Thursday 6 October 2011

Trinidad comes into Modern Society

Modern times, so to speak, began to come to Trinidad in the period following the end of Britain's wars with France. For some 20 years, these two powers had contested over the remnants of the Spanish empire and over European hegemony. It had lasted through the last days of French monarchy, the French revolution and the first empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. By the time that England decided to free the slaves in the Caribbean in the 1830s, her navy essentially ruled the oceans of the world.
Unchallenged on the high seas for the first time in several decades, trade flourished. In Trinidad by the start of the 1840s, the old French plantocracy was reeling from the loss of manpower to run the plantations of cane and cotton.  Large estates went relatively cheap to the newly-arriving British entrepreneurs. A banking system was put into place in 1838 with the establishment of the Colonial Bank, the forerunner of Republic Bank today, to facilitate the change-over from a plantation economy to a regular economy based on imports and exports.
Indeed, this period marked a beginning. The commencement of a new society with different values and needs as compared to the previous slave society. The challenge for new labour to work the freshly liberated estates would soon be met by the simple expedient of importing workers from one end of the empire to another, this time under contract.

One of the really new commodities to come to these islands in this period was ice. Michael Anthony, author of 'First in Trinidad', recounts that ice arrived on the 17th September 1844. The 'Port of Spain Gazette' reported on page two:
"Ice, ice, ice. The Brigantine 'New England' under the command of Captain McCurdy has arrived from Boston with a cargo of ice."
There were people alive in the 1920s who could remember being taken to see this new wonder. Ice made from prehistoric water that had been formed in icebergs at a time when great mammoths walked the earth, was hacked off into gigantic blocks, packed into the holds of massive wooden sailing ships and transported to these islands. The man who imported ice into this country for the first time was D.P. Cotton, a forward-thinking newly arrived Englishman. A place was needed to keep this ice, and the first Ice House was erected. According to Michael Anthony's research, this first ice house "was in the rear of Government House, which itself occupied part of the Treasury" - would this have been lower St. Vincent Street, which ended at a wharf in an area known as 'Stinking Corner' as result of it being a fisherman's wharf?
It would appear that crowds of people converged on the ice house. D.P. Cotton advertised his ice for sale at five cents per pound and in quantities at not less than 100 pounds at 4 cents per pound. He also advised that ice should be covered by a good thick woolen blanket. He also suggested to families that refrigerators should be purchased and proceeded to import them himself a few months later.
Within a few weeks, a new ice house was built at the corner of Abercromby Street and Marine Square (now Independence Square). This building existed as a city landmark till 1977. The arrival of ice did change urban culture to some extent. It allowed for the preservation of food and with the emerging affluence presented to the public cool drinks, iced fruits, vegetables and for the very first time ice cream. Christmas 1844 was the first time that ice cream was enjoyed in Trinidad. Cotton's ice house flourished. It became a social center. He kept a range of imports frozen to eventually be put on sale, and perhaps on a more somber note, he also provided the newly-imported commodity to the town's mortuary, so that the dead may be kept a little longer in order to facilitate the arrival of out-of-town relatives for the funeral. Times were indeed changing!

Flowers were imported into this country a decade or so later. This notice appeared in the Port of Spain Gazette in indeed flowery terms:
"A novel and we should think very useful and attractive store has just been opened on Queen Street for the sale of a large assortment of European flowers and fruit trees. Pillforce & Co. have on hand a collection of choice plants to delight the floral amateur and we have little doubt that at the moderate prices at which these beauties are offered they will soon effect a clearance."

Lord Harris, governor of Trinidad from 1845 to 1854, was a great benefactor to learning and to intellectual refinement. Apart form the establishment of the Ward Schools, Lord Harris was instrumental in the creation of our public library system from somewhat humble beginnings in 1851. The original library committee comprised Chief Justice George Knox, the Attorney General Charles Warner, a member of Harris' council, John Losh, R.C. Archbishop Patrick Smith and Archdeacon George Cummings, and a person described as possessing refinement, Augustin Thoulouis. Knox Street in Port of Spain is named for George Knox. Dr. Court and Sir Louis de Verteuil soon to mayor of Port of Spain also served on the library committee, representing the town council. J. Danglade, Esq., was the first secretary/librarian.
The library was first located on Chacon Street, but moved to new premises in 1902. The site to which the library moved at the corner of Pembroke Street and Knox Street was in fact a former 'Government House' in that it was lived in by Col. Fullerton, one of the commissioners to Trinidad at the end of the Picton administration in 1803.

By far and away the worst catastrophe to hit Trinidad ever was the cholera epidemic of the 1850s. In 1854, the total population of Port of Spain was about 18,500. In a nine-week period, 4,200 cases of cholera were reported, deaths as a result stood at 2,112 persons. 57% of the victims died, more than 10% of the population of Port of Spain! Weekly interments at Lapeyrouse cemetery were startling, the numbers being: 49, 170, 364, 455, 495, 256, 144, 43, and 36.
Having no idea of the cause of the epidemic, great feat gripped the town. tar was burnt in barrels on street corners, filling the air with its own vile odor. The clip-clap of mules' hoofs drawing carts filled with corpses joined hearses, decorated with encrusted wreaths, drawn by black plumed horses that were in turn draped in black net. Churches were crammed with a never-ending round of funerals. Bouts of black dysentery heralded this disease that wiped out entire households, rich and poor, African and European alike.
Soup kitchens were set up, and Port of Spain, sectioned off into zones, was volunteer-patrolled to take the afflicted to centers. $ 2000 was collected to help the poor amongst the sick and to bury the indigent dead.
People in those days had no idea that cholera was caused by the close proximity of cesspits to the waterwells, which was the case all over the town. San Fernando lost 14% of its population. The countryside fared a bit better. Obeah and black magic flourished as people in great desperation sought any means to save themselves. Many committed suicide, having lost their loved ones, their children, their spouse. From England came the news that cholera was a water-borne disease. The city's wells, public and private, were filed in and a system for the distribution of pipe-borne water was commenced in earnest.
In fact, a water company had been formed already in 1841 to bring water from the St. Anns and Maraval valleys into the heart of town, supplying households along the streets from the Savannah all the way to the wharves. Pipe-borne water coming out of taps right in your home was to the vast majority of locally-born citizens as strange as the arrival of ice.
Already in the 1820s, Governor Sir Ralph Woodford had arranged for water to be piped into his new government house at St. Anns. The state of the town in those days was one of elegant town houses standing right next to shacks and crumbling mansions from the period of the first French immigration wave some 40 years earlier. Herds of cattle sometimes stampeded through the streets, raising clouds of black corbeaux into the air which swooped at pedestrians, knocking off their top hats and frightening the horses. The aroma of cocoa and tonca beans filled the air. Dogs, goats, donkeys, horses and all their droppings made for a medley of smells. The sounds and rumblings of the carts filled the streets, which were often muddy. Only the center of the roads was paved to form a channel into which anything was flung. Cesspits were dug everywhere, adding their own charm to the evening air.
Under such unhygienic conditions, it took the cholera epidemic of 1854 to really bring pipe-borne water to the town. A huge reservoir was dug in the north-western corner of the Savannah known today as the Rock Gardens or Hollows. A channel took the water from St. Anns through the Botanical Gardens under the street to this reservoir. Its overflow area is known today as the Wild Flower Park.
But it was ultimately from the Maraval river that water came to Port of Spain. To facilitate this, an ordinance was drafted, whereby access was gained through lands owned by Eliza Piggot La Coste, Jean de Boissière, Henri Boissière, J.N. Boissière, Fritz and William Urich and the St. Clair estate. For the time being, the town's water needs were met.
Water, however, continued to be an issue in Trinidad. Some fifty years later, events around water distribution rose to a boiling point and the water riots occurred in 1903.

Public Transport
It was P. & H. Creteau who introduced public transport for hire. A horse-drawn cab system was introduced - handsome cabs, drawn by high-stepping chestnuts or matching grays. The 'Port of Spain Gazette' reported on the 19th October, 1864:
"Ten or a dozen cabs now make their daily appearance in King Street or Marine Square, of which the greater number would do no discredit to the streets of London itself." The article concluded: "Our vehicles are clean, decent to look at and well horsed, and the drivers are tolerably civil."

Postal Service
A postal service was inaugurated on the 14th August, 1851. In a real sense, this spoke for the integration of the society, connecting outlying districts, keeping people in touch with the rest of the world. It was only in 1850 that the British government had passed an act enabling colonial legislatures to create inland post., which was handled by the police service. They did this on horseback. The central post office was established on lower Frederick Street at the police station, and James O'Brien, Esq., became the first postmaster. The steamer 'Lady McLeod' carried the first mail to San Fernando. A special stamp, now very valuable, was issued. In September 1860, regular postmen were eventually introduced to the routes established by the mounted police.

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