ArtsCollege of Arts and SciencesCultureEagle-SpottingEngagementFaculty and Staff
December 22, 2016

Students research Caribbean culture, history

For Diana Ramirez, studying abroad was much more than just an academically sanctioned opportunity to visit the Caribbean. Traveling to Trinidad and Tobago last summer to conduct cultural research and immerse herself in the dual nation’s biological diversity provided the chance to explore a number of subjects she’s passionate about.

“I love history and cultures. I hope to do graduate studies on slavery and was able to research the slave revolts in Tobago. I also love birds and nature, so this was the perfect combination for a study-abroad program,” the senior history major said.

FGCU students interview Reigning Calypso Monarch Devon Seale in Trinidad, May 2016. Photo by Nicola Foote
FGCU students interview Reigning Calypso Monarch Devon Seale in Trinidad, May 2016. Photo by Nicola Foote

Ramirez was one of 10 FGCU Honors Program students of mixed majors who spent 10 days in Trinidad and Tobago last summer, interviewing leading scholars and contemporary practitioners of calypso, a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in the islands.

“Calypso music has been used to communicate news and political messages since the time of slavery,” Ramirez said. “It wasn’t just for dancing.”

Students conducted research at the University of the West Indies, recorded oral histories with calypsonians and visited most of the islands’ major cultural hubs to learn how the rhythmic music originated, spread and evolved. Like most students who immerse themselves in studying abroad, they absorbed more than just historical facts.

“We learned skills such as interviewing, how to ask questions and pay attention to the answers and to all the cultural aspects,” said Ramirez, who’s originally from Colombia. “Having contact with different cultures and traveling leads to a higher level of tolerance and understanding about the world. Some of the students had never left the United States before.”

The science part of the program took them to world-famous bird-watching spots, beaches where leatherback turtles nested and the oldest legally protected rain forest in the Western Hemisphere.

“We chose this destination because of its unparalleled biological and cultural diversity, as well as the richness of its cultural production,” said Latin American History Professor Nicola Foote, who organized the trip along with Associate Professor of Biology Charles “Billy” Gunnels. “Billy and I wanted to create a course that would easily bridge STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and humanities, and Trinidad and Tobago provided the perfect site.”

The population of 1.3 million is split between people of African and East Indian descent, with significant populations of Chinese, Syrian, Venezuelan, European and Amerindian groups, Foote said.

FGCU students present their calypso research at the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida.
FGCU students present their calypso research at the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida.

“This ethnic diversity reflects histories of colonization, enslavement and indentureship,” she said. “Additionally, Trinidad is one of the most biodiverse countries in the Caribbean, with more than 400 species of birds and 100 species of mammals, while Tobago is the birthplace of land conservation in the Western Hemisphere. The Main Ridge Forest Reserve has had legally protected status since 1776.”

Trinidad and Tobago were inhabited by indigenous Arawaks and Caribs before Christopher Columbus explored the islands in 1498. Spanish colonists established a regional slave trade, and the islands changed hands among the French, Dutch and British in the centuries that followed. England abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1833 and gave the incorporated islands independence in 1962. Trinidad and Tobago became a republic in 1976.

The country is known for its vibrant Carnival culture and myriad rhythmic musical styles, such as steelpan, soca and calypso, according to Foote. The FGCU students interviewed reigning calypso stars, known as “monarchs,” who achieve celebrity status by surviving a fierce international music competition. Two of the artists they interviewed, 2012 Calypso Monarch Duane O’Connor and current Calypso Monarch Devon Seale, came to FGCU to perform in October.

After returning from the trip, students gave a presentation on their research at the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida, which at the time had a featured calypso exhibit. The historical information they collected will be archived in FGCU’s Special Collections, and some students are developing research projects they hope to present at the Florida Conference of Historians in March, Foote said.