Tuesday 29 November 2011

Spanish Times

Trinidad, 1701. A great verdant forest stretches without hindrance from coast to coast, from the cloudy mountaintops to the dark swamps, to the hidden places where rivers rush through gorges, where sunlight hardly shines. Bounded by seas, each bearing a different name, hardly populated. Now its original tribal people, decimated by deportation, disease, despair and the sheer interface with a culture so alien that its destruction could only be a matter of time. Existing in a surrealistic sense of perpetual impermanence, the Spanish colonists held the encroaching jungle at bay and rebuilt their ever-decaying, ongoingly biodegradable capital, set in the foothills of the island's northern fastness. A remnant colony, left behind one hundred years after the conquistadors had sailed away or had silently decomposed in their elaborate suits of armor in secret places in the island's interior, as yet undiscovered. Another generation of bureaucrats in Madrid watched the lack of progress in this almost forgotten province. The Spaniards of the island, still decorated with long, elaborate last names that describe parts of the Iberian countryside recently taken from the Moors, plead their case for fresh labour. Africans from the Guinea coast, to clear the forest, as slaves - if only to define their own roles as masters, for without underlings their status vanishes just as easily as one good rainy season demolishes their mud and thatch existence.
they availed themselves of a treaty which was entered into on the 27 August, 1701, at Madrid, between France and Spain, by which it was agreed to allow the Royal Company of Guinea, established by France, to supply the Spanish colonies with 48,000 slaves of both sexes and all ages during ten years, commencing on 1 May, 1702, at the rate of 4,800 per year.
As a result of this, the first African came here together with an inferior variety of sugar cane, which produced a low-grade sugar called "popalones". Hardly a dent in the wall of jungle was made. The handful of Spaniards - no one knows really how many - struggled to maintain a sense of Europeanness, keeping between the six or seven men a least one presentable suit of clothes, made up of many remnants in the event of visitors from abroad.
Within a generation, even their whiteness was threatened. Priests came, tonsured and overdressed, zealously going native, teaching medieval Latin to glassy-eyed Amerindians, who were in mourning for the passing of everything that they once knew. In mid 1716, reality crashed in the person of one of the most dangerous individuals in this part of the world. Edward Teach, known too as "Thatch", a.k.a. Drummond, alias Blackbeard, was more myth than man and sailed a large, 40-gun ship called the "Queen Anne's Revenge". He plundered a brig loaded with cocoa, bound for Cadiz, then set fire to her in sight of the little hovel that was known as a port of Spain. In so doing, he destroyed the wealth of the island. A Spanish frigate came into the Gulf, "cannonaded him at a distance". It is said that he sailed leisurely for the Grand Boca. There was no plunder on shore.
In 1725, the cocoa crop failed. They blamed it on the appearance of a comet. the Jesuit, Fr. Gamilla, told the Spanish planters that the crop failure was as a result of their not paying their tithes to the priests. Abbé Raynal wrote later that it was the north wind that had done it.
In any event, the colony was ruined, if that was possible. Nothing happened for the next five or six years. Then excitement: "A small vessel belonging to the island of Tenerife with six sailors was driven to this island by stress of weather," writes Joseph (1837). They said they had survived the days at sea driven by ferocious winds and by drinking wine. In 1730, Lieut. Governor Colonel Don Bartolome de Alduante y Rada was sworn in as Governor. He died in 1733, grave unknown. The command of the island of Trinidad devolved to Don Josef Orbaii and Don Pedro Ximenes, Alcaldes in Ordinary of the Cabildo. The Dutch staged an invasion, but there is hardly a record. There was no paper.
"The Crown of Spain thought Trinidad too good a port entirely to abandon, yet too little productive of revenue to care much about," writes E.L. Joseph in 1837. "She therefore kept at the mouth of the Caroni some twenty soldiers, and once in five or six ears the Viceroy sent a bishop to visit this neglected part of the diocese. A few families remained about the valleys, near San Josef, in grave, contented poverty." Many of their descendants are still with us. 

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