Bagotville Tamarind tree, a daily reminder of Emancipation

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The Tamarind tree that still stands today that the slaves once used as a place for worship

Between La Rouse Adventure, Canal Number One Polder and Plantation Nismes is Bagotville, a village that in 1848 was gifted to the slaves freed from the Mindenburg coffee plantation.

The two thousand residents of the West Bank Demerara village continue to celebrate Emancipation each August 1 with a plethora of activities so as to keep their history alive for generations to come. The rest of the year, the village is replete with landmarks as reminders. One of the most prominent is an ancient tamarind tree that stands tall on the village’s main access road and was once a place of worship for the slaves. The yearly libation ceremony is held under this same tree.

History has it that the three-square-mile village was owned by Bagot, and after slavery was abolished, he gave the coffee plantation to the ex-slaves. In their expression of appreciation, they renamed it Bagotville in 1848, since they were saved from the financially strenuous process of purchasing a village, as many ex-slaves had to do.

As the village began to develop, residents dug dams, mapped out streets and lived cooperatively. Today, the same spirit permeates the village and while most of the old timers have passed away, love and unity continue to prevail amongst the youths.

One old timer is Ashton Crawford, who plays an integral role in the yearly Emancipation celebrations, that are held at the village’s community centre. Crawford remembers, “we had our first Emancipation celebration in 1952. That was headed by the late Jake Isaac Crooker… back then it lasted for nine days, or as we would normally call it, ‘nine night.”

Llewelyn Cyrus, a young Bagotvillian, remembers being told stories of the African slaves who toiled to develop the village, and so he proudly participates in these celebrations yearly.

“I remember my grandmother Natalie Washington, who was a village leader, would tell us stories of how the slaves dug the canal that runs through the village; and how they worshipped under the tamarind tree that still stands today, or rested under it while traversing in and out of the village. I often go under that tamarind tree and envision it,” the young man said.

Yearly celebrations

The emancipation celebration begins at Bagotville on July 31 at 6 pm with a village church thanksgiving service.  This continues until 10pm and then at midnight, the libation ceremony begins at the village koker. Participants dance and mimic the sounds of the drums and other musical instruments, awaking neighbouring villages as they make their way to the koker. Upon arriving there, they sing to African rhythms as they “invite the ancestors to join the celebrations”.

When it is certain that the ancestors are “within their midst”, the celebrants move over to the community centre for a grand soiree celebration which lasts until 6 am August 1.

At around mid-night on Emancipation Day, a packed programme, prepared weeks in advance commences, at the community centre ground. The villagers gather to witness the traditional concert. This includes African dances and songs, skits, speeches and most importantly, storytelling.

The audience is told of the post-Emancipation period when the slaves commenced subsistence farming to provide for themselves and selling the remaining produce.

African delicacies are also displayed to entice the guests who may have journeyed from the city to experience the celebrations. One of those is “Shine rice”, prepared “just the way the slaves did it”. When the slave masters gave their slaves discarded parts of meat, including the feet, back, giblet and neck of the chicken and tail of the pig, the slaves would fix “a lovely fireside meal” with their gift. That dish was given the name “Shine rice” because it lacked the necessary ingredients for a nutritious meal.

According to Crawford, Emancipation celebrations at Bagotville are one of the most important festivals of the year for the village and will continue to live on even after all of the older residents have joined their ancestors since the heritage is safely secured with the youths. (DPI)

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