The Man from Diego Martin
Smuggler, politician and a lover of early calypso - the life story a typical Diego Martin planter of the 18th century
St. Hilaire, born in St. Pierre in Martinique in 1759, was the grandson of the treasurer of La Rochelle, an important port of France. Pierre, his father, had emigrated to Martinique as a teenager, and set himself up as a merchant in the then capital of that island, St. Pierre. His business flourished, and when St. Hilaire came of age, he was sent back to La Rochelle, where he became an engineer.
It was an interesting time to grow up in. St. Hilaire doubtlessly must have been impressed with the pre-revolutionary sentiments of ‘Liberté, Fraternité et Egalité’ (freedom, brotherhood and equality). As a young non-noble, educated Frenchman he could empathise with the values of the dawning French Revolution. Also, the English colonies in North America revolted, resulting in the declaration of independence of the United States in 1783. The highly democratic nature of the newly created U.S.A. must have further strengthened the anti-monarchist feelings of the young man.
In 1782, after his return to Martinique, St. Hilaire’s mother Anne had died, and since his older brother Pierre was old enough to take over the business in St. Pierre, 24-year old St. Hilaire decided to migrate to Trinidad with his father. The ‘Cedula of Population’ had opened up a range of possibilities to Roman-Catholic settlers in the almost entirely undeveloped island, and the Begorrats senior and junior saw a future in commerce and trade there.
And what better to sell to new land-owners than plants? St. Hilaire’s native Martinique had been enjoying a thriving sugar economy for decades, and the young man saw that this was a business opportunity in Trinidad, where only the low-yielding violet cane was grown so far.
“The yellow sugar cane came from Tahiti, and was introduced into the French islands by the celebrated navigator Bougainville. It was brought from Martinique to Trinidad by St. Hilaire Begorrat in 1782, together with the breadfruit tree, also originating in Tahiti, and the bamboo of Bourbon.” (P.G.L. Borde, 1876)
Trinidad in those years was inhabited by about 6,000 people, a third of whom lived in the newly appointed capital, Port-of-Spain (before 17..., the governor had resided in St. Joseph). Cotton was the major crop of the island in the 1780s, but also some cocoa and coffee. The Begorrats traded in the commodity, living in Port-of-Spain, where they rented business premises. Most likely, St. Hilaire was also a smuggler: in those years, this was not a stigmatised activity. Trinidad’s merchants were all semi-official ‘contrabandistas’ - allegedly with the silent consent by the colony’s treasurer, Don Christoval de Robles. Begorrat had a friend whose brother owned sailing vessels involved in the trade with Venezuela, and a brother with a commercial firm in Martinique - ideal conditions for contraband importation of French luxury items to the South American mainland. Towards the end of the 1780s, however, a coast patrol was established by the Intendant at Caracas, and the smugglers were deterred.
28 year-old St. Hilaire got married to Marie Eléonore Catharine Olivier, whose parents were French Creoles from Grenada. Together with Marie’s brother Mathurin, he purchased 128 acres of land in the forest-covered valley of Diego Martin in May 1787. The estate was called ‘Mon Désir’, and in addition to this land, Begorrat also petitioned an allotment of 358 acres of land to himself and his family.
“The size of the grant was determined by the terms of the Cedula,’ writes de Verteuil in his ‘History of Diego Martin’. “The personal entitlement for a white male or female was ten quarrees of land (a quarree being three and one fifth acres) and an additional five quarrees for each slave brought into the colony. Begorrat would have thus obtained for himself, his father and his wife, some 96 acres and another fifteen acres for each slave, so that we may conclude pretty safely that at that time he had eighteen slaves.”
The Begorrats left Port-of-Spain and began to prepare the virgin rainforest of Diego Martin for a coffee plantation. Their slaves pulled down the large forest trees, burnt the stubs, removed shrubs and weeds from the soil. An estate house and living quarters for the slaves had to be built. The spot that St. Hilaire chose for his house had a magnificient view to all four sides, encompassing the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Paria and the valley of Diego Martin. The limestone hilltop was pitted with caves, and one such cave served as the cellar of the Begorrat residence, called ‘Les Etages’ - and was also infamous for being used as a dungeon for slaves in punishment.
Initially, the republican-minded Begorrat was a slave-owner of the kinder sort, manumitting Africans for good services rendered. This was to change, however, after he fell victim to an attempted murder through poisoning. Livestock, fellow slaves, the plantation owners and their family, even plants - nobody was safe on a plantation if a murderous person dwelled amongst its inhabitants. For the slaves, poisoning was a method of resistance against an inhuman system. It was much feared by Europeans and Africans alike, since even if one escaped death, a financial crisis and more hard work for all was always the consequence, while the poisoner often remained protected by anonymity for a long time.
After the capture of Trinidad by the British in 1797, St. Hilaire became a capitulant, swearing allegiance to the King of Great Britain. Nevertheless, he started to group men around himself who were like him fed up with the system of monarchy. These revolutionaries later became involved in Bolivar’s wars of independence on the South American mainland. When the first British governor, Sir Thomas Picton, who assumed office in Trinidad in 1797, heard of St. Hilaire’s activities, he immediately questioned the man from Diego Martin. Begorrat refuted the accusations upon his dignity as a gentleman and capitulant, and Picton and himself were to become great friends.
St. Hilaire became intricately involved in local governance, mainly via his office in the Illustrious Cabildo. Thus, he was able to work against the cases of poisoning on the estate. Picton was a strict governor who had executions carried out in a most abhorrent manner: future poisoners and murderers should be deterred, and possible slave uprisings quelled.
Apart from his involvement in politics, St. Hilaire became removed from the urban society in Port-of-Spain.
“In the isolated valley he found for his entertainment and that of his friends, the African Caribbean culture which had possibly some connection with Martinique and which was couched in patois. On Sundays or feast days he sat as king, ‘le roi’, in his cave and had his chantwell or chief calzpso singer sing to the assembled company. And the songs which pleased St. Hilaire most were the ones which spread fear of him far and wide in the valley.” writes de Verteuil. For example:
“Begorrat et Diabl’la, c’est un
Begorrat et Diabl’la, c’est deux
Begorrat fort, cruel et mauvais
Begorrat roi-la dans son pays.”
Begorrat and the Devil are one
Begorrat and the Devil are a pair
Begorrat strong, cruel and wicked
Begorrat king in his country.
Danois vole Begorrat laja
Danois vole tout moun - Dieg Martin.”
Danois steals Begorrat’s money
Danois steals from everyone in Diego Martin.
St. Hilaire established himself firmly on the scene of early calypso. As Mitto Sampson, a writer and keeper of many 19th century calypso legends, described:
“Legend has it that Lawa (King) Begorrat used to hold court in his cave, to which he would adjourn with favourite slaves and guests on occasions and attended was by African slave singers of ‘Cariso’ or ‘Caiso’, which were usually sung extemporare and were of a flattering nature, or satirical ordirected against unpopular neighbours or members of the plantation community, or else they were ‘Mepris’, a term given to a war of insults between two or more expert singers. Gros Jean is said to have the first of these bards or ‘chantwels’ to be appointed Master of Caiso, or ‘Mait Caiso’.”
Legend has it that the choleric Begorrat wanted to be known as a pitiless tyrant. Legend also has it that Begorrat and Gros Jean became such inseparable friends that the former’s wives (in truth, he had only one, Marie Eleonore) poisoned the ‘Mait Caiso’ out of jealousy. Gros Jean is said to have been mourned by Begorrat, who buried him in the family cemetary.
When St. Hilaire died in 1851 at the great age of 92, he would have known and enjoyed many calypsonians: Papa Cochon, the famous obeahman, Danois, a free man from the Danish Virgin Islands, Possum, Hannibal the Mulatto, Surisima the Carib, and Cedric le Blanc, a white chantwell. Forgotten were Begorrat’s tempers, his power and influence, and he was buried in the family cemetary alongside his wife, who had died of fever many years before. However, he was to literally turn up once more:
“Over one hundred years later, at the corner of the present Covigne Road and O’Donohue Streets in Diego Martin Village, foundations of a house were being excavated.” writes de Verteuil. “A workman’s pick struck something hard. It was a lead coffin. WIthin there were only the very ancient remains of a white lady, still in a state of half preservation. Shortly after the coffin was opened, to the utter consternation of the beholders, her skin turned black. Other bones were dug up from besides the lead coffin, but scant respect was paid to them. Begorrat’s bones were scattered in the valley he loved.”