Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Nothing much has changed in 200 years

Very early Port of Spain

Port of Spain was probably not founded by the Spaniards at all. “There is no reason to suppose that its importance to the indigenous inhabitants was not supplemented in time by the activities of migrants, refugees and transients,” writes architect John Newel Lewis in his book ‘Ajoupa’. The tribal people had a name for it; they called it ‘Conquerabia’. The Spaniards merely referred to it as ‘Puerto de los Hispanioles’.

By 1560, the Spanish placed troops there. Historian P.G.L. Borde says in his book ‘The History of the island of Trinidad under the Spanish government’ that there was a fort and a trading post. The mangrove swamps that we can glimpse at today off the foreshore for example, covered all of today’s downtown Port of Spain. Huge silk cotton trees and other forest giants grew, and housing consisted almost entirely of open ajoupas, scattered here and there in bush. There was a small,mud-walled enclosure with a shack inside, a flagpole, two or three cannons and some dishevelled, unshaven Spanish soldiers. The Caribs came and went; there was some traffic with the mainland and up the Orinoco river a couple of times per year.

In 1680, when the French naval commander Comte D’Estrées visited, he reported that there was no Port of Spain at that time, only a military post, an earthen mound with two guns and some fishermen’s huts. In 1690, governor Don Sebastien de Roteta reported in writing to the King of Spain:

“Already six houses have been made and others have been started. There is already a church in this place, so that it was unnecessary to build a new.”

It was hard for the Spaniards to establish a settlement. The natives were always restless, even hostile, and that is to put it mildly! Even the ‘pacified’ ones “were in the habit of showering scorn and abuse upon the Holy Faith and ridiculed with jests the efforts of the Holy Fathers”, as the alcaldes of Trinidad reported to the King in December of 1699.

But notwithstanding something of a permanent settlement, meaning permanent occupation, did begin around 1700.

A fragment of a letter survives in Tom Cambridge’s collection, written by Martin Perez Anda y Salaza. It says in part that a church was erected in 1722 with the assistance of the parish of the town. But in truth, the place was a port, not a town. It was around the grass market, Besson Street, or thereabouts, that there was activity. Traders from ‘down the main’ and illegal immigrants came and went; contraband goods were stored in temporary shelters.In 1739, there was fear of smallpox. Newel Lewis comments that this laissez-faire, free-for-all style is a characteristic of Port of Spain up to the present.

In 1768, an area around what is known today as George, Nelson and Duncan Streets and about as far west as Frederick Street was settled. A plaza was staked out in conformity to the King’s ordinance of 1573 for the laying out of towns in the Spanish colonies. There was an Amerindian village called Cu-Mucurapo nearby.

By 1777, Philippe Roume de St. Laurent, a Creole from Grenada who was seeking new land to settle, could report that there were eighty houses made of light cane, plastered with a mixture of mud and grass, then whitewashed and covered with with thatch. He goes on to say: “The Governor lives here.”

The problem with the mud buildings, whether fort or house, was of course that the rainy season dissolved them. They ran and bent, and when dry season came, they dried up and cracked and became completely misshapen. Also, the bush never ceased to grow. The alligators ate the dogs and the chickens.

With the arrival of the French in 1783, the pace of development accelerated. Better port facilities came about as there was much landing of cargo, both animate and unanimate. The jetty was lengthened, the mangrove cut away, and most important the Rio Santa Anna was diverted. Captain Ricketts of Barbados wrote in 1788 (Public Records Office, quoted in ‘Ajoupa’):

“The present capital of the island three years ago contained only a few mud houses; the inhabitants of which were fishermen. Now it contains 600 houses, mostly built of wood, and shingled. They are laid out in eleven streets at right angles of a good width, but unpaved. They are very dirty after rain. The number of inhabitants is about 3,000, of which 1,500 are supposed to be white.”

Monsieur Picot de Lapeyrouse established the first sugar cane estate on the island. The Otaheite variety of cane had been introduced by St. Hilaire Begorrat in the 1780s.

Benoit Dert became the first worshipful master of the freemason’s lodge ‘Les Frères Unis’, which was brought by himself and others form St. Lucia in 1795.

The Spanish authorities could hardly handle the locals - much less the high style emigré French creoles. Noone really expected that the French Revolution would send whole communities of French creoles with their slaves, ‘octaroon’ mistresses and ‘pass-for-white’ children tumbling in backwater Trinidad by the the 1790s. In that period, the town grew not as a result of town planning, but inspite of it.

The town was a haven for the flotsam and jetsam of the Caribbean in 1797. It was peopled by half-caste Spaniards, broad-nosed zambos, high-strung mestizo women, French republican soldiers, retires pirates, French nobility and the ghosts of the conquistadors who had died in the previous centuries in search of El Dorado, eaten by the anthropomorgai people in the jungles of Guiria.

All this disorder gave the English their chance. With war generally in the air and Governor Chacon fearful of republicanism, they took the island in 1797 without hardly a shot being fired. Although it was recorded that the guns at Fort St. Andres fired round after round.

But they too had many problems with the mixed population, squatters, vendors, transients, more traders, free Africans, itinerant mainlanders and illegal immigrants. Bearing all the above in mind, one comes away with the feeling that nothing much has changed in the last 200 years in Port of Spain!

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