Friday, 12 August 2011

Port-of-Spain's early city life

The development of Port-of-Spain was Governor Sir Ralph Woodford’s pet project in the 19th century.

From the beginning of colonisation in the mid-16th century, the Spanish Crown kept Trinidad always a little obscure. Trinidad had a strategic position as outpost to the Orinoco delta, to the Crown’s possessions in the Guyanas and ultimately to ‘El Dorado’ of Hispanic dreams. In order not to attract pirates and the enemies of His Most Catholic Majesty, the Spaniards kept Trinidad unpopulated, a mere stop-over for Spanish ships in the safe harbour of the Gulf of Paria. They put about the story that Trinidad was indescribably unhealthy and dangerous, full of malaria and yellow fever (which it probably was in those years). Albeit all precautions, Sir Walter Raleigh, the captain of the Queen of England’s Guard, burnt down San José (St. Joseph) in 1595. Edward Tench, a.k.a. Black Beard, the pirate, ‘committed sad depredations in the Gulf of Paria’ in 1716.

The main anchoring place didn’t even receive a proper name, but was merely called a ‘Harbour of Spain’, Puerto d’España. And it was not until the mid-18th century that Puerto d’España became the capital of Trinidad. By 1757, San José de Oruna (St. Joseph) had fallen into delapidation, and the then Governor Don Pedro de la Moneda moved to the village of Puerto d’España, which consisted of two streets, Calle de Infante (Duncan) and Calle Principe (Nelson), a couple of little wooden houses and mud-huts, some 400 mostly Spanish-Amerindian mixed people and three shops. It was surrounded by high woods and mangrove swamps, and the inhabitants were fishermen, hunters, and small farmers of cassava, corn, and even a little sugar cane which they processed into ‘pampelona’, a roughly refined brown sugar.

This tranquil scene was soon to change. In 1783, Grenadian-born Philipe Rose-Roume de St. Laurent obtained the ‘Cedula of Population’ from the Spanish King Carlos III. Puerto d’España grew quickly into a proper little town of 3000 inhabitants. The few mud huts gave way to more than 600 houses. What is now Marine Square was then the waterfront. A mole and a wooden quay ran along what is today South Quay. Fort St. Andres, today opposite City Gate, was offshore, and when the tide came in, it splashed the walls of the old Roman Catholic church, which stood then a little east of its present site.

Trade and commerce started to flourish, and the first steps towards town planning were made: the Rio Santa Ana (Dry River) was channeled into its present bed, and the Rue Sainte Anne (Charlotte) was included, with the town stretching as far north as the Calle de Astuvias (Duke Street). Governor Chacon had the streets covered with macadam (burnt earth), with an open drain running in the middle.

Reportedly, the new settlers brought with them gaiety and festivity. Dance halls and night clubs sprung up all over the town, and every year before Lent the French held Carnival celebrations. The Illustrious Cabildo (the forerunners of the Town Council) started to charge a tax of one dollar per year for each gambling house and each billiard table. Port-of-Spain was the capital of a Spanish colony with Spanish laws, but the population spoke French and patois.

This atmosphere was to change visibly after the British had conquered the island in 1797. The first thing that the new governor, Sir Thomas Picton, did was to install a gallows in front of Government House at the corner of Marine Square and Charlotte Street. At that time, the capital was very overcrowded with approximately 10,000 inhabitants. Picton decided to have a land reclamation scheme implemented, which would turn the tidal mud flats into habitable lots. Starting in 1803, land fill was carted with mules from the Laventille hills, and over the next two decades all the land south of Marine Square was reclaimed from the Gulf.

In 1808, a great fire destroyed many of the wood-built houses of Port-of-Spain. The merchants of the town rebuilt them with stone from the Laventille quarry. In 1812, the prison in Frederick Street was completed, and criminals were ‘thrown’ into it along with debtors, mad people, and animals.

When Sir Ralph Woodford took up office as Governor in 1813, he undertook to give Port-of-Spain a newer and more modern face. Gravel covered the streets, sidewalks were constructed. Coconut oil lamps lent a warm glow to the streets at night. In order to protect the fine and expensive new streets, a law was passed in 1824 that forbid the keeping of pigs in town. Cows, goats, horses and mules had to be kept in compounds and were not allowed to roam the streets anymore. A dog tax was introduced to isolate and destroy the strays that wreaked havoc in the streets at night. Streetsigns were put up. As early as 1814, a proclamation against littering was made - up to then, Port-of-Spainers had endulged in the medieval practice of throwing kitchen waste and other more unmentionable things out of their windows. “Gadé liu!” they used to shout before the contents of the chamberpot came flying...

In 1819, Woodford purchased the abandoned Paradise estate in the name of the Cabildo from the Peschier family. He had the area, about 317 acres, cleared ‘for the recreation of the townsfolk and for the pasturage of cattle’. It was henceforth simply called ‘The Savannah’. In 1845 the name was officially changed to ‘The Queen’s Park’. But no fancy name could keep the townspeople from driving their herds of cattle to the Savannah, quite a frightening sight in Frederick Street!

The Governor also bought more lands from the Peschier estate at St. Anns, which was subsequently turned into the site for the new Government House and the Botanic Gardens. In 1828, the Savannah was for the first time used for horse-racing. Woodford contracted the botanist David Lockhart to design the Botanic gardens, and Lockhart introduced many trees from the tropical Far East into Trinidad, the most famous being the majestic samaan.

Under Woodford’s aegis and personal attention the first primary school for boys was opened in Port-of-Spain in April 1823, another one for girls followed three years later. The main goal was doubtlessly to establish a firmer foothold for the English language, which was still rarely understood or spoken by subjects of the British Crown in Trinidad. The highest academic achievement of the boys school was, after its first year, that 10 of the 252 pupils were able to do square roots in arithmetic!

Port-of-Spain also got new churches under Woodford. The new Roman Catholic Cathedral was begun in 1816 and completed in 1832, and the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity was consecrated in 1823. Hannover Methodist followed in 1826, and Greyfriars in 1837. All Saints Church, the oldest building on the Savannah, was completed in 1846.

Sir Ralph was not around to witness these latter additions to ‘his’ Port-of-Spain. In 1829, he died on board a ship and was buried at sea off the coast of Hispaniola.

1 comment:

Evelyn Ferreira said...

Would like to read more about the city of Port of Spain after Sir Ralph. Where can I find out more?
Thanks for such an informative article.