Maximilian C. Forte, 1998, 2001, 2006
I have not encountered a significant amount of material related specifically to Arima’s pre-Columbian history. In the case of colonial history, much more is known. What I shall present is merely a brief summary that can help to guide readers toward an understanding of some of the background of the modern day Carib Community as presented on this website.
First of all, the most significant part of Arima’s colonial Carib history is that the town itself emerged as a Catholic Mission town for Amerindians. Starting in 1786, Arima was to be the last surviving Mission town, according to most writers. Amerindians of various previous missions were gathered there in order to be placed under the supervision of a Catholic priest and to work in cultivating cocoa. The impetus to move Amerindians into Mission towns really gained momentum after the 1783 Cédula de población. That act established that French planters and their slaves, from other Caribbean islands, could come to settle in Trinidad as long as they were Roman Catholic–the intention being to convert Trinidad into a sugar-exporting colony, sugar being the most lucrative commodity at that time. In addition, cocoa itself had suffered a number of serious declines, not least of which was a major cocoa epidemic in 1725 that caused the virtual collapse of Trinidad’s export base. Lands had to be cleared of their original inhabitants in order to make way for the new influx of planters setting up large plantations. Missions thus served both religious, political and economic purposes.
Most of the early Amerindian residents of the Arima Mission, relocated from the previous missions of San Agustín, Tacarigua and Arouca, were speakers of Nepuyo, classified by ethnolinguists as a branch of the mainland Cariban language family. There is little to indicate their chosen ethnic affiliation. With time, residents of the Mission were referred by those in authority first, generically, as “indio,” and later “Carib.”
By the end of the 1700s, the Amerindians in Arima were ostensibly converted to Roman Catholicism, and according to records cited by Father Harricharan, they even “clamoured” for, specifically, a Capuchin priest. Baptismal registers show that all the names of Indians were Spanish, many if not most surnames bearing religious meaning, the English translations being: Of the Cross, Of the Light, Of the Ascension, Of the Resurrection, Of the Kings, Baptist. First names were commonly Maria, Rosa, Juan, and Jose. I must also add that few of these names are prevalent among the modern day Arima Caribs, the dominant families in the organized Santa Rosa Carib Community bearing surnames such as Calderon, Torres, Lopez and Hernandez–the largest number of registered members being members or relatives of the Calderon family.
One of the dominant rituals to emerge in the Arima Mission was the Santa Rosa Festival. There has been some dispute as to how this festival, and the figure of St. Rose of Lima, came to dominate Arima’s religious and cultural landscape. Among some members of the organized Santa Rosa Carib Community one can hear a legend of how St. Rose of Lima appeared to three male Carib hunters in the area of Arima now called Santa Rosa (Heights) and exhorted them to convert to Catholicism. A number of symbols and relics were generated by this event. Others go so far as to claim that St. Rose was actually born in Arima, which is not supported by any historical evidence and yet remains an important and inspiring myth for some Carib members and for some local song writers. Others claim that the “Cocoa Panyols” (mixed African, Amerindian Spanish cocoa estate labourers who immigrated from Venezuela) were responsible for bringing St. Rose to Arima, which is an assertion of fact that has found its way into Church hymns. The point here is that St. Rose emerges as a contested piece of religio-cultural property, a special emblem of whatever group (whether they be Caribs, general parishioners, or Dominican priests), in a society dominated by inter-ethnic competition and often invidious comparisons.
The meaning, message, and persona of St. Rose is contested by all the participants, whether it be the parish priest who likes to emphasize the fact that she was a member of the Dominican Order (like the priest himself) whose colours were black and white, or the Santa Rosa Carib Community which emphasizes her closeness to Amerindians in Peru and depicted her colour as being pink. This opposition is transformed into a juxtaposition of images of St. Rose herself, to be found on the grounds and inside the modern day Church of Santa Rosa de Arima: the Carib statue of St. Rose, held inside the church, showed her in a pink and black mantle and with a crown of flowers; the statues commissioned by the church, housed in its own little garden space, wears black and white, and banners of St. Rose hung in the church show her wearing a crown of thorns (sacrifice, mortification of the flesh, Christ-like), while the Carib Community always depicts her as only wearing a corona of roses (pink, white, yellow and red) as does the statue they carry in the main procession on the Festival Day.