Breathing Life into the Written Word
- By Petamber Persaud
For me, it was an adventure of a lifetime, right here in my own backyard; within hours I was able to turn back the pages of history, going back in time to the late 18th century and to discover for myself a few events (monuments) as recorded in our history books and also to discover many things that were missed or overlooked by the writers of our history.
On Saturday August 7, 2010, I was part of an expedition to Fort Island (among other stops). No, not to examine the regular tourism sites like Fort Zeelandia or the Court of Policy, but rather to locate Fort Island Church which is sited as a possible burial place of Laurens Storm van Gravesande. Gravesande died in August of 1775 – this was his 235th death anniversary.
The thrill of reliving history outweighed the trek from civilisation across wet, muddy marsh lands to the possible burial place and retracing our steps, one slow step after the other mud-squelching step.
Back at the starting point outside the Court of Policy compound, it was another adventure in speculation. Members of the Mittelholzer family, who are the custodians of the island and of its seen and unseen heritages, were there to add their bits and pieces.
Now herein lays another related story because Edgar Mittelholzer – who wrote about Gravesande and Fort Island in his remarkable work, The Kawana Trilogy, which covered over three hundred years of Guyana’s history – and the Mittelholzer of Fort Island, were related.
It is said, centuries ago, two Mittelholzer brothers, descendants of German-Swiss stock, migrated from the Netherlands to British Guiana; one going to Fort Island on the Essequibo and the other to New Amsterdam in Berbice. We are more familiar with the Mittelholzers of Berbice than the Mittelholzers of Essequibo. The Mittelholzer of Berbice has done his part in recording the history of this country. It is time we tap into the living archives that are the Mittelholzers of Fort Island.
By mid-afternoon I was back home and was able to put a few things (mainly dates) in perspective.
I turned to Webber’s book, Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana, to read about the possible burial location of Laurens Storm van Gravesande, mainly because it was the most recent (reprinted by the Guyana Heritage Society in 2008) history on Guyana in my library. When A. R. F. Webber published his book in 1931, he made a statement in the Preface that he had to do extensive research ‘if the errors and inaccuracies of the previous historians were to be avoided’. This note caused my quasi-historian antennae to go up. Now it was my turn to do some cross-referencing. Obviously, I went online and found a whole lot of information on Gravesande, but little on his grave. I then turn to my favourite book on the history of Guyana, The Children’s Story of Guyana, by Guy E. L. DeWeever, first published in 1932, and reprinted almost thirty times between the first edition and 1973 with a revised edition and reprint in 1949.
In Chapter IV, titled ‘Gravesande The Great’, DeWeever wrote, ‘In 1775 Laurens Storm van Gravesande died in Essequibo, and was buried in the Fort Island Church, which can be seen standing to this day.’ Other accounts gave that Gravesande died in Soesdyke, Demerara, and was taken to Fort Island for interment.
The Mittelholzer clan of the island gave a vague account of the Fort Island Church when it was still standing. Members of our expedition were able to remove the overgrowth to reveal a large concrete base which could have formed the base of the church and a slightly raised area that may have served as the pulpit or the tomb. There were no seen markings to confirm or dispel speculation….So the adventure continues….
Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: oraltradition2002@ yahoo.com
· One-day creative writing workshop for school children. This workshop is free but places are limited. Please contact me for more information.
· The first eleven titles of the Guyana Classics Library are now available to the public. Please contact me for more information.
· The Guyana Annual 2010 issue is now available at Guyenterprise Ltd. on Lance Gibbs and Irving Streets, Queenstown