The dusk of an empire in the Gulf of Paria
Abercromby Street in Port of Spain begins at South Quay. Travelling along it northward, it crosses Independence Square, passes Trinity Cathedral, Woodford Square, the Red House, the Hall of Justice. It crosses Park Street towards St. Joseph Convent and Lord Harris Square, to come to an end at Gordon Street or Barracks Street as it was once called.
This grand ‘tour de force’ of Port of Spain’s history is named for general Sir Ralph Abercromby, who was responsible for the capture of the island from teh Spanish crown.
The situation in Trinidad or more accurately in Port of Spain was bordering on the chaotic towards the end of 1796. The French Revolution of 1789 had found a furious reflection of itself in Santo Domingo (Haiti). Rich, avid and tempestuous, the largest and most productive of the Caribbean slave colonies, Santo Domingo was pregnant with all the ingredients neccessary to produce violence of a scale never seen before in the New World.
Typical animosities between whites and the mulattoes, the mulattoes and the negroes, the rich whites and the poor whites, those sent from France to administer and those born on the island, between farmers and traders - all this was suddenly amplified by swiftly altering political realities. While the European establishment had sought what was in it for themselves, the slaves in Santo Domingo revolted and set the island to the torch. Murder and rape of the whites sent royalists, republicans and just plain ordinary people of all colours fleeing to safety to the other islands of the Caribbean.
It is said that it was the more well-off refugees who found their way to Trinidad. What is known is that various people of various political hues flocked to the island at the most southern end of the Caribbean chain.
For the French colonists, the majority being royalists, the arrival of a Spanish squadron in the Gulf of Paria was a god-sent. England had declared war on Spain, so Trinidad was now under threat of an attack by the British navy. This, apart from the general state of turmoil that prevailed in the city as bands of would-be revolutionaries, both black and white, more or less rioted at the least provocation, was as much as the Governor Don José Maria Chacon could handle.
The squadron which had been equipped at Cadiz and ordered to sail for Cartagena, was told to pass by Trinidad and to land troops in the event of the Governor Chacon fearing an attack.
This squadron, which was commanded by rear-admiral Don Sebastian Ruiz de Apodaca, consisted of four major ships, ‘of the line’, two of them armed with 74 cannons each and the flagship of 84, and a frigate of 36 guns. The flotilla arrived in December, and the governor, using his powers, kept the squadron in Trinidad.
The British admiralty had dispatched an expeditionary squadron to the Caribbean, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Henry Harvy.
Just as soon as General Abercromby had dealt with the Dutch establishments and had conquered the French islands with the exception of Guadeloupe which resisted all attacks, he collected his forces at Martinique so as to open his campaign against hte Spanish possessions. He was ordered to attack Trinidad first because of its size and fertility, and especially because of the facilities it offered for commerce owing to its proximity to the continent.
Abercromby’s force consisted of twenty battle ships, seven of which carried more than 60 cannons apiece, with one, the ‘Prince of Wales’, the flagship, being armed with 100 cannons. There were some 900 pieces of armament; 6,750 men were to be put ashore, of which 1,500 were Germans.
A large number of French royalists were serving with the British forces in the Caribbean. Amongst these were the Count of Loppinot and his four sons, the Count de Montalambert, General des Sources, Colonel Gaudin de Soter, Chevalier de Verteuil, Chevalier de Bruny, Marquis de Montrichard and Vicomte de Bragelonne. Some of these were to stay on and form families who put down roots in Trinidad and Tobago.
Chacon had made every attempt to improve the town. From 1786, he had imposed and collected a customs duty of 2.5% on all imports to provide funds for the erection of public buildings. One of these buildings was a government house. It was situated according to the Spanish protocols on the north-eastern corner of Charlotte Street and Marine Square, while the government offices were at the south-west corner of Charlotte and Queen Streets. The office of the ‘contador’, Don Manuel Sorzano, was at the eastern corner of George Street and Marine Square. During this period, no significant fortifications were created. The redoubt, known as Fort San Andres, of five guns was meant to protect the town.
The British squadron rendezvoused at Carriacou. On the morning of the 15th February 1797 they set sail for Trinidad and on the morning of the next day they were in sight of the Dragon’s Mouth.
Within hours, everybody in town knew what was happening. Admiral Apodaca and govenor Chacon met in private. There seemed not too much choice: Apodaca could lift anchor and flee by way of the Serpent’s Mouth, or he could challenge a superior foe and be destroyed. On the other hand, he could surrender his ships, or he could destroy them. He chose the latter. In council with his captains, the order was given to set fire to the Spanish ships anchored in the Gulf of Paria.
During this time, as historian Pierre G. L. Borde relates in his book ‘The history of the island of Trinidad under the Spanish government’, the British fleet, piloted by an African named Sharper, was struggling with the currents in the Dragon’s Mouth. It was not until after 3 pm that the fleet eventually gained the Gulf of Paria. The Spanish fleet was sighted in Chaguaramas Bay. Admiral Harvy decided that inasmuch as it was late in the day, to ignore the ships for the moment. As Borde continues:
“He disposed of his forces in the following manner: the frigate ‘H.M.S. Arethura’ and the corvettes ‘Thorn’ and ‘Zebra’ were ordered to approach the town and anchor together with the transports, probable in the region of the Five Islands. The frigate ‘H.M.S. Alarm’ and the corvettes ‘Favourite’ and ‘Victorious’ were ordered to remain under sial for the whole night, stationing themselves between the transports and the town. In the meanwhile, the remaining British ships of the line drew themselves into battle formation before the enemy squadron.”
Pandemonium reigned that night in Port of Spain. Hundreds of people were in the streets, lighted torches brightened the excited eyes of teh blacks, as both free and slaves rushed to and fro, gathering information and passing it on. The French royalist leaders approached the governor to enquire as to the position of the militia, and Chacon replied to them: ‘Little by little, gentlemen.’
To this day, scholars debate Chacon’s and Apodaca’s actions. Was it that the Spanish establishment in the town was already overwhelmed by the aggressive republicans present, who had made contact with others of their ilk in the nearby islands, and as such were glad to see the British? Did they between them fully understand that the days of Spanish glory were quickly passing and that what was happening should be over better sooner than later? Did they think: ‘Better the British monarchy, their traditional protestant enemy, than a godless, murderous revolutionary onslaught that would wipe out the work done by the colonists from 1783 to 1797’?
“Faced by this vexatious immobility of the governor and in view of teh imminence of the danger, the general population displayed a feverish exaltation,” writes Borde. “Loud cries of ‘To arms’ and ‘We are betrayed’ were heard on all sides. The roads were filled with indignant men and women and weeping children. In teh midst of all this violent excitement, only Chacon remaind unmoved.
Through his fear of the republicans, he was resolved to throw himself into the arms of the enemy, and when the population became more and more turbulent, it strengthened his determination. As a precaution, he decided to send the archives and the treasure to Don José Mayan, who was justice of the peace at St. Joseph, and these were buried under the trees on a cocoa plantation.”
Chacon told the Europeans of the town to remove themselves and their precious valuables to St. Joseph. Crowds surged into the streets, carts and buggies made the first ever traffic jam on old St. Joseph Road. Men on horseback forced a passage through the torchlit mass of the foreday morning chill.
At about 2 am, a great glow suddenly appeared in the west, and an awful cry arose above the tumult. Great consternation and fear gripped everyone. From the distance, great booming explosions echoed in the St. Anns and Maraval valleys, as the gunpowder stores blew up in the holds of the Spanish ships blazing, lighting the passing of an empire, marking the end of an era when Spain ruled the western world.