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Bringing history alive
OBITUARY of ANGELO BISSESSARSINGH, 1983-2017
He could talk at length about the experiences of the Amerindians, the islands’ first settlers; the African slaves who began arriving at the start of the 18th century; the East Indians who came as indentured labourers from 1845; the Germans who were put in local “concentration camps” during the first world war; and the Jews who settled here after fleeing persecution in Europe before the second world war.
He could tell you about T&T’s first heart operation, its first cinema, and its first car accident fatality, such was his commitment to learning as much as he could about the land of his birth.
“I believe that by learning one’s history, it instils a sense of pride and it instils a sense of purpose,” he told journalist Vernon Ramesar, in one of a series of interviews on Ramesar’s television programme beginning in 2013.
The interviews revealed Bissessarsingh to be a confidently knowledgeable, eloquent and engaging speaker. Bissessarsingh said he wanted to chronicle as much of the country’s history as he could for as long as he could. This he did.
When he died last Thursday, he had finished work on a historical novella and a reader on T&T folklore, both yet to be published. There were other projects, he said, that he expected to be published after his death.
Even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2015 and given just months to live, he managed to finish his second book, A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad & Tobago, which was launched in February last year.
His first, Walking with the Ancestors: The Historic Cemeteries of Trinidad, was self-published in 2014.
But Bissessarsingh was probably best known for running the Facebook page Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago.
He started the project in 2009, after being turned down for a job at the National Museum.
He had a collection of artefacts, documents and drawings and began posting photos of them and of natural and manmade landmarks around the country. The photos appeared with background information.
The page slowly grew a following, who would add their own knowledge and personal experience of a subject. Eventually Bissessarsingh wasn’t the only curator of the page.
Dedicated followers started to post their own images and knowledge, making the Virtual Museum a community where T&T’s history was celebrated and discussed.
In a regular column with the T&T Guardian, in interviews with reporters and in comments on the Virtual Museum page, Bissessarsingh bemoaned the treatment of the country’s artefacts, from documents to buildings.
He spoke out against the destruction of the Greyfriars Church, the dilapidated state of the Magnificent Seven buildings and other historical sites, and the seeming ineffectiveness of state agencies with responsibility for preservation.
“Our post-independence experience and conditioning has taught us to despise all history as being ‘colonial’ and the heritage of ‘oppressors’ with pale skins,” he wrote in his Back in Times column in 2015.
“The inevitable state of affairs resulting from this prevailing mentality has been the swift destruction of our anthropological artefacts, ranging from the ornate architectural gems to documents, photos and books.”
He told Ramesar he wanted to help average people appreciate history. To do this you had to make history more that just dry facts and dates, he said. You had to bring history alive.
“Even for me, at times it becomes boring and crusty. There’s only so much repetition of dates and places that you do, before you lose interest,” he said.
“But I think that history is a living subject because there is a relativity between what was, and what is, and what is to come.
“And if you can add a little humanity and a little humour at times, I think that is where people get interested and people will join,” he said.
“And they also seem to have a perspective on history and themselves that they’re willing to share, and I’m always willing to listen and talk about it.”
In discussing the popularity of his most recent book in T&T and abroad, he told Ramesar in a final interview last year:
“The book is not just about history, it’s about memories. It’s about looking at those pictures and seeing your own life in sepia tones. And that is why these books are important.
“I could go in any academic history book and tell the statistics of slavery or the statistics of indentureship. But if I told you a story about one of those long trials, it becomes totally connected to your experience.”
Bissessarsingh—who worked in the Disaster Management Unit of the Ministry of Local Government—developed his passion for history and archeology as a child with the encouragement of his family and teachers at Naparima College. He told Ramesar of a seminal experience at age five.
“I remember one day my father took me to an Amerindian site. Everything I touched, I felt kinship with it: The pottery, the stone tools, the shell remains. I think we even found human remains on that site,” he said.
“I still entertain the utmost fascination for these things now as I did then. I have never lost my enthusiasm for them,” he said.
Bissessarsingh—who was awarded the Hummingbird Medal Gold last year for his contribution to history and education—worried about generations of T&T children being brought up without appreciation for the islands’ past.
“I believe many of our children are growing up without a sense of time, place, purpose, and also without a sense of their heritage,” he said.
“And there can only be a negative result from that.”
Historian and author Angelo Bissessarsingh died of cancer in his Siparia home at 10 am on February 2 at the age of 34.
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