Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Great Fire of 1808

Dr. Shaw was one of the many Scotsmen who found their way to Trinidad in the first years of the 19th century. By 1808, he had established himself on lower Frederick Street, number 12, that is on the eastern side between Queen Street and Independence Square, more to the end of the block than the middle. He had a modest practice and also operated an apothecary shop from where he dispensed medicinal preparations to the expanding township.
Port of Spain had changed a lot with the arrival of the French and Free blacks form Grenada and the other French islands from 1783 onwards. Despite the upheaval of the British conquest, the old thatch and tapia buildings that clustered around the old Catholic church which was built on what is now Tamarind Square, in the general area of Duncan, Nelson and George Streets, were giving way to handsome wooden buildings, covered in wood shingles.
The French in this period built with wood. Wood was readily available. Virgin forest of hardwood stretched literally from the shoreline into the nearby mountains. The town, as it is now, had been laid out like a grill - ten streets from Edward Street in the west to Duncan Street in the east, and six streets from Marine Square to Oxford Street. Perhaps about 4,000 to 6,000 people lived there, masters and slaves, some rich, some poor, an assortment of nationalities, all shared in the growing prosperity of this busy port. Dr. Shaw, it has been reported, came home just a little inebriated as a result of having a wee drop with some of his pals, and made his way by the light of a flambeaux to the outhouse at the back of number 12. No one knows for sure what happened next - did he fall asleep on the throne? Did he drop the flambeaux, causing a blaze in between the old crates and barrels? Whatever it might have been, the next thing that happened was that his store room was ablaze. He had recently received quantities of sulfur, niter, ether and other rectified spirits and essential oils - all this soon raged with inconceivable violence. The foreday morning breeze coming from the Laventille hills churned the fire into an inferno, spreading quickly, jumping the streets not just from east to west, but from south to north. The inferno caught the town asleep. People leaped from windows, fled with nothing but their nightclothes, and in some cases nothing at all. In minutes, the place was aglow, lit up in a macabre light of raging destruction. Stores of gunpowder in various storerooms exploded. Women with children ran screaming to the waterfront. The men of the town joined in with soldiers of the 37th and the 8th regiments, who were stationed at the barracks where the hospital is now, in a vain attempt to save the town. The few water pumps they possessed had fallen into neglect, and the various wells were soon emptied. Horses and mules, tethered in stables all over the town, screamed in terror as they were killed, or bolted wildly down the blazing streets.
Almost all the buildings were destroyed, 12 square blocks in all burnt completely, 49 blocks partially. 435 houses were gutted, making 4,500 people homeless. The damage exceeded a million pounds sterling!
It was, in fact, Trinidad’s first catastrophe. The town was rebuilt, this time of stone. One can still see the high limestone walls between the buildings in Port of Spain that were erected as fire walls to prevent the repeat of such a disaster.

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