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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
M: This is Dave McCauly, and I am interviewing Henry Bourgeois at 705 NE 10th Place,
in Gainesville, Florida. Today's date is February 11, 1992. Henry, what can you tell
me about some of your reminiscences from your childhood in Trinidad?
B: First of all, my childhood is not the normal childhood, the kind of childhood that
one, I guess, would have in a society like this. Mine was a rather complicated one.
M: [By "a society] like this" do you mean the United States?
B: Yes. Most kids grow up in a family and go to high school in one place. Maybe their
parents move and they go to schools in different places, but at least they stay
together--I think. What do I mean by this? First of all, my parents were from the
West Indies, but I was born in this country. They came here before World War II.
During the war my father was sent to Trinidad, the West Indies, where he was born
and where he grew up. He died in the war, and I was left there with other family
members of his. My ancestors on my mother's side--my grandparents--were from
India. So I grew up in a Hindu-Muslim community. Of course, there were blacks
and Chinese and other ethnic groups, as you say in this country. So I had this
unique opportunity to be exposed to a multicultural, multireligious, and multiracial
environment. For example, within my family there is the whole spectrum of different
races and cultures and religions.
As a kid I grew up in a small town in Trinidad by the name of Sangre Grande. That
is a Spanish term, and it reflects the history of the island. We are celebrating, by
the way, the 500th anniversary of the so-called discovery of the western world by
Columbus. Apparently on his third voyage, in 1492, Christopher Columbus landed
in Trinidad, and the Spaniards spent some 300 years there, although they did not
leave much of an imprint on the culture. You hear today in the language some
Spanish words. There are some towns that have Spanish names, such as Sangre
Grande or Sangre Chiquito or Manzanilla.
Of course, after the Spaniards, the French came in, and I guess that is when on my
father's side some Frenchman came into the works. That is how I got my name,
Bourgeois. That is really a word that we use in English, like when we say the
bourgeois class or the bourgeoisie. It is a French word that means middle class.
M: What do you know about your father's ancestry?
B: The Caribbean islands have a strange history. [What I mean is] the Spaniards came
in and then the French, [and] the islands would change hands between these major
European colonists. They changed hands among the British, the French, the Spanish,
the Dutch. And everybody had kids with everybody else. So for me it has been
difficult to trace or know much about the history of my grandparents on either side
of my family. All I know is that my grandparents had come from Martinique and
Guadalupe, and I think they had left those islands, which had belonged to France,
during the killing of the Huguenots in France and, of course, the uprising in Haiti
before that. The French fled those islands and came to Trinidad. That is how, I
guess, my grandparents came to Trinidad.
M: Then you assume that they were Huguenots?
B: It is quite possible. I do not know. As a matter of fact, very recently I was talking
to an uncle of mine in Bethesda, Maryland. He had worked for NIH [National
Institutes of Health] for a long time; he is a microbiologist. He showed me a
photograph of my grandparents on my father's side. My grandfather looked like a
southern Frenchman. He had this moustache. He was a little more dark-skinned
than the northern French. And my grandmother, one of his wives (in the West
Indies people had wives and concubines) was a mixture of French and black, so she
was what they call mulatta, which is really a derogatory term, but we will use it for
want of a better one. So in terms of my grandparents on my father's side, [that is
what I know]. I have been trying to find out from my aunts and uncles, but they
have not been able to provide much information. [I suspect they really did not want
to talk much about the family's past.]
M: What do you know about your maternal grandparents?
B: That is a little different. As you know, in 1834 Queen Victoria abolished slavery,
at least in the British colonies. But the English, as usual, looked for other ways [to
secure cheap labor]. They abolished African slavery but immediately instituted a
new system they called indentured servants. Through this system they brought over
to the West Indies people from India. The deal was that these new indentured
servants, which is really a euphemism for another type of slave, were promised land
when they were finished with their contract, which I think was ten years or so
working in the cane fields. Sugar cane was a big crop then. So my great-
grandparents on my mother's side came as indentured servants to Trinidad, and they
worked in the cane fields.
An interesting [outgrowth] of this system is that in Trinidad--and this is where I grew
up, in a Hindu-Muslim community--most of the Indians owned the land, while the
[freed] African slaves lived in the cities. [Even today] they actually do not own much
land. But again, on my mother's side the history was lost, just like on my father's
side, because I guess nobody kept records.
There was, of course, the great V. S. Naipul, I guess, whom you have heard of, the
Trinidad author who has written several novels. His parents and grandparents kept
meticulous records of his family ancestry. (His father was a journalist.) So he was
able to go back to India and trace his ancestry to--I think--the northern state of
Bihar. But in my case I really do not know. I can only say by the surname that my
mother carries, which was Gusaransingh, her parents might have come from Bihar
state or from the Punjab, because Gusaransingh is a Sikh name.
M: So your mother owned the land that you all lived on. Did you all farm it?
B: Yes. We lived on about ten acres, and we farmed it. We planted basic things like
corn and beans and casava--yucca, it is called in Spanish--and we also had cocoa and
coffee; a small part of the land was cultivated with cocoa and coffee. So it meant
that we actually depended on the land for our livelihood. We bought only things like
cooking oil and flour and maybe salted codfish that came from Canada to
supplement the rest of the organically grown food that we cultivated. We made our
own coffee and chocolate from scratch. We picked the [coffee] beans, dried them,
roasted them, ground them. It was the same with the cocoa.
M: With the coffee and cocoa beans, did you all use any of that for trade, to get cash?
B: Yes, we did sell some of that for cash, and we kept some for consumption. We also
grew all kinds of bananas. When I was a kid going to high school, we planted about
a hundred Valencia orange trees. So we had a whole variety of tropical fruits that
I grew up on. That is one of the reasons, for example, why I never got accustomed
to eating a lot of candy. In addition, I was poor; I did not have money to buy candy.
But in a sense it was good for my health, all the natural things I grew up on.
M: You said your father was killed in the war--World War II, I assume.
M: Did your mother remarry?
B: No, she did not. She dedicated her life to bringing us up. It was a pretty hard life
because we had to depend on a small piece of land from which to eke out a
livelihood. For example, we had to go to school during the week, and on weekends
we would work in the fields--either cleaning up the weeds or planting or reaping.
During the holiday months we would find a summer job maybe in the local dry goods
store, for example. I remember my brother and I worked one summer just to buy
bicycles so that we would have a way of transportation to high school. We had to
ride twenty miles a day--ten miles one way and ten miles the other way--to go to high
M: You must have done well in high school, because you have gone on for more
education. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.
B: I think it is a good observation you are making. I have always credited my high
school experience in Trinidad with the discipline that I acquired then and for the
success that I have had in my studies up to this point.
As you know, I was telling you before that the Spanish lived there for 300 years, and
then the French [were there] for I do not know exactly how long, maybe about fifty
years, and then the British came in. They were the ones that actually kept Trinidad
as a colony until it got its independence in 1962. So basically I grew up in a British
colony, and I got essentially a classical education that anybody in any British colony
in Africa or India or even as far away as Hong Kong would get. The discipline, of
course, was very strict, almost paramilitary, I would say, in high school. I think I
studied more in high school in Trinidad than I ever did in college here, period. I
did pretty well because we did not have radio or television. Well, there was radio,
but there was no television when I was growing up in Trinidad. But we were too
poor to own a radio, so we did not have things like television and radio to distract
us. We went to high school every morning about eight and spent from eight to four
in school. We got home and ate, and then we studied from about seven to twelve.
This was a ritual every night of the week. So you see what I mean when I say that
I probably studied more in high school in Trinidad than I have studied in college
M: Where did you get your bachelor's degree, and how did you swing it financially?
B: That is an interesting story, too. Again, this [is related to my] background in
Trinidad where I had to work hard to survive. When I came back to this country,
I landed in Philadelphia, which was quite a different experience. I was from a small
village, and I was totally lost. I went to [the Ogontz campus of] Penn[sylvania] State
[University] for a semester. That is the one in Abington, just outside of Philadelphia,
and I really wanted to do medicine. I did not really have the background to do that,
and I did not understand the whole system yet. I probably could have taken some
courses in science with the idea of getting into medical school. Of course, being a
doctor or a lawyer is kind of a farfetched dream of a lot of people in the Third
World. You want to be something like that because you figure you can get out of
poverty. But really I was doing well only in ROTC at Penn State, and I said it was
time to leave.
By the way, in Trinidad I had become a Seventh-Day Adventist, and while in
Philadelphia I had gone to some Adventist churches, and people were very kind to
me. I met the Quakers. [They were] nice people. The Adventist people helped me
get into an Adventist college in Maryland called Columbia Union College, where I
did my undergraduate work. I walked in with about twenty dollars in my pocket and
said, "I want to study."
I remember that Christmas it was cold, and I started working in a sawmill about forty
to sixty hours a week to get money to start out with. I then moved to the cafeteria,
and then I wound up in the laundry. I just worked and studied and did nothing else.
I would also do some outside jobs in the summer, [such as] cleaning houses. I
remember I cleaned Senator William Proxmire's house one summer.
Washington, DC, proved to be a very good experience for me because I met a lot
of people. I used to study in the Library of Congress on Saturdays when I got fed
up with going to church. (It was an Adventist college.)
Let me tell you one point. The Adventist religion was a good experience in terms
of diet and so on; it sort of helped me out. It was not difficult to move from the
kind of diet I grew up with into an Adventist diet, which was good. I think that is
responsible for the good health I have enjoyed so far. But they were kind of narrow-
minded. I was interested in the media, but they did not want you to see films. I
used to sneak out and see films. Eventually I sort of left that religious organization.
But I had two majors and a minor, and I worked hard and finished college in four
M: What were your majors and minor?
B: One was Spanish, and the other was speech and radio. My minor was secondary
education. I did everything in four years, working hard. As a matter of fact, when
I left college, I think I left not with a deficit, but I had a few dollars to my name.
Then I got a "Candid Camera" scholarship to go to Syracuse University to study
television and radio. From then on it was a question of going on and getting
scholarships. From there I worked hard and went to Middlebury and got another
master's degree in Spain. When I came back I taught Spanish in a Connecticut high
school for a year. Then I went to Wisconsin to attempt a Ph.D. I did all the work
for it, but I did not do the dissertation because I went off to Venezuela and so on.
That is another story.
M: And the rest, as they say, was history.