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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Francis Morean: Medicine Man

Herbalist Francis Morean goes back to Trinidad's Spanish and Carib past to retrieve the remedies of old. By Peter Rickwood

  • Morean picks Ryania leaves, used as a natural insecticide, at the side of the Arima/ Blanchisseuse Road. Photograph by Mark Meredith
  • Morean goes home after a morning of gathering herbs. Photograph by Mark Meredith
  • Javien Caprietta, 86-year-old healer, pictured with Pweda root and his pet parrot. Photograph by Mark Meredith
  • Traditional tapia house, made from mud. Photograph by Mark Meredith
  • Francis Morean and Geritout leaves. Photograph by Mark Meredith
  • Bottles of dried herbs, roots and seeds in Morean's store. Photograph by Mark Meredith
  • Flower heads of the Zeb-a-pik plant. Photograph by Mark Meredith

Out of the glare and blast of a Trinidad afternoon in the eastern town of Arima, up a flight of painted concrete steps into the umbra of a large store, you arrive at a historical crossroads.

The ghosts of sweating Spanish conquistadors and nervous South American Indian nobles adorned in gold stand in the shadows of this intersection. Yet their spirits are free of the blood usually associated with the historical penetration of the New World by the Old.

Here there is only a flowering of common interests. You can read it in the strange lexicon of names adorning glass jars on shelves at the back of the store. Among them there is Graveyard Bush and Ladies of the Night, Tan Tan Fowl Back Root and Zeb-a-Femme: a pleasing and faintly familiar fruity smell hangs in the air.

From a passageway beside the Zeb-a-Femme, a conservatively dressed young man strides into the shop. In shirt, tie and crisp slacks, Francis Moreau looks the upwardly mobile banker. In fact, he’s one of Trinidad’s foremost experts on herbs, owner of the shop and a contemporary link in the cultural exchange that began 500 years ago.

The significance of that encounter was magnified by a sexually transmitted disease that terrified Europe in the 16th century, and was believed, probably erroneously, to have been imported from the New World. The ravages of the disease were hideous: pustules, tumors, lesions, scales, crusts and ulcers defaced its victims. It emaciated their bodies, constrained their movement and crowned its victory by striking them blind while driving them insane.
These were the manifestations of syphilis, until then an unknown disease. Except for highly toxic mercury antimony, there was nothing in the pharmacological arsenal of the day with which to fight it. Small wonder then, that any hint of a cure would be greeted with near hysteria.

Stories began to circulate that wondrous herbs which could combat the disease were being offered to European explorers by the strange people they had encountered in the newly discovered lands across the western sea. When their ships returned to port, merchants no less enthusiastic for the miraculous herbs they bore than the other treasures in their holds.

“After gold and silver these (herbs) were the most eagerly sought-after among colonial products,” says Morean, an ardent student of the history and folklore of herbs. “This period probably represented the high point of the reputation of Caribbean medicinal plants.” During the Renaissance – the golden age when Europe emerged from the intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages – there was a revival of interest in botany and herbs. In Italy, where the Renaissance had its birth, botanists were also physicians, says Morean. “They were keenly interested in the new drug plants which arrived from the New World.”

The wonder cure for syphilis was probably sarsaparilla and lignum vitae, also known as wood of life, says Morean. A monopoly on the supply of the herb was soon obtained by a prominent European family. Medicine then was no less a money-spinner than it is today.

Today, lignum vitae is used in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism, sarsaparilla is used as an aphrodisiac, and it took a few more centuries before the discovery of penicillin banished syphilis. But at the time of the Renaissance, interest heightened by such events resulted in a flow of botanical knowledge, including the import and export of herbal plants, between the New and Old Worlds.

Morean’s involvement in the exchange is representative of a part of Trinidad’s culturally complex past. His maternal grandfather was Venezuelan and brought with him to southern Trinidad, where Morean grew up, medicinal herbs from the nearby mainland. Some of them are as much a part of the 500-year-old marriage of herbal lore as the architecture that lines pilgrim routes in Europe, styles carried from east to west and vice versa. Morean’s grandmother maintained the tradition of making medicines from herbs, and people came to the family home for her tisanes.

“I grew up in Palo Seco, which means ‘dry woods’, and there were lots of herbs that people cultivated in their back yards. It was part of the Spanish culture of Venezuela. People spoke patois and they had brought with them tropical plants that weren’t native to Trinidad.”

The influence of his grandmother rubbed off and, after leaving the University of the West Indies (UWI), with a degree in chemistry in 1987, Morean, 36, became more and more involved with herbs. At first he sold them from a simple street corner stand, before graduating to a market stall and then moving to the large Arima premises where he’s created a store in the manner of an old-fashioned apothecary.

“There’s a growing demand for my services. I offer noninvasive solutions for problems such as kidney stones or fibroids. If you have a choice between surgery or herbs, go for the herbs.” Morean says.

Most of his patients – women predominate – have simple ailments, he says, which may or may not account for his high rate of success. But he’s also part of the broad trend in western medicine towards a more integrative approach. In some ways he’s returned to a tradition which had almost died out. “I’ve based a lot of what I have developed on intrinsic folk knowledge, oral tradition. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to older people.”

Among them was the octogenarian Arima herbalist Javien “Dixon” Caprietta, of Carib blood, who used Pweda root effectively for the treatment of snake bites. Despite the sophistication of many other conventional medical applications, snake bites (Trinidad boasts the venomous Coral, Fer -de- Lance and Bush Master snakes) are poorly treated by western medicine. Pweda, a root found deep in the ground which looks like a snake, is highly effective, even months after a bite, says Morean.

Herbalism, or bush medicine as it is known locally, used to form a part of rural medical practice in Trinidad and Tobago. But when affluence descended, particularly during the 70s oil boom, more people turned towards conventional (allopathic) medicine. Morean believes that an association between herbalism and obeah (occult practice) caused people to shun herbs.

What can herbs cure?”The possibility exists that there is a herb for every ailment,” Morean says. “It’s very easy for people to lay claims and there are some herbalists totally against western medicine and some physicians very close-minded to herbs. I tend to think that the interest of the patient is what is most important.”

Morean takes all this in his stride. “I’m not so evangelical about the use of herbs,” he declares from behind his desk in the office that also serves as a consulting room. “I tend to be rational about the whole thing. Let experience be the teacher.”

There are at least 150 plants with medicinal qualities growing wild in Trinidad and Tobago, and Morean is determined to restore respect for them and the environment in which they live. This knowledge, in many cases, has never been recorded. Morean says that an important aspect of his role as a contemporary herbalist is to collect information about local herbs and their uses and try to pass it on. He gathers or grows his own herbs. “I mainly collect from the Northern Range. I know the area very well and herbs are much more potent in the mountains than in low lying soils because of the humidity and other factors.”

A few years ago he wrote a scholarly and popular monthly column about herbs for a Trinidad newspaper. His dissertations in the Trinidad and Tobago Review were insightful and painstakingly researched, embracing science and folklore. Now he delivers his message in paid newspaper advertisements and weekend herb workshops.

“I think I’ve only just begun. Now the educational aspect of what I’m doing will take off. I’m getting out of kindergarten.”