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Preserving Angelo’s legacy

Published: 
Saturday, March 18, 2017
Historian Angelo Bissessarsingh receives the Humming Bird Gold Medal for his loyal and devoted service to T&T in the sphere of history and education in 2016.

Angelo Bissessarsingh had strong feelings about how history was being communicated in T&T. That’s why he wanted to do it differently.

He set up the Facebook page Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Museum of Trinidad & Tobago in 2009, when social media was still gaining its legs in the country.

He wrote three books about T&T history, using the stories of individual people to highlight little known but important facts about the country.

For instance, in A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad & Tobago, he told the story of William Nicol, who became Trinidad’s first road fatality in 1911. His death led to the setting up of the Licensing Authority and the system of driving regulations in T&T.

Bissessarsingh’s collection of short stories, Pancho’s Dilemma and Other Stories from the Cocoa Fields, used fiction to expose readers to the country’s history.

“It was to do something unorthodox,” he told journalist Roger Dwarika last year, discussing the writing of his books. “Something that didn’t say, ‘Well, Columbus discovered Trinidad in 1498 and in 1797 the British took Trinidad from the Spanish …’” He continued to list historical factoids in a dry monotone.

“That was not what I wanted is to do,” he said. “I wanted to tell a story.”

Bissessarsingh’s unique approach, his enthusiasm and his charisma earned him a dedicated following. So that when he died last month at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer, the President, the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader and other members of the country’s who’s who publicly mourned the loss.

“When you read those books you get instantly a sense of legacy, a sense of pride [in] our country,” said bookseller/publisher Nigel Khan, who helped publish Bissessarsingh’s books.

“When his books were launched, down to the president was there,” said Khan.

President Anthony Carmona gave scholarship winners copies of Bissessarsingh’s books at the President’s Medal ceremony earlier this year.

Khan is a member of a committee of Bissessarsingh supporters dedicated to continuing Bissessarsingh’s legacy in different ways. At least three more books are due to make it to print. Next in the pipeline is Woodland Shadows, a look at the folklore of T&T.

Khan met Bissessarsingh and read his books for the first time when Bissessarsingh came to the Nigel R Khan company headquarters to see if they would be interested in publishing Walking with the Ancestors, his first book.

“There was an instant energy, spiritual connection with him,” Khan recalled. “When you speak to him, the vibration he gives out is so powerful. When you open that book and you realise what’s pouring out at you and hitting you in the face was so profound.”

Khan tells of Bissessarsingh’s insistence that he see the final version of the book.

“The week before he died he called me. He said, ‘I need to see my book.’ We had to rush to get digital copies of that book printed just for him,” said Khan. “He got it the day before he died. His aunt read it to him cover to cover. The next morning is when they gathered around and he passed.”

Bissessarsingh’s single-minded determination to do what he could for local history until his last breath was reflected in multiple stories about the young man.

“He was doing chemo and typing. And you know how much pain that chemo is,” said Khan. “When he was on the bed he was still typing, and then he couldn’t type any more. Then he said, ‘Call somebody. I will say what I want, and they will type.’

“He said, ‘This is my gift to Trinidad,’” Khan added. “Angelo means angel. I do believe he was sent here with a gift.”

Khan said he and Bissessarsingh supporters would try to get Bissessarsingh’s books on the schools’ curricula.

They’d also like to see Bissessarsingh honoured by fulfilling his wishes that the Carnegie Free Library be made into a heritage library and a fund be established to preserve the country’s historic buildings. Bissessarsingh’s father, Rudolph, has talked about turning Bissessarsingh’s Siparia home into a museum filled with his historical collections.

The Virtual Museum, which features photos of documents, sites and artefacts related to the history of T&T, has continued with posts from Bissessarsingh’s aunt, Patricia Bissessarsingh; history writer Geoffrey MacLean; Glen Beadon, another documenter of local history; and other contributors. Patricia said she and Bissessarsingh’s brother, Mario, would continue to administer the page.

“Focus is to now engage the younger generation in reconnecting with their rich historical past,” Patricia wrote in an email. “We are again pleading with Ministry of Education to ensure that Angelo’s books be introduced both at primary and secondary school... and that teachers make the effort to expose students to the rich stories of our past that Angelo took time to research and document.”