READING THE WINE OF ASTONISHMENT
By Ameena Gafoor
Much scholarly work has been written on the social history of the West Indies but it is in the creative writings of its novelists, its poets and dramatists that the central experiences of its peoples are reinterpreted, increasingly in their own voices.
West Indian society was created out of the encounter of European entrepreneurs with waves of labour brought (forcibly and, later, on contract) to slave and toil on sugar plantations. Thus, New World plantation colonies are peopled variously with the descendants of slaves from Africa, indentured labourers from Portugal, China and India, those born of the admixture of such transported peoples, the survivors of native Indians, and a percentage of coloured persons who have part-European part-African blood. Under the Europeans the native Arawak tribes decreased significantly and largely disappeared.
Up to the early 1960s, the islands that comprised the British West Indies (including British Guiana on the South American mainland) laboured under British rule: its laws, its imposed Christian religions, its Victorian culture and value system.
Both Spanish and French settlers had earlier accommodated themselves in Trinidad, bringing the Catholic religion with them; many of them engaged in cocoa and tobacco production and remained when the British colonizers arrived in 1797. Trinidad and Tobago was granted independence from Britain in 1962 while other British West Indian islands received their charters one by one in the 1960s.
The West Indian novel, generally taken as starting with Becka’s Buckra Baby (1903) and One Brown Girl and – (1909), both works by a white Creole editor of Jamaica, Thomas Henry MacDermot (alias Tom Redcam), has devoted itself to interrogating the dynamics of colonial society: the ambivalences of race, colour, class and creed; the yawning gap between the powerful and the powerless; exile and alienation; the quest for cultural identity and for selfhood; and generally, how subjugated peoples negotiate the social reality.
Earl Lovelace’s fourth published novel, The Wine of Astonishment (1982), artistically recreates the struggle of a community of Spiritual Baptists at Bonasse, a rural village of south Trinidad, for the right to worship in a manner that is culturally meaningful to them. Even though the novel does not elaborate on the origins of Baptist worship we notice elements of African cultural practices in the text: spirit possession sessions, the sound of drums, loud singing and clapping hands. We may be tempted to see Spiritual Baptists as essentially Christians who incorporated African elements into the Christianity imposed upon them in the New World but research on the form of Baptist worship suggests a close affinity with the Orisha faith, an African religion that came to the New World with West African slaves of the Yoruba tribe and survived the brutal institution of slavery when African religions were suppressed but practiced in secret.
Orisha worship gained currency in the New World during the nineteenth century. The black peasants and working-class villagers at Bonasse in The Wine of Astonishment, like a significant percentage of New World blacks spread across the globe in various countries (such as, Nigeria, the Netherlands, France and Germany as well as Cuba, Puerto, Rico, the United States, Brazil, and Trinidad), derive their cultural and spiritual identity from the Orisha faith in the context of the New World.
It is believed that the Baptist sect in Trinidad originated from North America. A group of former American slaves who had supported Britain during the War of American Independence (1776) were rewarded for their loyalty with freedom and grants of land in south Trinidad when the British took control of the island in 1797.
Orisha worship has evolved over time to be a unique, indigenous religion in Trinidad, a religion that is vibrant, expressive and dynamic. An Orisha is a spirit or deity that reflects one of the manifestations of Olodumare (God) in the Yoruba spiritual or religious system. From the dawn of civilization religion has played an important part in man’s life, in his understanding of his relationship with God and in his understanding of his place in the universe. Orishas are said to have control over specific elements of nature and an Orisha is seen as an intermediary, that is, an important spiritual link, between man and God and treated as a diety or a divinity.
Orisha worship traditionally takes the form of clapping, singing loudly, even shouting, stamping, and drumming during the healing “possession” session when the Spirit of the Holy Ghost is called up and the subject “dances” in a trance but finally emerges spiritually healed.
Baptists are also known as “Shouters”. George Lamming, in Season of Adventure (1960) offers readers an instructive glimpse into a traditional “ceremony of the souls” in the fictional island of San Cristobal, and its impact on a young girl in her search for truth, meaning and selfhood but in The Wine of Astonishment Lovelace focuses on the power of colonialism, on the persecution of the Baptists and not on the affinity of Baptist worship with the Orisha faith.
Such cultural practices, for instance, dance, music and oral histories have survived among Africans for centuries, long after the harrowing journeys of their ancestors in crammed slave ships and their subhuman existence on European-owned plantations. It is from these cultural customs that the villagers gain spiritual comfort, cultural and psychic certainty, and a sense of identity as a people who belong to an ancestral culture. As one character in The Wine of Astonishment puts it:
We have this church in the village. We have this church. The walls make out of mud, the roof covered with carat leaves: a simple hut with no steeple or cross or acolytes or white priests or latin ceremonies. But is our own. Black people own it. . . .
We have this church where we gather to sing hymns and ring the bell and shout hallelujah and speak in tongues when the Spirit come; and we carry the word to the downtrodden and the forgotten and the lame and the beaten, and we touch black people soul. (32)
The modest hut at Bonasse where Baptists gather to worship also serves as a community centre where members can meet to socialize or offer moral support in times of need:
We preach the Word and who have ears to hear, hear . . . after the service finish the brethren could discuss together how the corn growing, how the children doing, for what price cocoa selling, and the men could know which brother they should lend a hand to the coming week, and the sisters could find out who sick from the congregation so we could go and sit with her a little and help her out with the cooking for her children or the washing or the ironing. (32-33)
However, in the early decades of the twentieth century the British colonial government of Trinidad and Tobago rejected Baptist worship, deeming it noisy, barbaric and against prevailing notions of white “respectability”, a “nuisance that should not be tolerated in a well-conducted community”.
1 The narrator recounts:
All of a sudden they start to teach in their schools and in the church that we uncivilized and barbarous . . . . but even so, enough of us remain to sing the hymns and clap hands and make joyful noises . . . in this tribulation country, far from Africa, the home that we don’t know. (33)
On 28 November 1917, the Colonial Government passed a law prohibiting worship in churches of the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago (Shouters Prohibition Ordinance). The local magistrates were given considerable power to deal with any law-breakers and the police often harassed the worshippers of Bonasse, assaulting them with batons and marching them down to the Police Station to be charged with breaking the law if they attempted to worship secretly. Police harassment of the Baptists continued until 1951 when, after repeated efforts to dismantle the oppressive law, the Prohibition Ordinance was finally repealed.
During the thirty-four years of institutionalized discrimination, the Church was moved several times with Baptists knocking “from pillar to post” (34). Finally, the Church stands on “the edge of the village” (34), marginalized and out of sight, “far up in a wilderness place, a little mud hut hiding behind a row of half-dead mango trees”. A “look-out” watches for the police so “if they creep up on us . . . we’d bolt through the bush in the night, running like thief . . .”(35).
While on the surface the Baptist Church seems like the cultural glue that keeps a section of the black community spiritually content and in their place, the reality is that it had the potential to be more than that. By the turn of the 20th century Baptists showed a cohesive bonding among themselves that had the potential to become a collective force of resistance: “It provides the people of Bonasse not only with a cultural identity but with an identity that is specifically black and working-class and thus potentially anti-colonial”. 2 It is not surprising that the British colonial government in Trinidad found the Baptist Church not just a noise nuisance but a threat to its authority.
The Wine of Astonishment is a fictional account of the effects of the Prohibition Ordinance on the community of Bonasse and runs from the years of the Second World War to the lifting of the ban in 1951. It is during the War that the colonial authorities, vaguely citing “security reasons”, also banned stick fighting, and Carnival with its steel pan and calypso competitions, all major forms of West Indian cultural expressions associated with the folk culture.
The plot revolves around the family of Bee Dorcas, leader of the Spiritual Baptists congregation at Bonasse. His supportive wife, Eva, is the narrator of the tale. His daughters live in the village but his sons, Winston and Taffy, have left home and live in Port-of-Spain. Bee and Eva interact with the congregation and with all the villagers including Bolo, the champion stick fighter and member of the Spiritual Baptist Church; Primus, another Baptist member; Corporal Prince, a brutish police officer; Ivan Morton, the young man who makes social and material progress and is elected by the villagers to be a member of the Legislative Council where he is expected to work on their behalf. Other minor characters people this fictional work, such as Buntin, at whose shop Clem, with his guitar, would sing stick fighting songs and Bolo would engage in mock stick fighting with young villagers robbed of the real spectacle; and Eulalie, Bolo’s first love, all of whom give a sense of belonging to the village. We shall discuss the vision of the work through the characters and their relationships with each other in the world of this novel.
Eva is a strong, black Caribbean peasant wife and mother- figure, a stout-hearted and long-suffering woman who encapsulates all the pain and suffering of the blacks from slavery to semi-freedom and who, typically, takes a philosophical view of their oppressed condition. When her children ask her why they must suffer while God seems indifferent to their tribulations, Eva builds their courage and tells them:
“The strong suffer most” – it is the strong who are chosen (by God) to suffer: Is because we could bear it. Is because out of all the shoulders in the world our shoulders could bear more weight, and out of all the flesh in the world, our flesh could hold more pain, and out of all the hearts in the world our heart could stomach more ache, without breaking or burning or bursting, than any shoulder or flesh or heart. For God ain’t made this world by guess . . . . God have his reasons for everything. He have eyes, and all man have here is the few moments that God give him and a little sense to learn who he is and why so he could make use of his little time here and praise God and die. The strong suffer most, the weak dies.
‘And if He gives us this . . . . If he gives you this . . . is because we could bear it and rise. (1, 2)
It is evident that elements of Anglicanism and Catholicism have crept into Orisha worship in the New World and we are tempted to believe that Spiritual Baptists hid their Gods behind the Christian saints as a disguise and protection against persecution. Culture is deemed to be a fundamental part of the human psyche and whereas cultural certainty is essential to individual growth and development, the British colonial powers have suppressed the cultural traditions and practices, and hence the cultural identity, of colonized blacks for centuries. Colonialism has led to a loss of culture, loss of communal values, loss of shared values and beliefs among large numbers of blacks who chose to follow the European culture and this is the challenge to the Baptists to keep the traditional values of the Yoruba tribes alive.
Making use of the language of the Bible that gives depth to her words, and the biblical theme of redemption through suffering, and as a patient, resilient wife, mother and congregationist, Eva is perhaps the most solid character in the work and a good choice for a credible first-person narrator. Eva speaks for the community and often, through the community and, by extension, for black experience in the West Indies.
The reader sees the world of Bonasse through Eva’s eyes. Through her simplicity, honesty, innocence, her embrace of community and her lyrical Trinidadian Creole vernacular Lovelace explores this social world with its deceits and political chicanery. Eva is also a practical and realistic woman who can critically assess a situation. She pleads with Bee not to break the law in trying to claim the freedom to worship: “When you break the law, you don’t hurt the law, you don’t change the law, you just make the law more law” (64). She dissuades Bee from killing Prince, that brutish police officer who ransacks their Church. Bee is a wise and patient leader but at moments when he bristles with impatience, Eva knows that impatience will cause them to be brutalized by the police and so she pleads with Bee for more patience. She advises him against confrontation: to tone down their worship and not attract attention to themselves until the ban is officially lifted. Bee questions Eva’s advice:
From the police and the magistrate we could bear it. But from our own people? Our own? To put a man in the Council and have to bear it from him too . . .? (2) Bee is here referring to Ivan Morton. In placing Morton’s sincerity under critical scrutiny Lovelace alludes to the emergence of an embryonic educated black middle class alienated from the uneducated groups to which their parents belonged. What comes through in this work is the cultural confusion and betrayal by those blacks who “brought it off” and got themselves nominated to the Legislative Council. The work asks the question: to what degree did they represent the community to which they no longer belonged?
(To be continued next Sunday)
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