The Royal Victoria Institute was built in 1892 as a museum for art and science. It was named after Queen Victoria, who celebrated her diamond jubilee (50 years of reign) on the 17th September, 1892. The first exhibit was comprised of microscopic pictures. The cost of construction of the Victoria Institute was $6, 500. In 1894, it was enlarged by a reading and recreation rooms for the members of the society.
On 13th April, 1913, the Marie Louise Hall of the King Edward VII Memorial Wing was opened by no other than Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein herself (Schleswig-Holstein is now a state of the Federal Republic of Germany). Seven years later, on the 1st April, 1920, the whole building and all its contents were completely destroyed by fire. Many valuable collections were lost forever. The main building of the Victoria Institute was rebuilt after the original plans three years later.
An interesting collection was exhibited at the Royal Victoria Institute in Febuary 1897, which was staged to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the British conquest of Trinidad. Amongst the several interestin exhibits was one of this island’s lost treasures. It was a book called “El Libro Becerro”, literally The Vellum Book. The catalogue, which was written by Lionel Fraser, describes the book as thus:
“When in 1783, the King of Spain consented to allow the immigration of foreigners into Trinidad, i.e. of non-Spaniards, he issued a Cedula of Population in which the conditions of settlement and various rules and regulations were laid down. Amongst other things, it was ordered that the grants made to the new settlers should be entered in a ‘Libro Becerro’, in which were also to be recorded the names and descriptions of all the newcomers. The first entry in this volume is that of ‘John Black’, a native of Ireland, who subsequently played an important part in the history of the island. This entry is dated in 1784 and is signed by Governor Chacon. The last of the entries made under the Spanish rule records the name of Doña Rosa Desir, a native of Grenada, and is dated 7th December, 1796.”
The Vellum Book is thus a valuable record of the early settlers under the Cedula of Population, and as Fraser adds, it shows the people with whom the ‘History of the Island may fairly be deemed to have practically commenced’.
Tradition has it that there were two copies of this book that contained the names of Trinidad’s earliest settlers. One was known to have been lost in the Town Hall fire of 1947. The whereabouts of the other is a mystery. Anyone knowing anything about this treasure may call the editor!
Another item in the catalogue of the 1897 exhibition are the well-known Murray family, who once owned Woodbrook estate and is remembered there by Murray Street. The Murrays have over the years produced several generations of outstanding sportsmen. In the catalogue, however, the entry takes on the form of an ‘Army List’ of 1797 which belonged to an officer who formed part of the army commanded by Abercromby. Fraser describes:
“Apparently he [Murray] entered the army subsequently to the publication of the list, as his name does not appear, but that he formed part of the army is certain. He settled in the island and married a Mademoiselle Rochard. The late Dr. Thomas Murray was on of his sons and the late Marshal Edward Murray was another.”
The Army List is very interesting as it shows the composition and state of the British army at the commencement of the Great War. Names that later assumed world importance are mentioned ‘in passing’, e.g. Beau Brummell, the quondam friend of the ‘Prince Regent’, was then a mere junior captian of the 10th Hussars, and the future ‘Iron Duke’ Wellington was entered as Lt.-Colonel Wellesley of the 33rd; Colin Campbell, today remembered as Lord Clyde, was simply the Lieutenant of the Black Watch, and Picton, the future governor of Trinidad and later a hero of Waterloo, was the Second Lieutenent-Colonel of the 56th. Many young men had yet to earn their spurs in 1797.
As Fraser futher describes, the list also shows how certain regiments were entirely comprised of non-British, men who had been in the service of France before the Revolution of 1789. Those contingents took part in the capture of Trinidad, and some of the names show that men of those regiments chose to settle here, as their family names are subsequently well known in Trinidad.
There were for example the York Rangers, amongst whose Lieutenants a François Le Cadre left many descendants in Trinidad, the Corsican Rangers, or the famous Irish Brigade. The latter had departed from Limerick to fight for the House of Bourbon under the British flag, along with anti-republican French regiments. One of the French soldiers who came to Trinidad with Abercromby’s fleet was the Count de Verteuil, whose descendants form today a large family.
Amongst the ancient families of Trinidad mentioned in the catalogue are also the Caracciolo-Pantin family. As Fraser writes:
“Count Guiseppe Caracciolo, who died in Trinidad on the 6th August 1819, was the direct descendant of Domenico Caracciolo. His eldest son, Domenico, married a lady of the family of Ruffo, by whom he had one son with the name of Literis in 1725. In the ‘Golden Book’ of Naples, he is registered as Guiseppe Literis Carcciolo. Literis married twice, and by his second wife, who was also of the Ruffo family, he had four sons, the third of whom, Luigi Guiseppe, married Mariana de la Porta Strabia. Their son Giuseppe was born in 1779 and at the age of 18 was nambed to a Sub-Lieutenancy in the Royal Cavlry. Impatient to earn military fame, in the followin gyear he joined the Russian army under the famous Suwarov who was then engaged in aiding the Austirans to fight the French under MAssena and Macdonald. He served for about a year and then returned to Naples. Subsequently, finding his safety, perhaps even his life, endangered, in consequence of his having taken service with the Russians, he determined to emigrate and arrived in Trinidad about 1801. On the 5th May 1805 he married Marie Josephine Amphoux by whom he became the father of two sons. The older was Luigi and he married Henrietta Pantin de Mouilbert, the younger, Alfredo, married Barbara Almandoz. Of these two marriages there are many descendants still living in Trinidad.”
About the Sorzano Collection, Fraser mentions that the Trinidadian history of this family goes back to holding important administrative posts in the Spanish times under Governor Chacon. Don Manuel Tomas Sorzano de Tejada occupied the important post of Contador de Real Exercito unter Chacon. Being the owner of considerable property in Trinidad, he swore the oath of allegiance to the British King after the British conquest, and served the British government for many years.
“In 1803, Sir Thomas Hislop [the then governor] named him Assistant Commandant of Arima,” writes Fraser. “Ten years later, he was given a seat at the Board of Council by Sir Ralph Woodford.”
At the time of the exhibition in 1897, the Sorzano family in Trinidad was in its fourth generation and, as Fraser said, “supplied trusted and efficient members of the Civil Service”. The Sorzano family goes back to very ancient roots in Spain. In the 9th century, a coat of arms was bestowed upon Don Sancho Martinez Sorazon de Tejda by Alphonso III, the King of Asturia, for his victory over the army of Abdallah the Arab Caliph of Cordova. In 1492, the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, recognised the Sorzano’s family services formally. The name was again mentioned by Charles V. in 1527.
Other exhibits at the Royal Victoria Institute of 1897 were a roll o the slave children at the Toncilla estate in Arima, which belonged to the Sorzano family in 1803. Another exhibit was an original printed copy of the Cedula of Population of the 23rd November 1783, which Chacon probably brought with him from the King’s printery.
The Basantas are another family mentioned by Fraser as contributors to the exhibition.
“Don Valentine de Basanta at the time of the capitulation held the office of first commissary of population to which he had been appointed by the King of Spain in the year 1792. He held a commission in the Spanish Navy, and, like Don Manuel Sorzano, owning property, and having married in the colony, decided to remain after the conquest, taking the oath of allegiance to the King of England. The name of de Basanta is that of a very ancient family of Castille and occurs frequently in the chroicles of the 14th and 15th centuries as taking part in the wars with Navarre under Pedro the Cruel and in those waged by Ferdinand and Isabella against the Moors. The father of Don Valentine de Basanta emigrated to Cartagena in 1775 and the latter settled in Trinidad where he has left numerous descendants.”