Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 28th 2013 Contents B2
Sunday Guardian www.guardian.co.tt July 28, 2013
Tobago is unique among the former British
West Indian colonies in that much of its West
African heritage survived the obliterating
effects of slavery and existed in vibrant tra-
dition long into the present day. This is per-
haps so since unlike its neighbour, Trinidad,
Tobago has had little cultural influence other
than the British plantocracy, which was only
interrupted for a short time in the late 18th
and early 19th centuries when the island was,
for a time, seized and administered by a
French military presence.
Also differing from Trinidad is the ethnic
composition of the population which remained
almost unanimously Afro-West Indian, with
no genetic mixing from Asians and only very
few offspring of the liaisons between white
men and their coloured mistresses.
Moreover, after Emancipation in 1834, con-
siderable economic sway was held by share-
croppers or metayers on whom the few remain-
ing white planters relied for production in the
sugar industry. These metayers were inde-
pendent people who formed their own society.
These conditions combined to create an envi-
ronment which saw the West African identity
surviving slavery with startling purity.
In the slavery era, the area of the present
day village of Golden Lane was a sugar plan-
tation owned by a kindly white man who was
known to all and sundry as Grandfather Peter
(or Uncle Peter, according to some versions of
the story). His attitude towards his slaves must
have been benign at least since a good rep-
utation of Grandfather Peter has survived.
His two favourite slaves were a couple named
Tom and Sarah, but the latter was something
special. Powers of witchcraft were attributed
to Sarah, who was thus an influential personage
in the plantation society.
Legend has it that Sarah attempted to fly
back to Africa (possibly after the death of Tom)
and climbed a large silk cotton tree on the
plantation to make her launch. It was to be a
fatal decision, however, since her reputed power
of flight and necromancy had been lost since
she violated a timeworn dictum of witchcraft
and ate food with salt. Sarah perhaps was not
aware of the loss of her power and fell from
the branches of the tree and died. She was
buried next to Tom in the plantation cemetery
which still exists.
Sarah s last resting place became a spot of
some reverence and allegedly offerings were
left on it as part of obeah practices. Near the
former estate (now a small village), stood the
same silk cotton tree from which Sarah had
fallen, according to the legend.
For many years this imposing giant was
marked with a rude sign which read: "This
silk cotton tree was considered sacred by the
African slaves who believed the spirits of their
ancestors lived in its branches. Obeah men
from all parts of the island came here to perform
black magic rituals, the most famous being
Bobby Quashie of Culloden. This tree is the
largest of its kind on the island and is well
known for its many legends, spanning over
In this cemetery there are perhaps the only
marked graves for slaves known in the Lesser
Antilles. Fifteen graves were present, including
a separate and more imposing tomb dedicated
to Grandfather Peter.
Sadly the place has fallen into neglect, to
the point where the monuments are now
threatened even though for decades it has been
highlighted in the gaudy and misleading tourist
brochures which promote Tobago abroad.
With the passage of time people erected
homes in the cemetery and destroyed some
of the tombs. Others were plastered with con-
crete in a well-meaning but damaging attempt
to freshen them up, thus obscuring the fire-
bricks which had been used in their construc-
tion. These firebricks were imported in the
18th and 19th centuries as ballast in the holds
of sugar ships from England. Moreover, the
residents in the cemetery use the tombs as
places to store their disjecta membra and thus
what is a culturally and historically significant
heritage site is now severely endangered.
My friend Seema Mootoo lived in Tobago
for a short time and ventured into the cemetery
at Golden Lane to find the Witch s Grave. Find
it she did, but it was piled high with used tyres
and dirty laundry, as her photo attests. The
earning potential of the site is very well recog-
nised, however, by locals---who demand a fee
for viewing the graves.
It is indeed regrettable that a heritage site
with so much history is being allowed to fall
into oblivion without a concerted effort at
The silk cotton tree from which Gang Gang
Sarah fell and died has attracted attention for
decades as this 1875 photo attests.
The Witch's Grave at Golden Lane in Tobago. These historic monuments are now endangered by encroachment on the old slave cemetery.
PHOTO COURTESY SEEMA MOOTOO
Gang Gang Sarah...
The Witch of Golden Lane
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