Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Where slaves were hung


Myth becoming history

Myth is often an unavoidable, some even say integral, part of history. In an attempt to create precedent and to come to terms with what has happened, people invest myth into witnesses of the past. If there is nothing available to inform their thinking, 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 India along with several others and would have been a very small sapling at Woodford’s time, becoming the magnificent giant 150 years later inthe 1920s. 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 a few 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. 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 abolition of slavery, 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 where it is to this day.
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 was 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’ 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 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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