Astrolabe

Bold & Unapologetic

People of the Islands in front of the lens.

By Michael P. Pateman and Vanessa A. Pateman

“People of the Islands” is the National Museum’s new oral history/ethnography program. This project seeks to tell the story of “Islanders” of the Bahama Archipelago through their own voice, with a first person narrative. Oral histories are stories that living individuals tell about their past, or the past of other people. The purpose of the Museum’s research is to attempt to understand what is happening naturally and to interpret the data gathered to see what implications could be formed regarding the culture and heritage of the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands.

Alton Higgs, “Da Bush Doctor” from Middle Caicos, shared his extensive knowledge of bush medicine as part of “People of the Islands,” the TCI National Museum’s new oral history/ethnography project.

Background linkage
The first island of the archipelago (Eleuthera, in the Bahamas) was settled by Bermudians looking for religious freedom in 1647. It wasn’t until 1681 that salt rakers from Bermuda seasonally settled Grand Turk to begin salt raking. In 1766 the Turks & Caicos were a part of the Bahama colony and was placed under the administration of the Bahamian Government. Attempts to integrate the two distinct communities failed, and in 1874 after the Great Bahama Hurricane devastated much of the archipelago, the Turks & Caicos Islands became a dependency to the British Crown Colony of Jamaica. After Jamaican independence in 1962, the Turks & Caicos returned to Bahamian control until Bahamian independence in 1973.
Although the island groups have remained separate administratively (Grand Turk continued as the administrative capital of the Turks & Caicos during Bahamian governance), there are many cultural and familiar relationships between the islands. Additionally, there have been multiple migratory periods of large amounts of people between the island groups. As a result, Bahamians and “Belongers” share similar ancestry, cultural traditions, food and dialect. Presently, there are no studies that explore these relationships—therefore both island group claim to be the original home of multiple forms of cultural expressions that are only found in the Bahama archipelago in its present form.

Boat building, sailing and navigation
Everyone learned to swim, build model boats on the bay outside their homes and eventually graduated to building or sailing larger Caicos sloops. For almost 300 years, the inhabitants of the Turks & Caicos Islands depended on small sloops for their commerce, fishing and transportation. These native boats have generally been small because of limitations imposed on them by the shallow waters surrounding the Islands and the scarcity of suitable native wood.
The largest of these sloops were approximately 30 feet overall and were used to haul local products such as salt, dried conch and sisal to ships anchored offshore. Additionally, these sloops were used for inter-island transportation. They regularly traveled to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.
Changing commercial needs and modern transportation between the Islands have made the native sloops all but obsolete. With this change, the skills associated with construction and sailing such craft are now possessed by only a handful of men scattered throughout the Islands.

Medicine, music and much more

Musician and songwriter Lovey Forbes is one of TCI’s cultural icons.

There was no hospital on the Islands until recently, so people used indigenous medicine to heal the sick and wounded. This “bush medicine” was made from herbs, plants, barks, roots and sometimes animal products. The various concoctions are said to have abilities ranging from curing the common cold, improving the chances of getting pregnant, and even curing cancer. This island knowledge was passed down through the generations.
Not only was bush medicine passed down through generational knowledge, but ways of storytelling—specifically musical traditions—were shared. This musical cultural expression is originally known as Ripsaw. Oral tradition in the Turks & Caicos says that it originated in these islands and spread to nearby islands such as the Bahamas and has been rebranded as Rake-n-Scrape. Bahamian oral tradition tells the story in reverse, that Rake-n-Scrape originated in the Bahamas, especially Cat Island, and spread to the Turks & Caicos. People of the Islands will explore these stories further. While we might not solve the mystery of where Ripsaw or Rake-n-Scrape originated, we will explore the unique sounds of both musical forms as told by the musicians themselves.

Engaging the community
This project helps to fulfill one of the major goals of the Museum—engaging the Turks & Caicos community. One of the resulting end products, the “People of the Islands” ethnography film, is a way for the Museum to present and show understanding of the cultural heritage of the TCI from the inside out, as we give a voice to the people who have shaped the country. This documentary will include dialect via recorded speech by people in the community.When this speech is in a language unfamiliar or unclear to the intended film audience, the producers generally use voice-over translation or subtitles.
“People of the Islands” will be a description of TCI culture and traditions with a focus on the people who live within the Islands, including their personal adaptation, their success and an understanding of how culture shaped this. In as much as cultures are constantly changing, the history and context (interrelated issues, settings, environment and social relationships) play important roles in the lives of individuals in determining the webs of significance. Ethnographic research is also done in an attempt to discover patterns in human behavior. One of the main advantages of the documentary is that it will help the Museum to identify and analyze research data. We’re conducting other types of studies, which are not based on in-situ observation or interaction.
According to the American Anthropological Association, “Anthropologists . . . have obligations to the scholarly discipline, to the wider society and culture, and to the human species, other species, and the environment.” Ethnography is the bread and butter of social (and cultural) anthropological analyses and theories. That is also why most sociocultural anthropologists do fieldwork.

Life as a Belonger
There’s an enduring story to be told from the perspective of the bold people, called “Belongers,” who carved out a living within these Islands. They contributed to the economic growth and development by the sweat of their brows and the art of their hands. Through the knowledge and wisdom of bush medicine they healed themselves, passing all this heritage from one generation to the next. They left an indelible legacy that must not only be told, but preserved for the future.
We will continue to share the results of this project in future editions of Astrolabe, social media channels and ultimately in new exhibitions in both Grand Turk and Providenciales. Everyone has a story to tell and it is our goal to collect these stories.

If you have a recommendation for an interviewee for “People of the Islands,” please send us an email at info@tcmuseum.org.



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