Robber, arsonist, pirate, mass-murderer and vice and gambling king of Trinidad, Boysie Singh was a much reported celebrity in the 1940s and 1950s. A pirate who dumped would-be migrants to and from Venezuela to the sharks, he was eventually hanged for just one crime, a murder he may not, in fact, have committed, and for which no body was ever found.
First published in 1962, Derek Bickerton’s The Murders of Boysie Singh remains as shocking, insightful and compelling as ever.
Robber, arsonist, pirate, mass-murderer and vice and gambling king of Trinidad, Boysie Singh was a much-reported celebrity in the 1940s and 1950s who turned the wartime US occupation hugely to his advantage. As the operator of a shuttle service between Venezuela and Trinidad he is reputed to have dumped many passengers to the sharks. As a pirate in the Gulf of Paria he sank many Venezuelan boats involved in the contraband trade and killed their crews. He was eventually hanged for just one crime, in the case of the missing dancer, a murder he may not, in fact, have committed, and for which no body was ever found.
The book focuses on themes that remain pertinent to Trinidadian culture and it reminds that current alarms about crime and an escalating murder rate are very far from new. Bickerton recognised Boysie Singh as a particularly Trinidadian villain who, for several decades, evaded the law in part because of a popular ambivalence towards crime when it was seen as challenging the racial hierarchies of colonial society. Bickerton’s Boysie Singh was a shapeshifter who metamorphosed from being a small-time rural crook, an urban saga-boy gangster and, after finding god in prison, an itinerant preacher drawing curious crowds. The strength of Bickerton’s carefully shaped work, beyond his sharp eye for detail, was that he knew that you had to get to grips with Trinidad to understand Boysie.
But Derek Bickerton’s knowledge of Trinidad had its limits and this sometimes shows, as Kenneth Ramchand’s carefully researched introduction reveals. Bickerton’s book records no sources of information, and there are questions not answered and questions not asked. Writing nearly 60 years later, Kenneth Ramchand examines Boysie’s story more closely for, among other things, what it has to say about ethnic and gender relations, and the life of downtown Port of Spain. He adds to our understanding of the place of Boysie’s career in popular culture by discussing the calypsos written and sung in response to the Boysie phenomenon.