Myths, Reality Meet At V.I. Historians Conference

Jan. 17, 2009 — How did Taino Indians come to live in 16th century Spain? The answer to this and other questions were touched upon Saturday by the international panel of scholars at this year's annual conference of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians.
Professor Jalil Sued-Badillo of the University of Puerto Rico argued stories of cannibalism by Caribbean and Latin American natives were a myth used to justify the enslavement of the Taino population.
"Cannibalism comes up on Columbus' first voyage," Badillo said. "In a letter to the king of Castile in 1493, when he had just visited Hispaniola and returned to Spain, he is talking of cannibals who should be enslaved to pay for the expenses of future discoveries."
And many were enslaved. Some were also set free after a time. There are records of over 400 Amerindians living in Spain in the early 16th century, having been abducted, indentured, then released in Spain.
Later, once gold was found on Hispaniola, laborers were needed to mine it, and Spaniards were not jumping at the chance to go across the ocean to labor in mines. So slaves were needed, and the myth of cannibalism was needed to make it morally palatable, Badillo argued.
Bolette Blaagaard, a Danish doctoral student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, spoke about the way media-oriented events and professional journalists frame events for consumption by their particular audience, using a scuffle involving Constitutional Convention delegate Adelbert Bryan as an example.
During ceremonies marking the 150th anniversary of the 1848 abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies in 1998, Bryan was purportedly supposed to speak, but was unhappy about being bumped or about his placement, and tried to walk onto the stage, prompting a minor panic and scene, as security guards hustled dignitaries into cars. Seeing these images several years later in a documentary, Bryan's interruption raised questions for Blaagaard about how journalism shapes perceptions based upon culturally determined preconceptions.
"Bryan's disruption or interruption of the reenactment brings into light the dominant picture on two levels," she said. "First, a critique of the arrangement of the event, why it had in it what it did. And second, it brings into question the historical assumptions on which the event is established: what are the political implications of the historical event, who gets to speak, who is silenced and what type of historical presentation you are creating."
Her point, she said, was not to endorse Bryan, but to look at what can be revealed by his actions and the reactions to them.
"It is the idea that interruptions are productive," she said. "I'm not saying let's all think what Bryan thinks. But the interruption takes you somewhere else, it forces you to think differently."
Jeffrey B. Perry spoke about St. Croix native Hubert Harrison, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance about whom Perry has written a biography.
Born in Estate Queens Quarters in 1883, Harrison came to New York as 17-year-old orphan, never to return to the Virgin Islands. Largely self-taught, Harrison became the foremost African-American intellect of his time and the father of Harlem radicalism, Perry said.
Harrison was a leading black organizer in the Socialist Party in its early 20th-century heyday. He founded the New Negro Movement, and wrote prolifically. In 1920, he was the principal editor of Marcus Garvey's "Negro Works" and it was under Harrison's editorship the magazine went worldwide. He was also the first regular black writer of book reviews.
Images of the islands from long ago filled the last presentation, as Ronald Lockhart, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Friends of Denmark Society, and president of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, showed some of his collection of antique postcards. Familiar Christiansted streets with a few familiar buildings looked out from the images. Anachronistic ships, horse and buggies, long-dead people in Victorian and traditional Caribbean dress appear in front of familiar geographic landmarks like Fort Christiansvaern and Protestant Cay as Lockhart described the history of postcards in the territory and the ins and outs of collecting.
"Around the time of the transfer you will often see the same picture in a new card, doctored to change the Danish flag to a U.S. flag," he said.
The Society of Virgin Islands Historians holds a panel discussion at their annual conference and promotes and participates in other conferences and discussions about Virgin Islands history.
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