Wednesday 7 September 2011

Tobago in the 1930s

From the Diary of a Retired Naval Officer, Commander C.E.I.R. Alford, who lived in Tobago, which was later made into a charming travel book in the 1930s.

We read of his visit to Fort King George, overlooking Scarborough, 452 feet above sea level. The old barracks in his day hardly a tourist attraction, overgrown. The wind in the tall trees, the silence, humming with birdsong and insects. The row of ancient cannons, standing in the ruined embrasures, pointing mutely out over the town as he says “in silent contemplation of the past”.
Below the hospital to the left of the old prison and behind it are the condemned cells. In 1801, a slave riot was quelled by a clever strategy. The ringleader and a number of his associates were caught and taken to prison. The ringleader was then hung in full view of the town and, when dead, his body was lowered. A few minutes later the crowd again saw a body swinging aloft, to be lowered in due course and followed by another and another, until, to their terrified eyes, all the captured men had been hung. Actually however, only one man suffered death, the ringleader, for it was his body that was raised and lowered repeatedly on the gibbet.
The old fort contained some twenty guns in those days. Many of them have been removed to other sites, and there are only one or two of the great grapeshot mortars left. One of these is engraved “Great Charge, 9 pounds, range 2,800 yards”. The fort was active during the Napoleonic wars in the Caribbean and watched the harbour in Rockley Bay.
It is remembered that a ship attempted to sneek out under cover of darkness. The fort opened fire. Her captain was forced to bring her to, as a shot could have taken his main mast down. Carlton P. Ottley, writing in the same period, relates that after “centuries of war, peace finally came to Tobago. The old guns continued to serve a very useful purpose in keeping the people of Scarborough and the surrounding countryside informed of the time for closing their business places, and also for retiring for the night.”
Ottley tells us in his ‘Tobago Legends and West Indian Lore’ that nightly, whether rain or shine, on the stroke of eight, one of the cannons would boom out. This was the signal for all the rumshops in the town to shut their doors, and so would all heads of homes.
The sound of the gun meant the end of activities for all. The children who had been playing in the full moonlight went home. It was the same for the lovers sitting among the ruins of the fort, and neighbours resting on the doorsteps, and for the young man who had come to court his bride: when the eight o’clock gun boomed, everybody went home.
A man by the name of Clay was the last timekeeper to fire the gun. Unfortunately, he blew off one of his arms one night, but this did not gainstay him from his post.
The story is told how he got the time from the wardens office clock. Well, one night the clock had stopped. Clay had no idea and had not noticed. By the time he had discovered this, it was nine o’clock. He fired the cannon all the same. This was the cause of much confusion, and it was several days before the ‘time’ was re-established in Tobago.
Commander Alford describes Plymouth as a town abandoned in the 1930s. He remarks on the old grave, whose enigmatic inscription reads “Within these walls are deposited the bodies of Betty Stivens and her child. She was the beloved wife of Alex Stivens, who to the end of his day will deplore her death, which happened on the 25th day of November 1783 in the 23rd year of her life. What was remarkable of her was she was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgences to him.”
It is interesting to note Ottley’s reference. There is in the archives of the Anglican church in Scarborough an old register of baptisms, marriages and deaths 1781 - 1817. On page two of this old volume reads: “Three mulatto children of Alexander Stivens, one son by the name of Alexander and two daughters, one by the name of Sally and the name of Mary. The date September 25, 1781.” There is no record of marriage to a Betty Stivens who lies beneath the stone. Perhaps she was a faithful slave who by her goodness had endeared herself to her master Alexander Stivens, who in turn dared to do on her death what he could not do while she lived - pay tribute to her qualities as a devoted wife and fond mother of his children. But who knows for sure?

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