Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Ciprianis - a family at the heart of the country

The most prominent place in the heart of Port-of-Spain is overlooked by a statue of Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani. Thousands of people pass it every day - and most of them don’t even see it anymore. That is the extent to which Captain Cipriani has been assimilated into the cityscape. And yet, his achievements in this country benefit to this day those very people going to work every day, passing his silent memorial.

People who were children in the 1930s would remember that each time a small airplane passed, the adults around them would point up and say: “Look Mikey passing.” Mikey Cipriani, yet another sprout of the Cipriani family, was a significant West Indian sportsman and pioneer aviator. Until recently, there was a call from time to time that Piarco airport should be renamed in his honour.

Cipriani Boulevard, connecting Tragarete Road with the Savannah, was named in memory of Emmanuel Cipriani, Captain Arthur’s uncle, who was several times mayor of Port-of-Spain. He was also responsible in bringing electricity to the capital.

But the Ciprianis produced not only outstanding figures in the field of sports, business, civic administration and the military, but also in the arena of high-end science and technology. Andre Cipriani, another cousin of Arthur and Mikey, brought relief to thousands of patients suffering from malignant cancer through his break-through research in cobalt radiation therapy at a time, when chemotherapy was as yet unheard of.

The Cipriani family is of ancient Italian origin. In the 13th century, in the feudal wars the racked Italy, the noble family had to give up their towers and fortifications in Florence and flee to the Mediterranean island of Corsica, where they recreated their fortunes and even married into the famous Bonaparte family, who centuries later produced the Emperor Napoleon.

In the 17th century, descendants of the Ciprianis established themselves in Marseilles, France. It was from there that some members of the family set sail for Trinidad in the late 18th century. They married into other Corsican, French and Spanish families.

Arthur Andrew Cipriani - also known as ‘Tatoo’ - was born in 1875. While his sportsmanship and his success with riding and training horses was quite considerable, he was known as a solitary sort of man and in fact never married. When he came back from the first world war in 1919, he accepted the presidency of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association. This organisation had then been in existence for just over 20 years, and during the war it had ‘fizzled out’, as C.L.R. James put it in 1932. James stated further:

“If there is anything which can prove the fitness of the people of Trinidad for self-government, it is the progress of this resuscitated Association.”

Captain Cipriani was very determined in his goal to improve the conditions for workers in Trinidad and Tobago, which was then administered by British Crown Colony rule. At the time he became president, the Workingmen’s Association was only operating in Port-of-Spain. Nine years later, it had spread throughout the colony: there were 42 affiliated sections and six in Port-of-Spain, distributed among various classes of workers. in 1930, Cipriani established 13 sections in Tobago.

The meetings of the Association were always well attended - not only by its members, which went into the thousands by 1932, but also by plain-clothes policemen, who were sent there by the government to keep a sharp lookout for seditious remarks. As C.L.R James said:

“But though Captain Cipriani gives these amateur reporters a lot to take down, they get little to carry away.”

Cipriani explained to the people matters of policy, circulated the Workingmen’s Associations organ ‘Labour Leader’, and generally rallied people in Trinidad and Tobago to become interested in domestic politics and labour issues.

The Association was tremendously effective. It was instrumental for shorter work hours (especially in the retail sector), at a time when an eight-hour working day and free Saturdays were unheard of. Cipriani also fought for the introduction of Workers’ Compensation Laws, under which workers were granted compensation for injury and death, and for the establishment of an Agricultural Bank, which facilitated low-interest loans to farmers for seed or helped them in case drought, fire or flood.

Regarded by his peers as an officer and a gentleman, the Captain definitely had a common touch. He became a spokesman for the people in the Legislative Council, acting at times almost like an Ombudsman, and his contribution to the legislative process in Trinidad cannot be overstated. He was many times Mayor of Port-of-Spain, and was presented at Buckingham Palace in London on more than one occasion.

“No public man is more widely known in Trinidad,” said C.L.R. James in 1932. “Many West Indians (and a few Englishmen too) have worked for the emancipation of the West Indies. Their stories will be told in time, but no one has worked like Captain Cipriani.”

When Arthur Cipriani died in 1945, it is hardly imaginable today what loss Trinidadian workers felt. That he was revered by the basically black and coloured middle-class intelligentia that assumed power in the 1950s is an indication of the stature of ‘The Captain’. So next time you pass the monument on Independence Square on a Friday afternoon, coming from work, stop a moment to cherish your upcoming free weekend. Without Cipriani and his dedication to Labour, you might have had to work tomorrow!

Mikey Cipriani epitomized the ‘local boy made good’. Born around the turn of the century, he came from a branch of the Cipriani family that left the colonial stigma of illegitimacy and skin colour behind. His father Jules had prospered as a businessman and built a remarkable mansion on Pembroke Street, known as ‘Cumberland House’ (where an insurance firm is today). Mikey’s mother, who carried the exotic name Louisa Leonisa Ultima Latour is remembered for her great beauty.

Louise Ultima had 14 children, and Mikey was the third. He became a solicitor by profession, but made his name as a champion cyclist, cricketer and footballer and as an aviation pioneer. The sporting fraternity knew him as ‘Marvellous Mikey’, and in the 1920s and 1930s sporting champions were revered by Trinidadians in much the same way as they are today.

Mikey also became a highly decorated hero in the first European war in which he served putting ‘backbone’ into the French troops at Verdun. During this war he became interested in aviation, and flew on several missions over the western front in the closing years of the war.

Returning to Trinidad, he became a pilot, flying his own airplane, the Hummingbird. Mikey’s landing strip was on a portion of land west of the river and south of Mucurapo road, and he also used Piarco airfield. Only forty years of age, he crashed in the Northern Range in 1934, with a young Englishman called Bradshaw on board. His body was taken from the wreckage of his plane, and thousands of people attended his funeral, people of every class, clolour and creed, from the Representative of the British Crown to the barefoot people in the street.

Andre Cipriani, son of Leonetto Paul Cipriani and Helen Sellier, was cut from a different cloth. He demonstrated from an early age an interest in science. His father started to gear him for the scholarship class of St. Mary’s College. Andre was successful and left for McGill University in Canada in 1928. He took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and physics, his PhD in gynecology and obstetrics.

After the Second World War, Andre entered the field of atomic energy. He became director of biology and radiation hazards at the Atomic Energy Plant at Chalk River in Canada, where he created a unique laboratory.

Through his pioneering efforts, Andre Cipriani and his colleagues and staff at Chalk River developed the first highly active cobalt sixty sources, which were made for the treatment of malignant diseases. Several hundred cobalt therapy units have been produced by the commercial products division of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and sold worldwide, bringing relief to thousands of suffering patients.

At his death at age 48 in 1956, the BBC gave Andre a three-minute obituary, describing him as the moste knowledgeable man in the world on radiation hazards.

And yet, his success in the field of atomic research for peace is not known in Trinidad, nor the fact that he - like the famous Marie Curie - was a victim of his own research.

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