It would appear from very early historical references from the 16th century, that Mariquire Bay under the shelter of Naparima hill was regarded as a safe and healthy place to drop anchor and come ashore. The Aruacs, the missionaries and the Spanish all in turn settled here and, it would appear, thrived.
It was one of the more important centres of the Aruac people in the south of Trinidad. The ridge above the Cipero, cutting and bordering the Paradise Pasture near to where the hospital now stands, is said to be from end to end one large midden, as Amerindian grounds are described.
Tribal people may have regarded this as a principal port for that part of the island, and it was used by them as the western end of their main trackway across Trinidad to villages on the east coast. The Naparima-Mayaro Road is still referred to as Indian Walk. Sir Robert Dudley, the English explorer, crossed the island using this track in the 16th century.
It is recorded in ancient records that ‘annaparima’ is a word of Aruac stock; the prefix ‘amar’ or ‘abar’ meaning ‘one’. In this language, the number five is ‘abar dakabo’ (my one hand) and ten is ‘biam dakabo’ (my two hands); twenty is ‘abar loko’ (one man or two hands and two feet); ‘parima’ is the Aruac word for hill. Hence, Annaparima signifies one hill.
The second phase of settlement began with the Spanish Capuchin monks in the 1680s, with Fr. Thomas de Barcelona landing at the mouth of the Mariquire river. He created the mission Purissima Concepcion de Naparima, with the villages of eight caciques on the hills nearby.
The actual site of the mission at San Fernando is not recorded, but it is reasonable to suggest that it was placed just to the north of St. Vincent Street, since an old dilapidated church building was known to be there long before the Spaniards founded San Fernando or made any land grants in that area.
The Cedula of Population of 1783 brought French-speaking people and slaves to Trinidad. Many were attracted by the excellence of the soil in the Naparimas.
This expansion in the south caused governor Chacon to establish an administrative centre there in 1786.
The town was named for the Infante, the Prince of Asturias. The crown grant of 1786 to Don Isidore Vialva reserved an area for the founding of the town, amounting to about 10 acres and divided into 78 lots of 50 x 100 ft each. The reserved area was bounded on the north by the hilly lands above St. Vincent Street and on the east by Mon Chagrin Street.
Vialva sold his land to Don Juan Bautista Jaillet who called it ‘Mon Chagrin’ and developed a sugar estate of some 260 acres on it. This estate extended from Vistabella on the north, to Paradise on the south, to Mon Repos to the east and to the town and sea on the west. It virtually surrounded the town.
Among the early inhabitants of San Fernando was Don José Vincent Bontur from San Domingo, who had married Doña Maria de Pazadoas of Trinidad and was the owner of Paradise estate. Don José Rambert of St. Vincent, another early San Fernandian, is remembered to this day in Rambert Village. Don Salvadore Domenici was the owner of Vistabella estate in 1785. Don Juan Bautista Juillet had married Miss Maria Fotheringay. At his death, Mon Chagrin was valued at £2,500.
K.S. Wise, in his ‘Historical Sketches’ (1932), describes the laying out ot the town (abridged):
“In laying out the town the town the usual Spanish custom was followed and a central square formed which was named Plaza de San Carlos (now the ‘Old Cemetary’). On the north was the ancient dilapidated church, presumably the site of the abandoned mission. This church was in 1786 replaced bya new one built at the southeast corner of the plaza (now corner of Penitence and Chacon Streets). The presbytery was on the west side and the ‘Casa Real’ on the north. The prinicpal places of business in 1792 were along St. Vincent Street, and the Mariquire Bay must have been a busy shipping place.”
Wise states further that in 1811, the Naparimas had a population of 192 whites, 297 free coloureds and 3,000 slaves. Under the terms of the Cedula of Population, about 18,000 acres had been granted to the Catholic settlers. About a third of the acreage had been cleared and cultivated, yielding 2,600 tons of sugar, 71,000 gallons of rum, 78,000 gallons of syrup, 41,000 lbs of cotton and 21,000 lbs of coffee.
Seven years later, in 1818, a great fire destroyed most of the town. It was quickly rebuilt and expanded beyond what are now High and Coffee streets. A wharf was constructed by the government in 1820, which was destroyed in 1839 by a storm and rebuilt in 1842. Between 1836 and 1842, the town expanded south up to Harris Promenade (Lord Harris being the governor in the 1840s) and east up to Pointe-a-Pierre Road. In 1846, San Fernando had outgrown its popular name ‘Petit Bourg’ (small village) and the town was granted a municipal constitution.