Friday, 7 October 2011

Chacon - Knight of Calatrava

He buckled on his helmet coming down the flight of wooden stairs, and entered the atrium just as Alejandro, his squire, was bringing in his black Arab charger ‘Champion’. Skittish, he danced lightly sideways, tossing his handsome head, making statico sounds on the limestone floor. From the distance came shouts and calls above the general noise. Earlier, there had been shots fired.
He swung his long, thin legs over the side-stepping horse and settled himself. His saber of the best Andalusian steel made familiar and comforting noises at his side. Already, the heat was rising in his tight-fitting, closely buttoned gray and gold uniform, a uniform which defined him as Rear Admiral of the Spanish navy.
The gold and blue enamel decorations proclaimed him a Knight of the Order of Calatrava, an ancient and noble order that more than three centuries before had absorbed the remnants of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, who were stationed in Spain when their order was destroyed abroad by both pope and king.
In his middle-thirties, he was intelligent, well educated and competent, and had brought many advancements to this colony. He was presently presiding over a dangerous, possibly explosive affair. Lt. Col. Don Matias de Letamardi and Lt. Col. Don Miguel Herrera awaited the governor’s pleasure outside what would be later called the Charlotte Street gate of the old Government House in Port of Spain. Both were well mounted and armed with sabers. Opposite, a troop of the governor’s body guard was drawn up with lances held at ease. A colour party, displaying the imperial and regimental colours as well as the governor’s personal ensign, was already present on the Plaza de la Marina, opposite to the foot of Charlotte Street.
During his tenure, foreigners in large numbers had arrived on the island. Some were dedicated to agriculture, others to commerce. In the prolonged was between England and France, the latter had sent a large squadron under the command of the Count de Grasse to protect its colonies in the West Indies. This was beaten and destroyed by the English under Admiral Rodney. As a consequence, the latter raided and invaded the French Antilles, which in turn in order to defend themselves from a common enemy, freed the slaves and instilled in them the maxims of the French Revolution. All those discontented with the other governments of the neighbouring islands came to Trinidad with their money and their slaves.
The sequence of events that would eventually lead to invasion by the British had its origins in what increasingly became an English blockade of the island. Trinidad was flooded by foreigners as the result of what was taking place in the region. Many who would have slipped away, were forced to stay. The Admiral Governor had very few resources, hardly any troops, no fortification, and a shortage of heavy masonry. There were no jails, no barracks or armory magazine. In fact, he was left to the goodwill of the public, and this public was made up of individuals from other nations, with the least being the Spaniard themselves. As a consequence, the people were disunited by mutual discords through different traditions. They were rivals by constitution and enemies amongst themselves. There was about the place a sense of fermentation.
Many of those with republican sentiments - both French and African - had encountered the English on the high seas. It became an inevitability that something would arise to trigger a disaster. Already, there was random violence two days prior. Two men, both French, had been killed; several negroes had been gravely wounded.
The following week, a British squadron had entered the Gulf of Paria. Spain was not at war with England. The squadron dispersed a flock of privateers, sinking some of their dilapidated craft. The English sailors later came into Port of Spain. The bar belonging to an Irishwoman was crowded with French seamen, some of whom had lost everything. One thing led to another, and a brawl ensued. Captain George Vaughan of the British Frigate ‘Alarm’ came on the scene, and with sword drawn made a way through the crowd, stabbing a Frenchman. The English sailors were mobbed and fled to a nearby house. The mob began to take apart the house, and Captain Vaughan fired his pistols.
The governor, disturbed from his dinner, made hasty preparations to send patrols to close off streets. People in town, ever awaiting any sigh that could trigger wholescale looting, seized the opportunity to break open an arsenal and steal as many guns as they could. It was not until midnight that the town was pacified and the English captain and his men were safely back on their ships. Events, however, were far from over.
By morning, it was clear that the British were going to come ashore. The slaves from the nearby estates had come into town at the time of the disturbance. The tricolour cockade which they regarded as a symbol of liberty was worn by several, and others were persuaded to wear it.
He acted quickly. He had several slaves whipped publicly on the spot, thus dampening the spreading libertine spirits. French republican sentiment worked like a magnet on the free coloured classes and the slaves. The slaves wanted freedom, the free blacks and coloured needed equality with the whites. The island teetered on the brink of civil war.
Captain Vaughan put ashore a company of Royal Marines and a party of drummers, and with flags flying and with an expectant crowd growing larger by the minute, they set out to meet the republican French, who had gathered on the western edge of the dry riverbed of the Rio Santa Anna.
The river in those days crossed what is now Park Street, traveled down Frederick Street, crossed Woodford Square and made its way to the sea.
He had reacted just in time for as the opposing sides were about to hurl themselves at each other, his bugler had sounded his call and his standard bearers preceded his slender column into the dry riverbed (which, many years later, would bear his name as a city street). Silence fell about him as the call echoed away.
Ignoring the rabble, the governor addressed the English captain, asking him the significance of his actions. Vaughan answered that he had come armed for his own protection. The governor had then to make him realise with various reproaches and reasoning the impropriety and violence of his transgression without regard to the fact that the two countries, Spain and England, were not at war. He left him a choice of two alternatives: either he may be disarmed and return in column with the assurance that he would be allowed to go without harm, or that he could put himself at the head of his troops and may begin hostilities whenever he may like, in which case the Governor would reply to him.
The sun, now directly overhead, hammered a ferocious heat onto the bolder-strewn riverbed. Above a hawk circled, and a star blazed for a moment in the blue. No one noticed. The thin red line of British withdrew. Don José Maria Chacon sat erect upon ‘Champion’. The republican French, the free blacks and the runaway slaves hooted and shouted bad remarks. Captain Vaughan later committed suicide. The British government used the incident as one of several reasons to start a war with Spain - which they won.

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