Lapeyrouse cemetery in Port of Spain is one of the best examples of this country’s cosmopolitan population. It contains the graves and tombs of the rich and the poor. Reading the inscriptions is a veritable ‘tour de force’ of the known world.
There are rows of graves with Chinese inscriptions, as well as small mansions for the French aristocratic dead. Elegant monuments commemorate the more conservative British, and imposing rotundas and tall obelisks eminent free masons of a previous century.
The various religious rites performed at Lapeyrouse are a true reflection of the country’s multi-faceted society. On a busy afternoon, one can hear the clapping and chanting of the Shouters, while not to far away is the murmur of the Catholics working at their beads. In the gathering dusk, the mournful tubas of the Salvation Army Band keeps pace with alarming flats and sharps as rendered by the reeds and woodwinds. You can hear a kaiso or two and sometimes very god pan. The smell of flowers is often mingled with that of exotic incense, and at times there is the bang and flash of firecrackers. This is for the Chinese.
Indeed, the origins of Lapeyrouse are closely connected with the establishment of present-day Trinidad. Picot de la Peyrouse, a French nobleman, came to Trinidad in 1778. He was a friend and companion of Philip Rose Roume de St. Laurent. His older brother was one of those intrepid explorers who circumnavigated the globe towards the end of the 18th century.
Picot acquired land on the outskirts of Port of Spain, a muddy little village in those days. And together with a gang of slaves he cleared the dense forest and laid out the first sugar cane estate on the island. Picot also built the first factory there for the production of Muscovado sugar, brown, wet and smelling of molasses.
He may have been our first exporter. The Otaheite variety of cane did well and so did the de la Peyrouse family.
A parcel of land, no one knows quite where, was a burial ground even before the de la Peyrouse cane fields. This served a small village, now lost into the suburbs of Port of Spain. This parcel of land bounded on the estate or was perhaps on it. It was called ‘Campo Santo’ (the holy field). The earliest grave is said to have been one for Jean Creteau, who died in 1745.
Port of Spain grew and prospered, and by the time of the British conquest in 1797, it was in need of a bigger and better burial ground. This was marked off in a small area bordered by Tragarete Road, Richmond Street and Fraser Street. A wall was erected around it, and by 1813 it was referred to as the ‘Old Cemetery’. The records concerning the purchase of land from the de la Peyrouse family by the Cabildo have long since been destroyed by the various fires that have swept the town over the years. It would appear, however, that the Littlepage family business did tender for the erection of a wall around the ‘New Cemetery’. This new burial ground acquired the name ‘Lapeyrouse’ by 1831, being on the old estate lands.
By 1823, colonial order was being generally imposed on this unruly, very heterogeneous and bacchanal-prone island. This was highlighted by the inauguration of a section of Lapeyrouse for Anglicans towards the western wall. Not to be outdone, there was soon a place for Catholics - the eastern side.
Within just a few years, the cemetery was again enlarged, this time buying lands from the Shine family, who were originally Irish and are related to the Park and Black families. One Herr Schuler, a German, was employed as keeper. It is interesting to note that several remarkable people became keepers of the cemetery in the 19th century: P.G.L. Borde, for example, the notable historian, and also José Numa Dessource, an early socialist reformer who attempted to start a colony in Venezuela.
Over the next few years, more land was acquired by the Cabildo, this time from Joseph Dert (pronounced Der), who was the son of Benoît Dert, who had started the first coffee estate in an area between Queen’s Park south and Tragarete Road in the 1770s (now part of Newtown). Benoît also introduced freemasonry to Trinidad in the establishment of Lodge United Brothers, which is still in existence today.
Governor Sir Ralph Woodford (1813 - 1829) worked hard for the cause of racial segregation in Trinidad, to the extent of marking off a portion of Lapeyrouse cemetery for the free black people of the town. This in fact cost Schuler his job as for various reasons he lost track of the incoming dead and often buried the blacks amongst the whites and vice versa. The matter was amended only ‘as far as circumstances will admit’. It must have been extremely upsetting for the white dead who had avoided personal contact with the blacks throughout their entire lifetimes, to find themselves sharing the same worms in death...
In those times, Trinidad possessed chain gangs, prisoners chained together, who were set to work building roads like Lady Chancellor Road, cutting canals like Harts Cut in Chaguaramas (which was filled in the Second World War), and digging graves. The men in the chain gang were whipped on a regular basis by a slave called Cinq Sous (five cents). After Cinq Sous’ untimely death, the Illustrious Cabildo was forced to advertise for a new whipper.
Just as today, the cemetery was populated by both the living and the dead, and efforts were constantly made to stop the robbing of tombs of their monuments and mortuary decorations. There was also an active trade in skulls and other bones for the purpose of obeah. Corpses were sometimes exhumed by robbers in search of gold and other valuables and reports were made to the police of the finding of smashed dentures where gold had been removed from them. So much for ‘R.I.P.’ - rest in piece.
In the period just before emancipation, that part of town was pretty rough. There was stickfighting and brawling on an ongoing basis. Corbeaux Town’s name was well earned. Port of Spain’s jamette society staged spectacular funerals that were remembered more than 100 years later by oral tradition. This was recorded by Mitto Sampson in the 1940s, who was otherwise known as ‘Strong Man’. Sampson was famous for his death-defying hangman’s leap from the Dry River bridge, a noose being fastened to it and then placed around his neck.
The cemetery grew in direct proportion to the town, eventually covering some 20 acres. By the 1840s, Ariapita estate, which had once belonged to the wife of Roume de St. Laurent, had been developed for housing. So had been Tranquillity, acquired from the Cummings family. Newtown, once part of the St. Clair estate, was also opened up. Streets were laid out and people moved in. There was an air of prosperity about the place, which was of course reflected at Lapeyrouse cemetery with magnificent mausoleums, some containing chapels where masses may be sung in Latin, even then a dead language.
The cholera epidemics of 1854 wrought a terrible havoc in the town. The connection between the cesspits and the waterwells in most people’s back yards was not made until too late and Lapeyrouse possesses a certain melancholy for the quantity of graves with the names and years of life of the city’s very young inhabitants.
Burying people in the tropics had to be done quickly, even hastily. There is a case of an Indian indentured who was to be buried. Fortunately for him, his cries were heard coming from his coffin by some soldiers of the West India Regiment. He was saved. For many years later, he was known as ‘Lapeau’ (after Lapeyrouse) and made his living as a rat catcher.
Great samaans once lined Main Street in Lapeyrouse. Only two are left. No longer are there royal palms trailing yellow tail birds’ nests. The famous American naval commander Commodore Perry is remembered on the Tragarete Road side in ‘Perry Gate’. This monument is upkept by the American government. On the eastern side, Daniel Hart had erected a massive arch in the 1840s as the main entrance to Lapeyrouse, which was once flanked by elaborate cast iron lamps. These have long been stolen and sold. There was once a lovely water fountain - this too has gone.
The tombstones of Lapeyrouse make interesting reading, ranging from the simple to the hilarious. One ‘Wag’ had engraved on his marker: “Fart free, wherever you be, for this was the death of me.”
There is also the well-known “Malice to none, charity to all” and this inscription which you can find near to the southern gate:
“Stop, traveler, e’er you go by
So are you now, so once was I
As I am now, soon you will be
Prepare yourself to follow me.”