Tuesday 27 September 2011

Where slaves were hung

Myth becoming history

Myth is often an unavoidable, some may even say an integral part of history. In an attempt to create precedent and to come to terms with what has happened, people at times create myths as a witness of the past and, if there is nothing available to inform their thinking otherwise, myth becomes history and then fact.

“That is the remains of the hanging tree,” said the custodian of Woodford Square. “They cut it down, but people come all the time and pick up pieces, the woodchips.” The great stump of the samaan was cut almost to the level of the walkway in the middle of the Square. It was another one of those historical mistakes - a case of a myth becoming historical fact!
In truth, it was Sir Ralph Woodford, Govenor from 1813 to 1829, who laid out Brunswick Square - later call Woodford after him - with exotic trees imported from various places as was the custom in England at the time. That particular samaan had come all the way from  South America along with several others and would have been a very small sapling at Woodford’s time, becoming the magnificent giant 150 years later in the 20th century. In any event, there were no public executions in Trinidad in the Woodford years. For that sort of display one would have to go back several decades to Govenor Picton’s time.
Another case of myth becoming history concerns the brick stone and iron structure on South Quay opposite to the old Railway Station (City Gate). To the utter amusement of the older heads of Port-of Spain a few years ago, this vault or safe, was declared a slave cell. Candlelight vigils began to take place there, processions of hundreds of people assembled in the vacant lot around this forlorn, abandoned structure.
This vault was never a cell for slaves. It was part of a building constructed in the 1870s on reclaimed land, some 30 years after the  emancipation of the enslaved by a Portuguese family for the purpose of keeping their money and other valuables. After the demolition of the building, the vault proved to be indestructible and remained there for several years.
Yet another claim at identifying another ‘slave site’ was launched some years ago by a clergyman. This time it was King George V park in St. Clair, where it was said the bodies of hundreds of slaves of the St. Clair estate were buried. Again this is not the case. As the original plan of the estate would show, the estate cemetery was not too far from the house where a dozen or so slaves had been interred along with various members of the Grey family, proprietors of the St. Clair estate.
But the most suprising of all the recent cases of myth progressing into history was the one concerning the mythical sea creature that once formed a part of the weather vane atop the rotunda of the Red House. In fact, this was a matter concerning the politicizing of superstition, in truth the institutionalizing of superstition. The so called ‘Dragon on the Red House’ was said to have placed there by a political party that having lost an election was out of power and the newly elected government was seeking to denigrate them. In fact it had been there since 1907 when the building was rebuilt after the fire of 1903. As a sea creature, it matched the Marine Venus in the nearby Woodford Square fountain, and kept verey good company with Port of Spain’s Marine Square and of  course the nearby Dragon’s Mouth. By no stretch of imagination was this unfortunate beast put there in recent years. In fact, as a historical monument, it should be replaced!

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