Columbus discovers Trinidad
“We saw houses and people on the spot and the country round was very beautiful and as fresh and green as the gardens of Valencia in the month of March.”
wrote Christopher Columbus in his log on 31st July, 1498, the day he discovered Trinidad on his third voyage to the New World.
Columbus sailed through the straits which he called the ‘Serpent’s Mouth’ between the South American continent (which he thought to be another island and called it Isla Santa, Holy Island) and Trinidad, named for the Holy Trinity. His immediate predicament was to get fresh water for the crew of his three ships, the ‘Santa Maria de Guia’, the ‘Castilla’ and the ‘Gorda’.
“I then gave up our northward course and put in for the land; at the hour of complines we reached a cape which I called Cape Galera, having already given to the Island the name of Trinidad, and here we found a harbour which would have been excellent but there was no good anchorage.” (Christopher Columbus)
Sailing along the south coast of Trinidad, looking for a bay to anchor, the Spaniards gave names to Trinidad and to several features on the island. In the Gulf of Paria - which they named ‘Mar Dulce’, due to the high percentage of fresh water, they had an encounter with the Amerindians, marvelling at both the nakedness of the tribespeople and at the beautiful gold and pearl jewellery they were wearing.
“These people, as I have already said, are very graceful in form, tall and lithe in their movements and wear their hair very long and smooth. They also bind their heads with handsome worked handkerchiefs which from a distance look like silk or gauze; others use the same material in a longer form wound round them so as to cover them like trousers and this is done by both the men and the women.”
The Indians told Columbus that there was a vast land southward, but after sailing some miles along the southern part of the Paria peninsula the ageing explorer decided to go northward, to Hispaniola which was familiar to him. 18 days later, on the 17th August 1498, Columbus and his ships left the Gulf of Paria through the Dragon’s Mouth. The island of Trinidad became a colony of Her Most Catholic Majesty, Isabella of Spain. And the arrival of the Admiral opened the flood gate for treasure seekers which resulted in almost the whole native population being wiped out.
“The sun was then in the sign of Virgo over their heads and ours; therefore all this must proceed from the extreme blandness of the temperature which arises, as I have said, from this country being the most elevated in the world and nearest to the sky.”
The Legend of El Dorado
The Spaniards were convinced of the existence of the legendary City of Gold, and ‘el dorado’ or golden man. All over South and Middle America, the conquistadores, dauntless iron-clad men, heroically battled against nature herself and against Amerindian tribes to win the gold-rich civilization for the Spanish crown. They were told by the Amerindians of the vast riches to be found up the Orinoco. These ignorant Europeans never considered the possibility of the mere ritual use of gold or the distortion of the Indian’s stories, they heard only what they wanted to hear - El Dorado. They imagined it to be a great king, covered in gold, and a city literally made from the precious metal.
Trinidad became a very strategic island. It became the port of the Spaniards - Puerto d’España, the starting point for the journey up the Orinoco River. The island was the stepping stone for the heroic men who were filled with the passion of conquering the splendid treasures of the Golden City. Four conquistadores came to Trinidad: Don Antonio Sedeño in 1528, Don Juan Ponce de Leon in 1571, and finally Don Antonio de Berrio y Oruña in 1580, and finally the British Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595.
Today we know that El Dorado did not exist in the imagined form of the Iberians. But what were the origins of the legend?
Some tribal peoples of South America assigned great significance to the summer solstice to mark the passing of time. On that day, the 21st June, when the sun passes through the highest point in the sky, the zenith, a festive ritual was enacted by some Amerindians in an area in present-day Colombia. A circular lake still exists there, and on the 21st June the sun’s golden reflection filles the surface of it. On that special day, a cacique was covered with resin and sprayed with gold dust. So ‘el dorado’ was actually a ‘Golden Man’ and not a ‘Golden City’!
But the swamps, the mosquitoes, the silence and the noises of the jungle continued to breed tales of huge buildings made of gold, a mountain of crystal that sparkled in the sun, golden nuggets as big as fists and emeralds and sapphires in abundance. Those tales were spiced by stories of man-eaters, who poured molten gold into the white victims’ mouths, who fattened up negroes in order to eat them later, and of ‘anthropohagi’, men whose heads grew between their shoulders.
Trinidad from 1592 to the 1770s
With the foundation of San José de Oruna (St. Joseph) in 1592, Trinidad had acquired the formal structure of a Spanish colony. But for nearly 200 years it remained undeveloped and isolated. It had no gold or silver, and lay far from the main shopping routes to Spain. So instead of large plantations, worked by gangs of slaves, producing food crops for export to Europe, Trinidad was the scene of little cultivation by a few Spaniards, Indians, a handful of African slaves, preoccupied with survival on scattered clearings in the vast forest.
Early in the 17th century, cotton and tobacco began to be cultivated. Cocoa became Trinidad’s major product between 1670 and 1725, but in 1725 the crop failed, probably due to disease. Up to the 1770s, agriculture was small-scale, with the Indians and Spanish settlers producing small food crops in their gardens.
But already the island’s significant feature, its cosmopolitan people, began to take shape. The cross-breeding of its first settlers produced the ‘mulatto’ - half African, half European, the ‘mestizo’ - half Amerindian, half European, and the ‘zambo’ - half Amerindian, half African.
After the failed cocoa crop in 1725, the non-Indian population declined to a mere 162 adult men, of whom only 28 were described as ‘white’, that is Spanish. Forty years later, the population was estimated at 2,503, with the Christianised Indian population at 1,277.
Up to the 1780s Trinidad remained a mainly Amerindian society, though the Indian population had declined rapidly after the encounter with the Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500s. Capuchin missionaries were given the task of converting them between 1687 and 1708, and they established mission settlements, some of which survived as Indian villages well into the 18th century, e.g. Savanna Grande.
In 1784, the Spanish governor left the derelict little settlement of San José and established himself in Puerto d’España. Eight years before, in 1776, one year after the Spanish Empire had come under the influence of the comparatively reform-minded Bourbon kings of France, a decree had authorised foreign Catholic settlement in Trinidad and other colonies. It was under this decree that Trinidad would suddenly awaken into life in the late 18th century.