PROFILES IN HERITAGE: John Angus Martin, A Grenadian in Saba

"You have to be a “Jack of all trades” working in heritage in the Caribbean because there is just never enough trained staff, or staff period to carry out the various tasks that need to be done daily... I tend to flourish in these environments because you get to do such varied tasks. For this reason, heritage jobs in the region will never be boring." -- John Angus Martin 

John Angus Martin is Director of the Saba Archaeological Center in Saba, a small island in the Leeward Islands which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Angus has worked in a number of fields in the heritage sector and is a well-known fixture as a researcher and heritage practitioner in the English-speaking Caribbean and particularly in Grenada, his home country. He has lived many lives in many countries, but something keeps bringing him back to the history and culture of the Caribbean and his beloved Grenada. 

The CHN is very pleased to bring you this second installment in our "Profiles in Heritage" Series which introduces the "movers and shakers" in the world of Caribbean Heritage as well as the varied professional interests and skills that take Caribbean heritage practitioners further and deeper into the region's rich history and culture. 

What is your current position and what is your academic background?

I am currently the director of the Saba Archaeological Center on Saba, Dutch Caribbean, which also houses the Saba Heritage Center. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Saba’s cultural heritage through archaeological and historical research and outreach initiatives. It actively seeks to involve island youth in various aspects of the cultural landscape, allowing them to participate in the discovery of their own history and culture. My role is to facilitate interactions and outreach to collect, share, exhibit, interpret and promote Saban heritage.

My academic background is quite diverse, with a BS in Biological Sciences (SUNY Stony Brook, NY, 1986), MS in Agricultural & Applied Economics (Clemson University, 1995), MA in History (Clemson University, 1999), and currently working on a PhD in Heritage Management (Leiden University, In Progress). All of these have allowed me to pursue a landscape or wholistic perspective on Caribbean history and culture, which I find more interesting and beneficial in interpreting and promoting Caribbean heritage.

How did you become interested in Heritage?

I guess my curiosity about heritage began at an early age with interests in the fascinating stories my mother told of her growing up in the countryside. Or maybe it was listening to my father talk about his garden and farming, and the unique community of Mt. Moritz on the outskirts of St. George’s that he came from. Or it was experiencing and mentally recording the everyday landscape changes –political, cultural and economic– happening all around me. Or it could have been the visits to my grandmothers in the countryside and realizing the differences from the urban landscape with which I was more familiar. Or remembering the beauty of those stories my granduncle told that made the nocturnal rural landscape come alive with malevolent spirits as good triumphed over evil…. But it probably stemmed more from my deep desire to know about my diverse ancestry and explore what identity meant. I wanted to know how a boy from a tiny island adrift in the Caribbean archipelago fitted into the wider world that loomed large around him? So, I started researching my genealogy that inevitably saw me journey through Grenadian and Caribbean history. It has been a lifelong exploration across islands, oceans and continents to a place of understanding a fascinating heritage that allowed me to see a beautiful diverse world through these eyes.

Like many in the heritage field, you have worked in several areas of heritage from research to management. Could you share a bit about your professional background?

I guess my professional experiences are not typical of most who work in heritage as I have spent many years in various positions learning about heritage in experiential settings like the Peace Corps. I served as a volunteer in agriculture in Sierra Leone for three years, and a country desk officer in the Africa Region of the Peace Corps for eight years. These positions entailed extensive cross-cultural experiences and afforded travel across Africa where I experienced diverse cultures, some of which have enriched the Caribbean’s cultural landscape.

I also served as a reference archivist at the Cushing Memorial Library & Archives at Texas A&M University, which afforded opportunities for research, exhibition and my foray into archival studies. This has been most valuable as a researcher. Probably my most rewarding heritage position has been as the director/curator of the Grenada National Museum. It was the most challenging, but its diverse tasks taught me much about working in heritage in the Caribbean. And despite the difficult atmosphere, I am still hopeful for heritage in Grenada and across the region as I continue in positions as researcher for the NEXUS 1492 project at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and currently director of the Saba Archaeological Center, Dutch Caribbean.

Do you think you have to be a “Jack of All Trades” when working in heritage in the region? Why?

Most definitely! You have to be a “Jack of all trades” working in heritage in the Caribbean because there is just never enough trained staff, or staff period to carry out the various tasks that need to be done daily. However, with my diverse educational background and job experiences I tend to flourish in these environments because you get to do such varied tasks. For this reason, heritage jobs in the region will never be boring. Unfortunately, having to do so much can wear you down after a while and burnout is always a task away. Not being able to concentrate on specific duties can leave jobs unfinished or poorly done, thus creating long-term consequences that could be detrimental to the overall performance and survival of the organization. Also, the history of one-man heritage organizations in the region, though complementary to the people who started them, is not where we want to be in the long term as we need institutions that can outlive great individual contributions.

You were born and raised in Grenada, but why have you chosen to now live, study and work in the Kingdom of the Netherlands — most recently Saba?

Though I was born and raised in Grenada and it remains at the center of my research, I enjoy working and experiencing new places, cultures and peoples. I have also lived for many years in the United States where I attained much of my education and professional experiences. By these experiences, my knowledge of heritage is vastly improved as I learn about the stories, histories and cultures of the places I live. Working in Saba allows me to gain knowledge of the Dutch Caribbean and thus a better perspective on the region’s history and culture. It is also a matter of opportunities as I had the opportunity to study in The Netherlands and thus connect to Saba. After only a month on Saba, it’s quite obvious that there are so many commonalities despite the differences and I am glad I have the opportunity to experience that, and to learn and grow as a historian of the diverse Caribbean landscape.

I know you have worked on a number of projects in the region, which ones were your favorite (and why)?

The NEXUS 1492 project was probably the most fascinating that I have worked on in the region because its scale was so grand and involved stakeholders and scholars from the Caribbean, Europe and North America. The objective of the project was to reimagine, through trans-disciplinary research, the impacts of European invasion of the Americas after 1492, specifically in the Caribbean archipelago and on its Indigenous populations. Playing a part in that was tremendous and it has had a great impact on the current direction of my research and writing. The opportunity to work with other scholars and see Caribbean heritage through their eyes were literally eye opening. I now value so much more the idea of diverse perspectives and working with others from different disciplines that have enriched and continue to enhance my own knowledge and understanding of Caribbean heritage. I think NEXUS was instrumental in connecting me to the Caribbean and gaining a true Caribbean perspective for the first time.

Together with historian Joseph Opala and ethnomusicologist Dr. Cynthia Schmidt, I worked on a fascinating project tracing the direct linkage between the Temne Nation of the Big Drum Dance of Carriacou and the Temnes of Sierra Leone as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the product of which was the publication The Temne Nation of Carriacou: Sierra Leone’s Lost Family in the Caribbean (2016). And in October 2016, working with Amadu Massally and the Governments of Sierra Leone and Grenada, we were able to bring a group from Sierra Leone to stage a Temne Reunion in Carriacou. Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone among the Temnes, it was great to have been able to make such a connection as I believed it was the first time that the people of Carriacou experienced the connections they knew existed all along when they finally met Paramount Chief Bai Bureh Lugbu II.

Working as the director/curator of the Grenada National Museum allowed me to “return home” and work within a landscape that I had studied and written about for many years. It was the first opportunity to put what I learned into practice and of course it was challenging, but very rewarding. I only wished I could have done more.

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges to heritage development in the Caribbean? 

I believe the greatest challenges to heritage development in the region are education and political will. As heritage managers, we must do a better job of demonstrating the value and importance of the region’s heritage to the identity of its peoples, and additionally the economic wellbeing of many countries. Though it should be obvious to politicians (and a few are proactive), our heritage is and should be an integral part of our tourism product and thus investment must be a priority in enhancing opportunities for its preservation and interpretation; i.e. investments in archives, museums and cultural/natural spaces.

What were the impacts of Hurricane Ivan on Grenadian heritage in 2004? Given the intensity of recent hurricane seasons in the region over the past three years, what would be your best disaster preparedness advice to heritage practitioners?

Heritage was heavily impacted by Hurricane Ivan as its impact across every aspect of island life was devastating. However, I believed that there was an opportunity to take a second look at heritage and figure out ways to incorporate it into the extensive rebuilding that was taking place. There were a few attempts, but I think overall heritage did not benefit as it could have. Good examples are the still damaged structures of York House and Government House, and the wrecked trail to Fédon’s Camp that remind us of how little attention was paid to rebuilding the heritage landscape; the National Museum received very little assistance. To assist with the future protection of our heritage in the wake of these fierce hurricanes that we face, a greater effort should be made to better catalog our heritage by developing listings so that we can prioritize which to provide for with our limited resources. Archives need to be digitized and greater efforts made to incorporate our citizens in these efforts to scan personal archives so that we can protect the memories of our peoples, not just of the nation. Many people lost personal mementos and documents during Ivan, creating a greater sense of loss.

Where would you like to see strategic investments made in heritage in the region?

I think there is an urgent need to create national archives to collect, preserve and make available the documents and objects of our history. We cannot continue to outsource these national efforts to former colonial powers at their archives and museums as we will continue to be at a disadvantage. I also believe that the teaching of local history within the school curricula needs to be a priority (not an afterthought) if, as we agree, our heritage is vitally important to our identity.

If there was one heritage project in the world that you would wish to develop, which would it be and why?

As a researcher I have complied a tremendous amount of data on Grenada’s changing cultural landscape and I would love to see it presented in a format that allows us to see Grenada across its expansive history. I guess something similar to the Mannahatta Project that allowed you to see what New York City could have looked like in 1609. I would like to make it so that you can see Grenada from today going all the way back through its colonial history, its Indigenous past, even its geological past, so that we have this fuller picture of how this small Caribbean island changed to what it is today. It would combine natural, cultural and historical data in a geographical format that tells a story from a perspective that allows us to better appreciate what it is we have and the journey that got us here, and why we should protect it. I think it will also allow us to better model what this island would be like in the future. Can you imagine being able to view the town of St. George’s that I grew up in across its expansive history? Not just the last 100 years, or even 1000 years retracing the footsteps of those who have walked here, but 12,000 years ago when this double caldera, with its steep slopes that I ran up and down as a boy, was being formed by explosive volcanoes. Now that to me is heritage!


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