shouters, a traditional African spiritual community of Trinidad and Tobago, on March 30th 1996. The public holiday was granted to commemorate the repeal of the dreaded Prohibition Ordinance of 1917 that took place on March 30 1951.
The Shouters practiced their faith by public singing, ringing bells, beating drums, and proclaiming their faith in the divine at the top of their voices. This style of worship was deemed uncivilized and the self-appointed gatekeepers of the heavens felt obliged to pass this draconian law called the Prohibition Ordinance of 1917.
Shouters were beaten, jailed, and fined by the colonial authorities who were bent on erasing all traces of their ancestral worship. Like the Hindus, Africans were made to feel ashamed of their names, dress, food, music, and everything African… even their black skin and the texture of their hair. For the practice of their faith, the devout had to discreetly assemble in the dense forest in the thick dark.
On March 30, 1951, Chief Minister Albert Gomes took the bold step and repealed the Prohibition Ordinance of 1917. It was the anniversary of this repeal (March 30) that the Shouter Community had been lobbying the government for declaration as a public holiday.
Trinidad’s colonial history began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, a representative of the Spanish Crown in 1498. In less than 30 years the indigenous Amerindian population was decimated by wars, famines, forced labor, and diseases such as smallpox brought by the Europeans. In search of people to develop the land, French planters began arriving in the late 18th century accompanied by their African slaves. This was a further disadvantage to the small Amerindian population as the lands they cultivated were snatched and handed to the French. The native people were then herded in a reservation in Arima and left to rot. Today, their descendants identify with the community and have organized themselves into a lobby called the First People.
The Arena Massacre of 1699 paints a story of innocent priests being killed by blood-thirsty Amerindians. The reality was that the Amerindians were fearful of a general who was stalking the land killing Amerindians and was heading their ways. With news arriving of the fate of their brethren, the indigenous people rose in desperation and killed the Catholic priests and other Europeans in the mission.
The Spanish authority retaliated by killing Amerindians indiscriminately, raping their women, and confiscating their lands. Unfortunately, this cruel chapter in our history has painted the revolt of the Amerindians and the killing of a handful of whites as a massacre while the evils of the Europeans have been white-washed by Euro-centric historians.
The lobbying of the Shouters for public recognition of the repeal of the Prohibition Ordinance on March 1951 fell on deaf ears. Being loyal supporters of the government, the Shouters expected that the Afro-Christian-based PNM would grant them the holiday but that was not to be. Feeling betrayed, a section of the Shouter Baptist community decided to bargain with the leadership of the Hindu-based UNC for a public holiday to commemorate a significant milestone in the history of their community.
Sister Barbara-Burke, an Archbishop of the Shouter Baptist Church, campaigned vigorously for the UNC and when it formed the government in 1995, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday granted a public holiday -Shouter Baptist Liberation Day – to the Shouter Baptist Community on March 30, 1996, the anniversary of the repeal of the Prohibition Ordinance of 1917.
Basdeo Panday went further and recognized the Shouters as a denomination with the right to run state-assisted schools for its members, a benefit that the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Muslims, and Hindus have been enjoying for centuries in the case of the Catholics.
Why were the Shouters not given a public holiday by the PNM they supported? When the Prohibition Ordinance of 1917 was in force, the Shouters were arrested by the colonial police, tied with ropes, and paraded through the streets on their way to the magistrate courts. Many had to pay huge fines and those who could not were jailed.
Earl Lovelace, a Trinidad novelist, captured correctly the plight of the Shouters in his 1982 novel The Wine of Astonishment. Earl Lovelace, a brilliant writer, placed Afro-centric characters from the working class struggling for identity as the heroes of his stories. This is a theme that the residue of the colonial social elite has never accepted.
The survival of the Shouter Baptist community, like the Hindus, remains an ongoing struggle given the onslaught of the evangelical churches that operate in the country. Basdeo Panday has demonstrated that the Hindus have a responsibility to protect and propagate indigenous cultures from the onslaught of criminal ideologies cloaked in divine revelations. And he boldly took the lead and succeeded, much to the chagrin of others.
The fad of the Church has lost its color. Humanity across the globe is acknowledging the greatness of indigenous faiths and is now turning to them for leadership and inspiration. Sadguru’s lone ride on a motorbike covering 30,000 km in 100 days to create awareness of the value of soil for the survival of humanity is an example of this leadership.
The Kashmir Files is another example of native people not surrendering to the might of criminals. Hindus are demonstrating that they have the courage to rejuvenate themselves to continue the battles for human rights and social justice. Today, more than ever, the world is crying out for leaders they can trusts and our Shouter brothers and sisters are definitely pointing the way. All are certainly not lost!
By Dool Hanomansingh