Local government in Trinidad has its origins in a very ancient institution. The Illustrious Cabildo, a municipal council created in Spain by the Crown after the expulsion of the Moors, was founded in the island of Trinidad at San José de Oruna (St. Joseph) in the year 1592.
Acting on the orders of governor Don Antonio de Berrio, the master of the camp Don Domingo de Vera y Bargoen, with a company of 30 men, made the beginnings of a permanent settlement.
After landing at Mucurapo, where they raised the cross and unfurled the flag of Spain they proceeded to declare the island the property of His Most Catholic Majesty. The Spaniards and their actions were probably ignored by the real ‘owners’ of the island, the Amerindians, as they went about their necessities. They proceeded up the Caroni until they came to an open savannah, and reaching higher land they obtained from the cacique Guanaguanare a site which they named San José de Oruna.
Here at St. Joseph in the latter part of May 1592 a site for a church, Nuestra Santa Fé de la Concepcion, was laid out and the first mass was celebrated most likely on the same spot where the present church is now.
Don Domingo then selected sites for the govenor’s ‘palace’, the Cabildo and the prison. These were all situated around the open space west of the church, a space which is now occupied by building erected since the capitulation to the British in 1797.
K.S. Wise writes in his ‘Historical Sketches’:
“All the Spaniards present then took part in the formal election of the members of the Cabildo, and the Illustrious body was duly constituted in Trinidad for the first time as follows:
Alcaldes Ordinario: Alvaro Jorge, Diego Diaz de Acevedo
Alguacil Mayor: José Nuñez Brito
Procurador General: Antonio Pinto Leal
Regidores: Juan Marquez, Felipe de Santiago, Juan Mexia de Prado, José Nuñez Brito, Alonso de Medina, Juan Gomes.”
Many of these names are still with us. Thus, more than 400 years ago, commenced the local government in Trinidad, which remained in place unchanged from the administration of the island by Sir Ralph Abercromby (1813 - 1829) to Lord Harris (1845 - 1854). The British administrative system was by then in conflict with the powers and privileges of the Illustrious Cabildo.
“The changing composition of the general population and the diminishing proportion of those to whom the methods of the Spanish administration were familiar, led in 1840 in Port-of-Spain and in 1845 in San Fernando to the introduction of measures of local government more in consonance with British practice.” (K.S. Wise)
For almost fifty years after the conquest by the British, Trinidad possessed a Spanish legal system through its governing body, and this on an island where 95% of the population were French and Patois-speaking!
As John Nihell, the first Chief Justice of Trinidad, put it:
“The people retain certain rights which, though they are subordinate to those of the King and his tribunals, it is the duty of the Cabildo to support and represent.”
The Illustrious Cabildo had the right to address the King of Spain and, because of their oath of allegiance to Britain, to ‘the Monarch’ through the Governor. However, the Cabildo had to obey the orders of the Governor, even if his actions were against their will, until ‘the pleasure of His Majesty might be notified’.
The role of the local governance body was more administrative than legislative. The Cabildo could not make laws for the public, rather, it had an advisory role on municipal matters to the Governor.
In Spanish times, public funds were kept in an actual ‘treasure chest’ (hence the name ‘Treasury’ and the ‘coffers’ of the government!). Only three people had a key to this chest: the Alcalde of the First Election, the Escribano and the Depositor General.
The members had certain privileges. They wore a special uniform and insignia, were exempt from duties in the militia and could not be put in the ‘common gaol’, only in their own house or a Cabildo building. The Escribano had to take sworn declarations in their own house, since they could not be cited before a judge. The privileges even included preferential choice in the public markets!
On the other hand, the Cabildo had certain duties. Ironically, they had to swear in the Governor (who was to be their superior afterwards), and all other public servants. The health system was under their inspection, and approval had to be sought from the Cabildo by physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. Other health-related duties were to finance a physician for the poor and a schoolmaster for poor persons’ children. The Cabildo also administered funds to prevent epidemics, as well as to help out people in case of ‘public calamity’.