Writing business

Bring Betty Stiven to life


As well as being a known tourist site, Fort James in Plymouth is also a place where unwanted dogs have been abandoned and unspayed homeless females have given birth to litters of puppies. I have been called there a few times for animal rescue purposes. The last rescue, about three years ago, was a dog we named Jamesy (after the fort) who now lives happily in Trinidad.

A few months ago, in mid-July, I visited the fort for another purpose which made me see the area from a different perspective.

I was there to get inspired for a writing project. Bocas Lit Fest management invited me to be one of six “Contemporary TT Writers” to create new work for a video series (Lost Voices). The focus would be on key moments in local history “for which we have no first-hand accounts, or only accounts from the official/colonial perspective”.

Writers were asked to give voice to “specific known or suspected individuals whose stories are otherwise unrecoverable, filling in the gaps in our collective history”. This was to be done in a single piece of fiction or a series of shorter pieces of fiction, written in the first person “from the partially imagined point of view of a specific character”. The style and form of each piece would be left to the discretion of the author and should consist of perspectives partly researched and partly imagined.

The character Bocas had chosen for my exploration was Betty Stiven (d. 1783), the 22-year-old occupant of the “mysterious tombstone” in Plymouth, Tobago.

“Between these walls are the bodies of Betty Stiven and her child. She was the beloved wife of Alex Stiven, who to the end of her days will mourn her death, which occurred on November 25, 1783 in the 23rd year of her life. What was remarkable about her was that she was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgences towards him. (Inscription on the tombstone).

Instead of writing about my “part researched, part imagined” version of Betty’s story, I’ll focus on other things that struck me during my visit to Plymouth that day.

I had found myself thinking, “Imagine, Betty walked here once.” I imagined her, enigmatic and solitary, walking through the streets and standing near the fort, looking out to sea, clothes floating. This windswept panoramic view was reminiscent of scenes from The Piano, the moving 1993 film written and directed by Jane Campion.

Betty Stiven’s story set in ancient Tobago could inspire a beautiful and gripping feature film or a riveting documentary.

How different Plymouth must have been in 1783, bustling with the business of industry at the time, slaves and masters, horses, carriages. Recreating this setting, as well as the costumes from the film, could bring many creative and money-making opportunities to Tobagonians.

One can easily miss the entrance to the mysterious tombstone. The dark walkway, lined with somewhat nondescript fences, and the large sign announcing the attraction are not particularly noteworthy.

The mysterious tombstone attracts silent and constant attention as a tourist feature of Tobago. I think the enigmatic woman believed to be buried there deserves to be honored with notoriety and refinement.

The village of Plymouth could easily capitalize on the fact that Betty was once one of their inhabitants (that is, if she ever actually existed; some sources suggest she didn’t).

A special tea house could be opened near the tomb (appropriately named The Mystery Tea House), serving “Bet-Tea”, selling postcards with relevant images (eg the fort, black and white drawings of 18th century Plymouth, etc.).

Visitors to the tea house could place handwritten interpretations of the Betty mystery in a “story suggestion box” and the interpretations could be brought to life by local theater companies who staged re-enactments from the era – at the Mystery Tea House (for the entertainment of the guests), in the streets, the lounges and at the fort, in an unexpected ephemeral theater style.

Walking tours of the historic village could be offered. An 18th century model house could house paintings by local artists, illustrating their vision of that era. Villagers could open quaint guesthouses to attract tourists. Multiple ideas and possibilities abound.

With a major creative revival inspired by Betty Stiven, the sleepy fishing village of Plymouth could come to life, attracting visitors eager to experience what would be a unique historical hotspot on Tobago’s tourist map.