In the weeks since the launch of Grenada 40 it has been thrilling to profile an array of talented young individuals who define themselves as Grenadian or of Grenadian descent.
Though they span fields from the publishing to youth diplomacy and beyond what unites them all (aside from their heritage) is that they are change-makers. We’re unspeakably proud to be able to feature the next generation of individuals committed to changing the game, flipping the script; those determined to be the change they want to see in the societies they live in.
It’s hard to describe in words the emotions that bubble up when meeting Shantelle George, a 29 year-old a senior teaching fellow and Phd candidate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). If we’re talking about making change then her field of research holds the potential to redefine our perceptions and understanding of our heritage and identity as Grenadians.
Her thesis, entitled “African Indentured Labourers and their Descendants in Grenada and St. Lucia: Belief, Identity and Memory, c.1836-2011” highlights the experiences and cultural legacies of the West and Central African indentured immigrants who were forcibly sent to Grenada and St. Lucia in the mid-nineteenth century.
It’s hard to fight back the tears when you look at the lists of thousands of indentured slaves from Africa who arrived to Grenada’s shores but the emotion is so strong because what Shantelle is doing is making these human beings and, by consequence, us matter.
Putting into words the feeling that this acknowledgment brings is a hard. It’s not quite pride, vindication or even satisfaction. Maybe its a combination of all of these or something entirely other. Either way we challenge you to engage with her research and not feel moved.
Perhaps it’s something that will be lost in translation to those who’ve had the privilege to be born and raised in Grenada but for the diaspora to finally see our cultural traditions not only acknowledged but celebrated, revered and deemed worthy of academic study is priceless.
What’s even more is that this work is being undertaken by a young woman of Grenadian descent. The stories, the experiences and the individuals revealed through her work cease to be the ‘other’, the ‘exotic’ or the ‘default from the norm’ but rather, in her desire for answers she engages with us as we are and always have been.
Which is why her work is so powerful. For if the definition of change is the “act or process through which something becomes different” then than journey cannot truly begin until we truly appreciate who we are and where we come from.
Where are your parents from?
My parents are both from St. Patrick: my mother was born in Riversallee, and my father in Lataste.
How did they spur your interest in Grenada?
My parents used to tell me about their experiences growing up in Grenada and I always wanted to know more about the island. My father exposed me to films and books on black history – so that rootedness, even though it was not always specifically Grenadian – encouraged me to think of myself as something other than English. Later on, I began to think more about heritage and I began to appreciate that I had a strong heritage on my own.
How did you feel growing up as someone of Grenadian heritage in the UK?
Growing up in a Grenadian family there are things you do, eat, things you say – even though you may not know the significance of it. There are words/phrases/expressions I use today such as ‘oui’ and even inflections that I have grown up using. These things took on a particular significance to me as an adult as I came to appreciate the importance of expressing yourself in a tongue other than English. So these are some of the subtle things that I was raised with, that were reinforced when I went to Grenada for the first time at the age of 10.
For two months I attended school – the same primary school that my parents attended in the 1960s. Using an outside bathroom, accompanying my grandparents to ‘the bush’, observing saraka feasts, fighting with mosquitoes – all this gave me a sense of rootedness; even though the young men would call out: ‘Eh English gyal’, I knew that I wasn’t in fact English.
In Riversallee, it is common for people to recognise you by your features as someone’s granddaughter or even niece; you feel rooted because someone will identify you as belonging to a particular family. Before our journey to Grenada, my sister and I spoke about literally kissing the ground that our ancestors had bled and sweated on. At that young age, we were aware of the significance of Grenada – culturally and historically.
The landscape of Grenada – the plantation houses; the cane fields – chillingly reminded me that my ancestors were enslaved in the island. I began to think of Grenada as sacred ground; as through the cracks, in the streams, here were the cries, blood, sweat of my not so far ancestors. I returned to England, not only with a slight Grenadian accent, but also an affirmation that I could reference, draw strong on a cultural identity, other than ‘Englishness’. No longer did I see myself as Black British.
What led you to research? the issue of indentured slaves in Grenada? What do you hope its impact will be?
I became very interested in the root of it all – Africa. I began to ask my mother about the traditions in Grenada. She told me about how some people used to kill chickens at the Boiling Springs in Riversallee and dance. I became fascinated with the ways in which enslaved peoples, under brutal conditions, reshaped and maintained their cultural traditions.
Sifting through newspapers and colonial correspondence in archives in the UK, I encountered fascinating references to an ‘Ebo’ king and a ‘Congo’ man who escaped from prison. Why were these ethnic identities visible, and what other information could I find out about these individuals? This led me to my current research: ‘Religion, Identity and Memory among Liberated Africans and their Descendants, 1836 – present’.
Why were African women, men and children sent to Grenada after British abolition [of slavery] in 1807? What were their experiences in the island and what were their cultural legacies? Were there any people alive in Grenada who remember these ‘late-arriving’ Africans? Passionately and almost defiantly, a woman in Grenada told me about her grandfather was born in ‘Senegog’. He came by boat to Grenada to work, but who could not ‘fly back to Africa’ like his siblings, as he ‘interfered with salt’. The consumption of salt prevented his flight.
I collected oral accounts detailing residual language retentions, in the form of song and vocabulary, and ritual practices from descendants of liberated Africans, as well as Orisha or Shango and Spiritual Baptist practitioners.
My research demonstrates that the people of Grenada have a strong cultural heritage; but much of this heritage has not been documented. Those who practice ‘African work’ or Shango and Spiritual Baptist traditions in the island have not been given their due respect. These people have maintained and reshaped such traditions against the forces of colonialism, and its resultant general disregard of African culture. Women have been at the forefront of such traditions. So, there is a lack of respect and state legitimization of African traditions in Grenada.
The process of legitimization, which occurred in Trinidad which Grenadians Uriah Butler and Elder Griffith led, has resulted in a more tolerant climate for Orisha worship and Spiritual Baptist traditions. In Trinidad, there is an annual Spiritual Baptist Day, the current Prime Minister identifies herself as a Spiritual Baptist, there is dialogue with Nigeria, and the ordinance of 1917 has been repealed.
I hope my research will go some way in acknowledging and documenting these traditions in the island. The government, the church and others need to recognise its existence and afford it some respect: it was born out a particular experience and struggle. It is one of the many examples of the resilience and creativity of Grenadian peoples.
What are some of the hurdles you’ve had to overcome in getting to where you are today?
In school I learnt nothing about my own history. When I did my A-Levels, I was exposed to Black theorists like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, which was my first experience of ‘seeing’ myself within texts at school. So trying to relate to the material taught in school and college was a challenge.
People of African heritage, particularly women, are underrepresented in academia. So embarking on this career poses several challenges. But I am grateful for Cecil Gutzmore and Kwadwo Osei-Nyame who have mentored me.
If you could commit to changing one issue in Grenada what would it be?
There are several things that come to mind, but I feel passionately about the lack of recognition given to those who practice Orisha and Spiritual Baptist traditions. It is part of the broader agenda of making heritage important.
Where’s your favourite place to relax in Grenada?
There are a few: on my grandmother’s veranda late at night – it is so still and peaceful; Bathway Beach early in the morning; Pandy Beach, Belmont, St. George – but I am still looking out for more places.