Thursday 11 August 2011

Fire, Riots and Disasters

In the years of the Spanish conquistadores, it was cannibalism, tribal warfare, yellow fever, malaria and terrible acts of piracy that plagued the settlers. But as the population grew, so did the catastrophes.

1699 - The Arena Massacre

In 1688 missionaries from Cataluñia in Spain set up a mission in central Trinidad which they named ‘San Francisco de los Arenales’. Eleven years later, three priests at the mission oversaw some Amerindians from the neighbourhood building a new church. Since the work was proceeding slowly, the priests threatened to report the Amerindians to the governor. These threats made the apprehensive Amerindians hysterical, and rather than face punishment they attacked the priests, clubbing them to death, and threw their bodies in the foundation of the new church. Afterwards they ambushed the visiting party of the Governor, killing him and several others.

The Amerindians at the mission fled eastwards into the dense forest. They were pursued by Spanish soldiers of the Cabildo at San José (St. Joseph, then the capital of Trinidad), and the Amerindians were caught at the Cocal on the east coast. In their pride, the Amerindians resorted to suicide rather than submitting to punishment: some of the women drowned their children in the streams of the Nariva Swamp, and others threw themselves into the sea at Point Radix. After the two massacres, 22 of the Amerindians were brought back to San José , where they were tried and hung.

1727 - Failure of the cocoa crop, death of the cocoa trees, witchbroom

26 years after the first slaves were landed in Trinidad, and the island began to reap its first successful cocoa crops, the greatest desaster possible struck: the whole cocoa crop was lost due to a blight that prevented the cocoa pods from growing and ripening. Six years later, in 1733, the misery into which the colony was thrown due to this failure is reflected in a rapid decline of population: only 162 adult inhabitants were registered in Trinidad, of whom only 28 were ‘white’, that is, landowners and cultivators. The public revenue in that year amounted to the ridiculous sum of $ 231.00!

1808 and 1895 - Port-of-Spain is destroyed by fire

“At about 10 pm on March 24th, 1808, a certain Doctor Shaw (apothecary) in Frederick Street, was reported to have started the famous fire of Port-of-Spain by dropping, when not quite sober, a brand of fire on some wood shavings in an out-house,” says H.C. Pitts in his historical notes. The ensuing fire destroyed three quarters of the city, which miraculously only caused two deaths.

Some 90 years later, in 1895, people were again lucky to escape with their lives. While literally the whole town was watching a cricket match at the Queen’s Park Savannah, fire broke out on the premises of Messrs. James Todd & Sons at about 4.30 in the afternoon. The fire brigade was slow to arrive, and the fire spread quickly and the heart of the town was consumed by the fire.

Only two years later, another fire broke out around 4 am on a Sunday morning, and many people were caught asleep. It originated in the Hotel Guiria on the corner of Almond Walk (now Broadway) Marine Square, and rapidly spread with a strong wind blowing.

1817 - Trinidad ravaged by epidemic of yellow fever

1818 - San Fernando destroyed by fire

1848 - A wake turns riot (From POS Gazette, 3.10.1848)

“On Thursday last, the 29th September, one of those infamous admixtures of superstition, debauchery, profanity and riot, so peculiarly the disgrace of Trinidad, known as a ‘wake’, took place in the yard of a residence in Port-of-Spain. It occurred in consequence of the death of a man who, in extremis, was kicked out of the house by the woman with whom he cohabited, and was brought here expressly to die; which the poor wretch did in two days. At 7 pm the riot began with psalm singing over the corpse, and by 9 o’clock at night the yard was literally crammed with women and girls of very doubtful character, a host of drunken sailors, and all the lawless ruffians of Port-of-Spain, yelling in chorus, dancing in circles, and clapping their hands together. The uproar was fearful, the saturnalian orgies being further enlivened by every variety of swearing and prfance language. To such a height at last were these revels carried that at last the police were sent for; but on arrival they were utterly powerless to quell the disturbance.”

1849 - Debtors have to become skinheads

If you owe money and can’t repay it, you will get your head shaved, and you will have to do ‘gaol work’ in prison dress. Well, that new regulation didn’t go down well with respectable Trinidadians at all! Multitudes of them gathered in front of the recently opened government building (later on the Red House) to protest against such medieval measures.

After the Council had already abrogated the gaol clause - under the pressure of 3000 demonstrators in front of the government buildings - riots spread through the city and various estates in the neighbourhood and as far as Oropouche. Residences of the Attorney General, the gaol keeper and the stipendiary magistrate were attacked. Three women and a young boy were wounded in the riots, the boy and a woman subsequently died.

1854 - Cholera Epidemic and Small Pox

In December 1853, cholera had broken out in Nevis and spread quickly to Antigua and St. Kitts. Inspite of the call for quarantine regulations, the highly contageous disease spread to Trinidad in 1854.

Before the vaccine against small pox was invented, people felt protected from the desease when pitch was burnt in barrels at the street corners in Port-of-Spain. To the populace, it seemed that the authorities ‘were doing something’ against the spread of small pox - even though the thick clouds of pungent smoke might have been done more harm than good...

1881 - Carnival Riots

The canboulay parades had been frowned upon by the English authorities ever since slavery had been abolished. In 1881, the were forbidden altogether. People being people, however, still gathered in the mas camps in east Port-of-Spain, Belmont and Newtown, and when they started the processions with lighted torches just after midnight on Monday morning, it came to a serious and bloody confrontation with the police. Eventually, the governor promised to confine police to the barracks, because he was just afraid that the lighted torches (cannes brulées) would lead to fire in the city! And to everybody’s amazement, he did just that and the revelleres were free to enjoy themselves throughout the following day.

1884 - Hosay Riots

Only three years after the Carnival riots, police and East Indian immigrants got into a fight in San Fernando on the 30th October.

Hosay had been originally a Muslim festival, introduced by Indians who were part of the Shiah, a Muslim sect. It commemorates the death of Hassan and Hussain, both grandsons of the prophet Mohammed. The ‘tadjahs’ signify the tombs of the two brothers.

In Trinidad, Hindus joined into Hosay. The procession was also a time of drinking and feteing, and spurned on by the rhythms of the tassa drums and the heat of the rum in their blood, it often came to fights amongst the participants. In 1881, a man called Harracksingh was killed in one of those fights, and the authorities imposed severe regulations on it in 1884. It was feared that the Hosay celebrations would turn into agression against outsiders, that is, non-Indians. It was a nervous year on the whole, with Carnival disturbances in San Fernando and Princes Town, where the riot act had to be read and the police fired upon an attacking mob, resulting in two deaths and two or three people wounded.

The Indians, however, maybe in ignorance of the regulations still gathered in the annual Hosay processions in the usual manner, which had grown into a parade of thousands of people from the Naparima plantations.

Even though it had been strictly forbidden for the various parades from the plantations to enter San Fernando, and even though Hosay participants knew that police in San Fernando had been reinforced by soldiers and armed to the teeth, the revellers still came, dancing, swirling and drumming, and armed with formidable hakka sticks as well.

The police guarded the entrance to San Fernando at Bushy Park and Mon Repos entrances, and read the riot act to the oncoming revellers. WHen they did not disperse, shots were fired, and a general melee ensued, which left ten dead and 83 wounded.

1903 - Water Riots

It started with a peaceful demonstration in Brunswick Square, organised by the Ratepayers Association. They demonstrated against the passing of a proposed waterworks ordinance, which - much like today - introduced fixed water rates, calculated by number of faucets in the house and not by actual consumption. People found this unfair, since poor people would have to pay the same water rates like wealthy households with a much larger water consumptions.

While the Legislative Council was debating the new ordinance in the chambers, the atmosphere in the crowd outside was growing more tense. People sang the National Anthem, Rule Brittannia, beat drums, blew whistles, and waved flags, and after the first stones were thrown and most of the downstairs windows were broken, the situation quickly went from bad to worse.

In the terrible riot that followed, the old Red House was completely burnt down, and with it much of our recorded history was forever lost. 42 people were wounded by shots and bayonets, and 16 lost their lives.

After the water riots, the Red House was rebuilt to its present state, and the new building was to enjoy many peaceful decades until 1990, when the attempted coup again set it on fire.

No comments: