Wednesday 2 November 2011

General Thomas Dundas

 Trinity Cathedral was consecrated on Trinity Sunday, 1823, and to this day, 177 years on, it still possesses a sense of calm, a quiet repose in an increasingly noisy city.
In truth, there is much repose for the eye in Trinity and many objects of historical interest. The memorial plaques on the walls speak in hush tones of long dead English gentry, the Warners, the Bushes and others. Amongst these milestones of colonial decorum is one that speaks from another time. Shouts, in fact, it thunders from a period in history of these islands that was bloody, murderous, revolutionary and in the true sense of the word barbaric.
This plaque on the southern wall, not far from the main door, commemorates the memory of Major General Thomas Dundas. This memorial tablet has an even more imposing counterpart, which stands in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. This was erected by the British parliament in commemoration of the general’s heroic death, but also in memory of the sad and scandalous defilement of his bodily remains.
General Dundas was a professional soldier. He was in command of the British forces that captured Guadeloupe in April 1794. In June of that year, the forces under his command were attacked by the republic insurgents under the control of Victor Hugues. The guns of Fort Matilda boomed great red flashes into the Caribbean’s story night, keeping the French squadron at bay. By morning, Hugues’ brigands had stormed Basseterre, Guadeloupe’s capital. A company of Hugues’ fiercest fighters attacked the fort. Dundas, putting himself to the fore, saber in hand, in an attempt to hold the breach being made by the insurgents, struck first one bearded sailor with his fist, sending him sprawling to the wall, and then ran another through. Red blood gushed from the fellow’s chest. Dundas turned to call the Scottish 72nd regiment forward. All of a sudden, he felt the sting of pain in his left arm, the force of the lead ball spun him round. He slashed with his sword the face that appeared before him, as his men jumped into the open space, firing, then charging with bayonets at the ready. The second bullet took Dundas in the side, taking him to his knees with a groan. He rose again to stand beside the regimental colours. The swarming brigands maintained a withering fire as the 72nd regiment prepared to charge their ragged line. General Prescot had joined the colour party, and seeing the state of Dundas, ordered the charge be sounded. The line of boy drummers, their faces pale with fright, began a rapid beat. On the shattered wall a bugle called. The forward elements of the 72nd charged. The colour party lurched forward, battle flag snapping in the wind.
Dundas moved forward. The pain that had racked his body was almost a memory now; his mind was blank. “Forward,” he thought. He shouted. The grassy Caribbean ground was turning under his feet, as he was standing still, rooted to the spot. The sky above was innocent in its present state of blue.
The third bullet caught him in the left eye. He died on that day, in that spot, where he had held the breach at Fort Matilda, Guadeloupe.
Dundas was buried there that evening to the sounds of a fierce battle being fought at Pointe-à-Pitre. Victor Hugues routed the British and proceeded to slaughter the French royalist families. Some were shot, others guillotined. Young women were auctioned off to the troops. Other aristocratic ladies were used as gambling chips in lunatic card games played by their former slaves. Hugues was described as ‘the man of blood, the Robespierre of the colonies’. As a man possessed, he marched on the ruin of Fort Matilda, where General Dundas’ body was exhumed and thrown in its decomposing state into a nearby river, where it was attacked by dogs.
On October 4, 1839, more than 40 years later, the ‘Trinidad Standard’ reported an interesting discovery. James Ross, master mason of Port of Spain, whiled directing the removal of a heap of loose stones in the yard of a house in Edward Street, once occupied by an ordinance storekeeper called Edwards, rescued from the rubbish a marble urn and tablet. On being cleaned, the following inscription was found:

Ross immediately informed the governor, Colonel Sir E.M. McGregor, who in turn requested the reverend rector of Trinity Church to assign some fit place within the walls of that edifice for the erection of the memento so providentially rescued from oblivion.

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