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Fr Anthony Pt 2: Enjoying the ‘detective work’ of history

Fr Anthony de Verteuil CSSp – historian, educator, or both?

Senior writer Lara Pickford-Gordon answers the question in Part 2 of her interview with Fr Anthony. CLICK HERE for Part 1

Fr Anthony de Verteuil CSSp was born May 7, 1932 to Eric and Marie Antoinette de Verteuil. He has a twin brother named after his father, while he was named after his mother. He had two older sisters and two brothers. The twins arrived 15 years after their last sibling was born.

Fr Anthony was born ten minutes after Eric. “I suppose that is where I got this liking to be challenged because my twin brother was always better than me,” he said matter-of-factly in an interview on March 9.

His brother was the better tennis and hockey player, as well as better academically. He was “always trying to catch up”.

Fr Anthony said while at St Mary’s College, they were selected to play hockey for Trinidad, and he was dropped after “one bad match” while Eric continued. Fr Anthony said, “challenge is good—if you lose you lose, if you win you win and that’s that…I find losing is nothing, you lose and pick up and start again.”

It becomes clear that he has a single-mindedness that served him well when faced with setbacks.

He was studying French, English Literature and Geography at St Mary’s when he decided that he wanted to drop French and pick up History. St Mary’s had no History teacher at the time so he was informed that he could do A-level History if the Ministry of Education agreed.

The 18-year-old, accompanied by his sister Maureen, 20 years his senior, went to the Education Ministry. The Chief Education Officer was surprised but agreed without difficulty, “possibly because Higher Certificate history was done at Queen’s Royal College”.

Fr Leonard Graf CSSp, the Dean of Studies was informed. Fr Anthony said he studied through a correspondence course and had to order his books from England. He got a credit, not a distinction, and missed out on a scholarship. “There was only one Modern Studies Scholarship available in those days.”  He however, placed third in the island in 1950.

After a year in the Novitiate in Canada, he spent the next years at the University College Dublin, studying Philosophy, Theology, History and English. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree First Class Honours in History and English. As he was not Irish, he did not get a scholarship.

Fr Anthony said of his love of history: “It is a kind of detective work; you are finding out about things and from the past you learn about the present; the past teaches you about the present.” He added, “The more history you learn, the more you have that sense of togetherness which sometimes people don’t have.” Fr Anthony sees religion also as history and Christianity, the history of Jesus. “If we did not know the history of Jesus’ what religion would we have? I find history is something wonderful. It makes us not do the most horrible mistakes anymore.”

The power of history

He began writing books not as a historian but an educator. “Over 50 years ago with a team I published Mysteries of the Rosary, Lifelines (poetry for juniors) [and] religious education books for Forms Four and Five: Facing Reality and Changing Reality. All went into two editions.”

He decided to write the history of his family, the de Verteuils, because they had accumulated many documents dating back to pre-1800. “I did not want them to disappear, so I joined them together and made a sequence and eventually started writing…I did English Literature, so it was a joy to put the things together in a reasonable fashion.”

Sir Louis de Verteuil, his Life and Times was published in 1973 and The de Verteuils of Trinidad, 1797–1997: A Case Study of a French Creole Family, 1997. “This made me realise the power, the impact that history had on the human psyche,” he said.

Since 1973, he has written a book almost every other year exploring different topics. He mentioned Seven slaves and slavery: Trinidad, 1777–1838 and Eight East Indian Immigrants: Gokool, Soodeen, Sookoo, Capildeo, Beccani, Ruknaddeen, Valiama, Bunseesuch.

He said in compiling the books he found each of the individuals researched “was a special person”.

Fr Anthony appreciates doing research for all his books. “What is best of all is the human contact with fellow researchers and technical helpers and archivists and librarians, and the old folk who delight in divulging their memories.”

He was one of the few persons who went to the city council archives. It was “hot, smelly, dirty”, and he spent hours sitting on a stool perusing “dusty documents”.  He also went to the basement of the Red House in dusty conditions, no air-conditioning, “trying to get things”.

He said the national archives has a lot of documents, colonial documents, and “blue books”—government records. “There is plenty material; it is a question of looking it up and knowing what you can get from it,” he said.

Old newspapers are also a good source of information. Fr de Verteuil disclosed he was currently doing research on lepers. He enjoys finding interesting anecdotes such as a doctor who was tarred and feathered—an antiquated form of public punishment—for maligning another doctor over his cure for leprosy. “It is detective work really which I enjoy, you can put the facts together and make a story of it.”

Fr Anthony said in treating with history he tried to write the facts and if he interprets them, he made sure to say this: “The facts of history are there and there is one set of facts.”

He was asked to do a book on French Creoles in Trinidad but did not because the facts are not sufficiently known. He instead wrote on the French influence using several French families. “The sign of a professional historian is he generalises, so in a sense I am not a professional historian…I don’t think there is enough research done on Trinidad history so to generalise is dangerous. It leads to wrong interpretation.”

Fr Anthony de Verteuil CSSp is the recipient of the Hummingbird medal (Gold) in 1993 and an Honorary LLD degree from The University of the West Indies in 2004.

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