(Updated Sunday, June 26, 2022, 12:45 am)
I’ll always remember Mrs. Baptiste as the face of the public library until she retired. From as far as I can remember, as a frequent user of the public library, a practice that stayed with me all the years I lived in Dominica, I recall Mrs. Baptiste as a very warm and cheerful Library Assistant of that historic, venerable institution.
The Public Library
Her commitment to her job was very self-evident. She was the first member of the Staff to greet you, to stamp your returned books; and the last member of staff to stamp your books out for another two weeks. She was your first point of contact in the library.
In the year 2022, in the year of Our Lord, The Public Library building, on Victoria Street, Roseau is no longer in use. It sits like a lonely old, abandoned person, now storm-ravaged from that devastating Hurricane Maria of 2017, and mysteriously set alight by arsonists on more than one occasion. If the current stewards did not have the resources to make the refurbishments, I could understand.
According to Dominica News Online, “The Dominica Library and Information Service is reporting a loss of about $1.7 million in the book loss following the passage of Hurricane Maria.” Public library services have since been diverted to the National Documentation Center. In May of this year, the Ministry of Public Works And The Digital Economy announced an architect competition for the design of the new Dominica National Library. Construction of the winning design was expected to commence this quarter and is expected to finish by early 2023 say MMC Development Ltd.
Meanwhile, the 117-year-old, Carnegie building is no longer in use. No longer are there knowledge-seeking, patrons from all walks of life: school children, researchers, ordinary housewives, or clerics just visiting to browse books and magazines gracing its floorboards. Or sitting on the grounds to admire the picturesque rugged Dominica shoreline of the quaint villages of Loubiere, Point Micheal, and Soufriere in the distance.
Scotts Head, which appears to be floating above the horion, is in the distant point of view, is a village on the southwest coast of Dominica, in the parish of Saint Mark Parish. It is a tiny village that shares its name with the Caribbean’s only tied island, “a small peninsula with a rising headland that extends westward from the village at Dominica’s southwest tip,” and that gets its name after “Colonel George Scott, who had served in the British invasion force that captured Dominica from the French in 1761”. It is also the site of the ruins of an old fort. Scotts Head juts out as it has for centuries. That perfect lookout across the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean sea. High, green, mountain mastiffs: Morne Anglais and Morne Plat Pay, complete the background; standing broodingly in the background while the azure calm, Caribbean sea laps at the shingled beach. Behind the library is a drop of maybe a hundred and 50 feet.
The Creole-styled building, designed by Administrator Bell in the “traditional Caribbean architecture” at the beginning of the Edwardian Era, was comprised of the main hall, sectioned with tall shelves of a wide catalog of reading material; a quiet reading room, a reference section, offices, and a storage basement. The latticed railing encircled the one-story edifice, wrapped by wide verandahs, set atop a cliff on Victoria street once part of a larger scenic spot. Next door is the Fort Young Hotel built into the ruins of an 18th-century fort built by the British in the 1700s.
It is evident that Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) was deeply admired by colonists during her reign. Not only is the Victoria Memorial Library named after her, commemorating the memory of the late Queen Victoria, but the very street on which it is built is named after her. Moreover, the remnants of the old cast-iron Victorian drinking fountain, which stands on an ancient well, and today is a feature of the old Market square, was erected in 1872 to celebrate the introduction of piped water from La Riviere Douce in the Roseau Valley, is named after her. The 165 ft waterfall that tumbles down into the White River in Delices, is also named in her honor.
The Public Library (formerly the Carnegie Library) was a gift from the Scottish-American millionaire philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, at the behest of Dominica’s Administrator, Sir Henry Hesketh Bell in 1905. Carnegie, “one of the richest Americans in history.” He made his wealth from the American Steel industry, and upon retirement, “Carnegie devoted the remainder of his life to large-scale philanthropy, with special emphasis on local libraries, world peace, education, and scientific research.” Dominica is one of 6 islands in the Caribbean that are recipients of libraries funded by Carnegie endowments. He funded over 2500 worldwide. According to Dominica’s most renowned historian, Dr. Lennox Honychurch, “Dominica’s Library and Information Service had its beginnings with Reading Rooms which were started on the island here in 1843.”
A scene from the 1990, Channel 4, tv-series, adaptation of The Orchid House, based on the 1954 semi-autobiographical novel, written by white Creole, Dominican, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, was filmed on location here. In 2012, Carolyn B of Brisbane, Australia, remarked on Trip advisor of the Public Library wrote, “Helpful librarians, amazing breadth and depth of collections. Be sure to ask to look in the West Indies section of the reference section. There are many incredible local authors. You might even meet some at the library.”
For decades, the library served as an office; somewhere where I could do research in the West Indian section for the works of Caribbean authors, my findings I would share on the Guild’s twice-weekly radio program on Kairi FM. It was a place where I could write my handwritten drafts for submissions to local newspapers, or make last-minute changes to my script for Review, our radio program, or other assignments. It was a place where photocopying services were available. And that is where I began to systematically, photocopy every newspaper article that I wrote or which mentioned my name into an archive file. A practice that continues to this day, albeit with more modern ways of manipulating data. And there were certainly no smartphones, with access to unlimited libraries of knowledge back then.
Perhaps my first memorable interaction with Mrs. Baptiste was during my teens, while still at the Dominica Grammar School. I once selected a book by German philosopher Immanuel Kant titled Critique of Pure Reason. I was curious about logic and algebra, and what was meant by ethics. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant spends considerable space explaining and expanding on the concepts of ‘A Priori and ‘a posteriori ‘ which basically means from within or from without.
Mrs. Baptiste looked at me, and she suggested that I read another publication. I don’t know why, but I stood my ground, and as it was my practice, renewed my loan over and over until I had finished reading it. Apart from that my memories of Mrs. Baptiste at the library were always one of helpfulness and dedication. I was a regular user of the library throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The internet was not yet invented, and if one could not afford to purchase the books and the magazines that one wanted to self-educate one’s self with, one borrowed books from the library, held discussion marathons with peers, and listened to the radio. It was a different world back then.
A lovely family
Away from the library, I grew to know both the late Judith Baptiste and her late husband, Thomas Baptiste of Newtown quite well. One of her daughters, Debbie, and I were friends and students at the Dominica Grammar School, and I have also brushed shoulders with other boys in the family. What a lovely couple and family, Her husband, who was more popularly known as Tom Baptiste, was a former cricket umpire and national sportsman who represented Dominica in both cricket and football. In later life, he became a long-serving officer of the Roseau Town Council.
I particularly remember Mr. Baptiste as a regular contributor to the Chronicle, and as a sports commentator, along with the likes of Reginald St. Havis Shillingford, Ossie Walsh, and others who for many years were hosts of a weekly sports radio program on Radio Dominica and later DBS Radio when the station moved up its frequency from 590 AM to 595 AM. Dr. Thomson Fontaine, another emerging Dominican historian writing about Thomas Baptiste following his demise in 2010 wrote that “Baptiste was an avid sportsman and devoted his life to the development of sports in Dominica.”
Former journalist, Steinberg Henry, writing in his 2014 publication, Calypso Drift, recalls that Thomas Baptiste also served on the Committee for National Salvation, alongside, Mary Eugenia Charles, Pierre Charles, Athie Martin, Brian Alleyne, Alvin Armatrading, Bernard Wilshire and Catholic priest Francis Huysmans, Norman Rolle, Egbert Germaine, Gabriel Christian, Rosie Douglas, Norris Charles, Anthoney Joseph, Charles Maynard and others in the wake of the May 29, 1979, civil uprising that forced Patrick John out of office (Steinberg, S (2014) pg 179)
Meanwhile, The Dominica Sun newspaper in a 2012 tribute article for famous Dominican cricketer, Tom Lafond (1947-2012), wrote in reference to Mr. Baptise, “As if that was not enough, he took on cricket commentary giving further evidence of his ability to become a voice of cricket in the category of a Jeff Charles, Harvis Shillingford, Thomas Baptiste, and Ossie Lewis.”
In our early teens, it would not be unusual, in the Windsor Park or the Botanic Gardens (Station), if we were not actively engaged in a game of cricket or football, to find us, youngsters, just sitting on the stands listening to Tom Baptiste, Ossie Walsh and perhaps Reginald St. Havis Shillingford or whoever talking about whatever what was in vogue at the time.
The Gardens have always been a talking point for European seafaring travelers since the 18th century. and are a favorite place for many residents of Roseau or visitors to simply sit under a tree or picnic on the grass enjoying the cooler breeze gushing down from the valley. Many-a cricket match has been played there, as well as National Day and Independence day rallies. And to think that the Gardens is open free to the public day and night. The Botanic Gardens, like the public library, are privileges we so take for granted.
But perhaps the strongest memory I have of Mr. Baptiste is of sometime around 1980 to 1981, I was introduced formerly to Mr. Baptiste by my friend, Errol Thomas. We were trying to get a musical group off the ground. The name of the band was The Living Word. It was a reggae group and practiced mostly songs written by me, such as Honourable Natty Dread and I time is up. Somehow, we got round to talking about a contact he said he had in England that may be able to help us. He asked Simon, a former solider in the Dominica Defence Force, now a photographer, to take some photos of us, and asked us to prepare a cassette tape of some of our songs to send up for this agent.
After some time, Mr. Baptiste told us that the gentleman said that there were too many of us in the group, well there were maybe close to 8 or more of all dreadlocked. Anyway in 1982, when I told Baptiste that I was working on a book of Poetry, he suggested that the ‘book be credited to the band.
I will always remember too, Mrs. Baptiste as a keen member of the Dominica Writers Guild (DWG) in the 1990s. Between 1982 and 1992, the DWG had a close working relationship with not only the Division of Culture but with the Public Library itself. The Guild was formed in 1982 by head Teacher of the DGS Anthony Lockhart, and English teacher, Arundel Thomas. In 1977, while I was still at the DGS, Lockhart, and Thomas co-wrote an anthology of short stories called Two Heads.
In 1982, I published my own pamphlet of poems Honorable Natty Dread, a slim volume of ten poems that prompted researcher and biographer, Irving Andre in his 1999 and 2021 editions of Distant Voices to write ”Williams was partly responsible for the resurgence of interest in poetry in that decade.” (Andre (1999) pg 264; Andre (2021) pg 289.) From 1982 to 1985 dozens of new poets made their debut as published poets. The membership of the Guild continued to grow, and in 1985, I published my second anthology of poems. One Dominica Odes for I Beloved. That year the DWG collaboration with the Youth Division to mark the International Year of the Youth. The guild under the presidency of Sobers Esprit organized the second National Poetry Festival and a book fair held on the grounds between the Public Library and the former Victoria Memorial Library building that now houses the DBS Sales Office. A highlight of the evening was the book launch of One Dominica Odes for I beloved, and it was carried live on DBS Radio.
The DWG and the Frontline bookstore also worked in close collaboration on literary projects, and new authors joined our ranks as the years went on, including retired librarian, Judith V Baptiste. I remember her participation in group meetings, and our radio programmes, in which she read and critiqued each other’s works, and planned activities. She was one of the poets who performed during the Dominica Festival of arts DOMFESTA of July 1995 on the – VOICES OF THE POETS – at ARAWAK HOUSE OF CULTURE in which she read a few pieces of her work from her 38-page volume of poetry, Caribbean Viewpoint. Below (fig 2) is a snap of some of the female poets backstage at the Arawak before the show including Mrs. Baptiste on the extreme left. (Fig 3) shows more guild members in a pre-show briefing.
A celebration of her life
Mrs. Baptiste regarded her collection of poems as a personal achievement. Writing in the preface of her book, she wrote, “Realization of my accomplishment of having published this collection of poems. These poems are designed to enhance all Caribbean Literature Sections Catalogue but above all our own Dominican libraries. Although my works have been recently compiled, some of the contents I hope will be easy reference to readers of History and Culture.”
She also hoped to have published short stories and stated that she enjoyed working with the future generations. Mrs. Baptiste also had a song in her soul. She wrote to her readers that the first poem in the collection was dedicated to the Library Summer School, and the piece: (H.MS,) Worship in Masquerade were in fact lyrics of songs she had composed. “My resolve is to continue short stories as well, should it meet the approval of the Writers Guild for further publications,” she said, adding, “Should this goal be met in this world of Literature, my services are offered to any organizations who are interested in working with children and adults as well.”
In 2007, Mrs. Baptiste’s poem, a moving ode to the land of her birth, Dominica Poem, was included, along with some 42 other poets, including myself, who had one poem featured in the 2007, Dominica Writers Guild, Venezuelan Embassy-funded anthology: WORD, SOUND & POWER A collection of Dominican Poetry, see (Fig 6)
I cannot overstate the profound sadness with which we have received the news of the passing of Mrs. Judith Vivian Baptiste of Castle Street, Roseau, who resided at Newtown, and who was the Widow of the late Thomas C. Baptiste.
The memories of our discussions at the library will remain with me, as well as her activities with the Dominica Writers Guild. My wife, Tempie, and I, and all former members of the Dominica Writers Guild, I am sure, extend our deepest sympathies to her children, Madame Evelina E-M. Baptiste retired Director of Public Prosecutions, The Honourable Davidson K. Baptiste, Justice of Appeal of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, Gordon Baptiste, a former employee of Dominica Brewery and Beverages Ltd, Deborah Baptiste, Administrator of the Benefits and Claims Department, Dominica Social Security, Thomas A. Baptiste, City Clerk, Roseau City Council, and Colin O. Baptiste lecturer. To her Granddaughter, the Honourable Chekira Lockhart-Hypolite, the Parliamentary Representative of the Roseau South Constituency, as well as to the rest of the entire home circle and friends too numerous to mention.
The Funeral Service of our dearly departed takes place today, Friday, June 24th, 2022, at the St Gerald’s Cathedral Chapel, and is scheduled to begin at 3pm. Viewing will begin at 2:30pm.
Our deceased sister will then be interred at the Roman Catholic Cemetery at Long Acre, Roseau.
The matriarch joins her beloved husband, the late Thomas Baptiste in the great beyond for all eternity.