Friday, 26 August 2011

Trinidad in the World View Part One

The Immortal 45

Our huge neighbour to the west, whose mountains we see on rainwashed days, a paler blue than the sky, is to too many Trinidadians an unknown entity. ‘Down the main’, to Venezuela, seems a far and distant journey.

Just over two hundred years ago, however, this island of ours was a province of that great country, whose history, sometimes dramatically linked with our own, has had an effect on world politics itself.

During the 1800s, just after Trinidad’s Spanish governor Chacon capitulated to the British, the Spanish and Portuguese possessions on the South American continent were divided into five gigantic areas of rule:

a) the vice royalty of New Spain, taking in modern Mexico and Central America, to which Trinidad belonged as an island province;

b) the vice royalty of New Spain, taking in modern Mexico and Central America, to which Trinidad belonged as an island province;

c) the vice royalty of Peru in the west;

the vice royalty of Peru in the west;

d) the vice royalty of La Plata in the south east and

the vice royalty of La Plata in the south east;

e) the Portuguese possession of Brazil.

These vast administrative areas were only very lightly imposed upon settlements and small cities in a vast land mass, covered by the largest forested area on the globe. They were isolated, lonely and sometimes abandoned; some were surrounded by snow-capped mountain ranges. Some of the largest river systems in the world created vast deltas, swamps bigger than the whole of England. The continent contained stone age people, some only recently discovered, as well as advanced civilisations who had mastered precessional astronomy.

The immensity of distances at a time when footpower, horsepower and sail were the only way to travel, can just barely be imagined. Also almost impossible to imagine was the immensity of the loot that was removed by the Spanish and Portuguese, the riches in gold, silver and precious stones that were taken away to Europe. But most awesome of all was the complete destruction of unknown civilisations and the complete subjugation of peoples, once their ruling elite had been destroyed.

With the conquest of the ancient cultures over and done with, there was at the very top a small ruling elite sent from Europe, headed up by a viceroy, his court, and a Spanish bureaucracy. The local ruling class was comprised of the colonial-born Spanish creoles. There were large local populations, Amerindian peoples, now christianised more or less, certainly downtrodden, a large slave population and a growing community of mixed people.

Apart from grievances against Spanish rule, this population was subjected to outside influences that contributed to revolution and overthrow of Spain’s colonial empire. The intellectual base for revolution had been put into place in the 18th century. The European Enlightenment affected the New World as well. The French Revolution (1789), its natural result, was much discussed by the wealthy, European-educated Spanish creoles and upper class mestizo families. The viceroys were perhaps a little more isolated in the old, elaborately decorated palaces of Caracas and Bogota. The French Revolution and the subsequent wars truly revealed the extent of the decline of Spain, a former power which had established a worldwide empire.

With the capture of Trinidad by the British in 1797 and following destruction of the Spanish fleet eight years later at Trafalgar, the Spanish creoles knew for sure that Spain could not contain their revolution movement. The catalyst for revolution in the South Americas was Napoleon Bonaparte. He deposed the Spanish Bourbon king and installed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain. Uprisings in Spain occured; the French emissiaries who came with the news of the change of dynasty were rejected in Caracas. At first, the colonies rallied around the Bourbon monarchy and against the French ursurpers.

Once such a degree of independent action had taken place, it was now only a matter of who was going to take over the revolution. A man named Francisco de Miranda emerged, who had been born in Caracas in 1750. As a young man, he had been educated in Europe, and had taken in his dose of classical education and the Enlightenment. He had been closely connected to the secret societies which were very popular at the time. When he was incarcerated by the revolutionaries in Paris, he was able to take a library into prison. Miranda had previously commanded an army on the Rhine. He was a friend of the Russian poet Pushkin and an acquaintance of Prince Potemkin of Russia, and sometimes a lover of Catherina the Great.

He attempted revolution in 1806 in the South Americas from Washington, no doubt aided and abetted by the freshly hatched revolutions there. It failed. He immediately tried again. By that time, there were several juntas, comprising military strongmen and fiery speakers, whipping up support on all levels.

In Venezuela, the leadership of the junta was taken up by the most significant man of the time in Latin America, Simon Bolivar. Like Francisco de Miranda, Bolivar had been born in Caracas, he in 1783. Like Miranda, he had travelled in Europe, came from a wealthy patrician family, and felt keenly for his country. Liberty, egalitarianism, a profound sense of fraternity dominated Bolivar’s thoughts.

In 1810, Bolivar was in England, and so too was Miranda. They returned together. General Miranda assumed control of the forces. The country by that time had been somewhat pacified and the revolutionary forces faltered. There were counter revolutions; today, the turmoil in the country is hard to understand from the distance in time. In July 1812, Miranda capitulated to the Spanish powers. He was sized by Bolivar’s supporters, and later died in Spain.

Simon Bolivar found refuge in Haiti, where in Port-au-Prince he was supported by Toussaint L’Ouverture. Under Tousaint, the blacks had revolted in terrible wars of retribution. Toussaint’s revolution was already being challenged by the Emperor Bonaparte.

Roume de Saint Laurent, Trinidad’s coloniser, married Miriam Rochard, his coloured, Tobago-born sweetheart in the presence of Toussaint, with Tousaint’s brother as his witness. These were all men of the time.

Bolivar retuned to fight another day. He went to Cartagena, then to Bogota, and maintained the insurgency against the royalists.

Santiago Mereño came from a wealthy family who owned properties on the island of Margarita. He too was an educated young man, fired by revolutionary zeal. He was married to the daughter of Geraldine Carriage, also known as Sir Gerald Fitzpatrick Carry,the owner of Chacachacare.

In British-held Trinidad there were several revolutionary movements, some supported by Lt. Col. Picton. There were secret societies, whose membership contained freethinkers with ideas, framed by the Enlightenment and personal experiences that had been tempered in the revolution. Santiago Mereño’s charismatic personality drew these minds to him. Carry’s island became the training ground for a small force of would-be insurgents, intent on taking a guerilla war into Spanish-held Venezuela in the dry season of 1813. Central to the plot were a wealthy planter named Manuel Valdez, Jean Baptiste Bideau, Jean Besson, two of the Bermudez family, Pial, Armurio, Azure and a few others. They are described as the ‘Immortal 45’.

They sailed across the Grand Boca from Chacachacare in an assortment of craft ranging from pirogues to dinghis, seized the coastal town of Guairia and battled their way into Maturin. The raid of the ‘Immortal 45’ tipped the balance of power. Bolivar was delighted and recommenced the war. This was the second stage of the wars for the liberation of South America.

In 1813, Bolivar crossed the Andes with just a few hundred men. Elements of the ‘Immortal 45’ from Trinidad were also at his side. Bolivar entered Caracas in August of that year and rallied all patriotic people to his cause. Simon Bolivar’s hope that Venezuela would become part of a great confederation of United South American States is still to be realised, in the same way that a Federation of Caribbean States is still to many a hopeful ideal.

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