Wednesday 12 October 2011

White Hall

“During the indeterminable wars that have afflicted my country, I have served the cause of freedom.
For 13 years, my comrade in arms, Pascal Paoli, has defied the despots of Genoa, who claim to possess our island home. Now Corsica, the beloved, has been sold by them to the French, and we must renew the war. It was the end of April 1769, when General Devaux scattered our heroic band and Pascal Paoli allowed himself to be carried away to England. We will rebuild our Corsica and raise another generations of sons and await his return...”

Towards the end of his reign, Louis XVI, at the urgings of the patriots of the Corsican wars, did name Pascal Paoli governor of the wildly beautiful Mediterranean island. Within months, the French revolution had swept him and the House of Bourbons from the throne of France and rather than let Corsica fall into the hands of the French revolution, Pascal Paoli allowed the British to take it in 1794.

Within three years, on the other side of the world, another island also changed hands. Trinidad became a British possession in 1797. It was just about this period that the Corsican immigration to Trinidad commenced made possible because Britain controlled both islands.

Don Simon Agostini was a capitulant, meaning that he had arrived in Trinidad before the British conquest and was amongst the first to take the oath of allegiance to the King of England. There are many families of Corsican descent in Trinidad today. They have delightful-sounding names, familiar yet foreign to Trinidadians: Giuseppi, Franchesci Gianetti and Cipriani to name a few.

Simon Agostini became the proprietor of several sugar estates and prospered, but eventually suffered in the economic collapse in the period after the emancipation of the slaves.

It was during the rebirth of the French and Corsican family fortunes, which was due in the main from the cocoa industry, in the 1850s, that some relatives of Don Simon came to Trinidad to seek their fortunes. Amongst these was a young man by the name of Joseph Leon Agostini. His father became a cane farmer in the Oropouche area of South Trinidad. Joseph Leon was sent to Germany for his education and upon his return joined the firm of Henry Watt & Co. He later became an accountant at Andre Ambard & Son and married Marie Josephine Ambard,  his boss’ second daughter.

Leon Agostini made a fortune in cocoa and acquired Coblentz House in St Anns from his brother-in-law Captain the Hon. John Belle-Smythe for the remarkable sum of $19,200. Leon improved the property, which was said to have 99 windows, and in 1880 entertained Prince Albert and Prince George, sons of His Royal Highness Edward the Prince of Wales there. Leon Agostini devoted a great deal of his time to public duties and in 1879 founded the Trinidad & Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

Amongst the several cocoa estates owned by Leon Agostini was the San Jose estate at Caura. In 1900, during the last opulent days of the cocoa planters’ supremacy, Leon Agostini acquired a parcel of land in St. Clair, 29 Maraval Road, for £1,000. Building commenced in 1904 in accordance with his own design - Venetian style - and was completed four years later.

This residence, the largest of the five private homes on the western side of the Queen’s Park Savannah, was built of Barbados coral brought to Trinidad by sloop. The final construction cost is said to have been $80,000, which was considered a very large sum in those days.

The imported coral was cut locally, and Joseph Leon Agostini lost heavily in this line. His daughters Stella and Blanche contributed to the beauty of this gracious home in the decoration of wood paneling in the downstairs rooms. Leon Agostini lived there in extravagant style until his death in 1906. By 1905, however, he had found himself in financial difficulties and was forced to hand over the building to Gordon Grant & Co. as part of payment to them.

The year after his death, his wife sold the property, through William Gordon Gordon, to Robert Henderson for $ 34,144. Robert Henderson took up residence there with his family, and during his ownership delightful changes were added in the furnishing of the interior and gardens which added to the refined dignity of the exterior. The name ‘Whitehall’ was given to the residence by the Henderson family. Robert Henderson lived in Whitehall until his death in 1918.

Whitehall became the headquarters for the Air Raid Police at the beginning of the Second World War under Captain Robert Johnstone. With the arrival of the United States Forces in Trinidad, Whitehall was commandeered from the heirs of Robert Henderson by the government and was occupied by the United States Forces from 1940 to 1944 at a rental of $ 440 per month.

Being a leasehold property, a variation in the covenant was necessary to hold offices for business there. In 1944, the British Council rented and occupied the building for the next five years as a cultural center. The Trinidad Central Library, the Archives, the Government Broadcasting Unit, the Trinidad Art Society, the National Archives and the Cellar Club all rented premises in the building.

In 1949, the lease was not renewed to the British Council, and the building remained empty until 1954, when it was purchased by the Trinidad Government for $123,000. In 1957, Whitehall was taken over by the pre-federal interim government, until the Federation of the West Indies was launched in 1958. It then housed the office of the first Prime Minister of Trinidad Dr. the Right Honorable Eric Williams as well as other Government departments.

In 1993, a restoration programme was implemented.

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