By Ameena Gafoor
It is generally thought from the literature at hand that people of Chinese origin entered the Caribbean region as indentured labourers (Trinidad, 1806; British Guiana, 1853 and Jamaica, 1854). However, the story of Jacob Corsbie is slightly different and equally interesting as we attempt to better understand the varied history of colonial encounters in the region.
Jacob was born in China, it is believed in Beijing of the Manchu people. During the time of the great Civil war (or the Taipei or Boxer Rebellion) in the early 1860s, when sword and famine were laying waste in China and millions were being slaughtered, seven-year-old Jacob with his parents and some neighbours fled one night for their lives.
In the general confusion, his father was separated from them and they never met again, but mother and son, after many perilous experiences, reached the seashore, secured passage and ultimately reached Trinidad.
Because of their dire financial situation, the young lad was pressed into work. His original Chinese name remains unknown to us at this time.
Mother and son were taken in by the Susamachar Church founded by Geddes Grant, a Canadian whose purpose was to convert the East Indian indentured population into the Christian Church. From the year 1872, Jacob came under instruction of the Mission School at San Fernando, made rapid progress and was recognized as a diligent young man with a brilliant mind and exceptionally strong character. His dedication and talents were rewarded with a two-year scholarship in Canada where he flourished as a student at the Galt Institute, a Presbyterian college.
He returned to Trinidad as the Rev. Jacob Corsbie, pastor in the new Susamachar Church. Alice Clark, in Sketch of Trinidad: The Canadian Mission and the opening of Presbyterian College in San Fernando, Trinidad (Ottawa: Hope and Company, Stationers and Printers, 1892) writes: “Specially were we struck by the masterly way in which a young Chinaman Mr. Jacob W. Corsbie conducted the review in the Sabbath School, on more than one occasion, equal to any we have heard at home . . . .”
Not much is known of the fate of his mother in Trinidad.
But let us pause a moment to find out how this energetic young immigrant scholar who also served as translator for the Courts in various languages and dialects such as patois, French, Spanish, Hindi with a bit of Sanskrit, came by the name “Corsbie”.
One of the many unconfirmed stories that circulates among the family is that a New Zealander planter by the name of Corsbie gave shelter to mother and child shortly after their arrival in Trinidad and adopted the young lad, that Corsbie returned to his homeland and left a small cocoa plantation and small house to them. It would seem that Jacob Corsbie also developed a love for botany and had a special part of the yard where he would graft fruit trees.
In time, Jacob Corsbie had two children by a first wife, one of whom migrated to Mexico and the other, Fred, to Nova Scotia. Jacob then married Lillian Young Campbell, a Barbadian lady of Welsh (or so the story goes) mother and a father who was African and Venezuelan Amerindian and had a livery service in Trinidad. Lillian was deemed to be a very eccentric and spoilt woman but together they had eight children: Letitia (Letty); Ivan (Vanny); Russell; Ida (Totsie); Milda (Milly); Myra; Kenneth (Kenny); and Tilda (Tilly). In a photograph in the fields wearing a wide brim hat, and machete in hand, Jacob looked a little like Emiliana Zapata.
Jacob Corsbie died in 1917 leaving the estate to his children. They migrated to the USA around 1923 taking their mother. Ken’s father, Ivan, stayed in Trinidad and married Louise Maude Begg from Tobago whose father was Scottish and her mother was an island Creole. Very little is known of Louise’s parents, and no photographs of them are known to exist.
Ivan worked for the Cable and Wireless in Trinidad but was seconded to British Guiana in 1928 where Ken was born in 1930. They had four children – Percy (died 1995), Jocelyn (“Joyce”) lives in Tobago, Ken, and his young brother Deryck who was shot and killed by burglars in his fruit farm in Jamaica.
Ken is the only Guyanese born – the others siblings were born in Trinidad.
Ken’s mother’s Tobago upbringing and her immersion into the Guyana life must have been partly responsible for her eclectic food menu which Ken remembers as being a different dish every day of the week:-
Chicken Pilau on Mondays
Crab and Calaloo soup on Tuesdays
Chicken curry on Wednesdays
Cook-up with blackeye peas and pigtail on Thursdays
Chicken chowmein on Fridays
Eddoes, cassava and green plantain Saltfish and cornflour dumpling Boil down to a fine gravy
In Guyana, we call it metegee
And on Sundays Roast chicken and baked English potatoes Garnished with lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes
Real white people food on Sunday
Ken states that because he knows little or nothing of his grandparents on either side, his conscious heritage begins with his parents.
It has been only a decade now that he became interested in his family beyond his parents. As a result of “my mix up mix up genealogy”, he often introduces himself on stage as “I’m a full blooded West Indian Stereotype” (a line from a poem by Guyanese poet John Agard) and “My Daddy was half Chinese, half African, half Welsh and half Amerindian – I ticked off five of the blocks in the last American census form – Asian, Native American, Hispanic, African, Eurasian.”
Ken’s mother, Louise, had three siblings, all sisters of whom he only knew one; and there are many cousins from both his father’s and mother’s sides living all over the world, whom he has never met or, in some cases, may not even know exist. He first knew of and met three first cousins from his father’s side after he came to live in America fourteen years ago.
It seems that grandfather Jacob’s agricultural background in Trinidad was passed on to his son Ivan who, much later, in Guyana, kept a thriving kitchen and flower garden in his yard at 310 East Street, Georgetown.
Ivan seems to have passed the gardening genes down to his children. Eldest son Percy owned his own chicken farm in Soesdyke; Deryck, the youngest, was a graduate of the International College of Tropical Agriculture; Joyce is an avid home gardener who would nip off a piece of anybody’s plants and make it grow beautifully in her yard, and Ken’s and his wife’s (Elizabeth) home in Long Island, NY is a virtual fruit, flower and vegetable botanical garden in the summer, complete with hammocks.
Ken immortalizes this genetic heritage in his poem/story “MY DADDY” which is part of his unique and extensive story repertoire.
And my Daddy was a plants man too,
Lettuce and shallots
Corn and carrots,
A lot of different coloured dahlias.
He taught us how to look for caterpillars,
How to prepare a bed and fertilize it
With cow manure and chicken sh… poop
We got from under Percy’s chicken coop,
To see all this not as work but as play,
and that is why we all have green fingers
Right up to today.”
Ken’s earliest memories begin in Robb Street, Georgetown, where he was born. It was midway down from Main Street, a typical small two-bedroom cottage right up against the front yard paling with a sidewalk running outside.
His “barely conscious life” (his own quote) begins with a graphic recollection of his absolutely most favourite toy as a small child – a small black and white cow that wagged its head and mooed. The Caetanos lived in a “big house” next door – Eddie and Sonny were both good St. Stanislaus footballers; and Stanley Headley (more of him later) had a bookstore across the street that sold schoolbooks and an English story and comic book that Ken read avidly.
They then moved to Waterloo Street from where Ken and his siblings walked the three blocks to Main St. RC Primary school… and that begins Ken’s next life story as told by Ken himself….
THE ARTS FORUM brings you the story of Ken Corsbie, trained dramatist, quintessential story-teller and performer who made a profound contribution to the cultural life of Guyana with the HE WAN and DEM TWO performances and much more, and treats us to the highlights of a very creative life and an inventive mind, in his own inimitable voice.
Continued next week.
The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached on e-mail: [email protected],co.uk or on telephone: 592 227 6825.
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