Tuesday 8 November 2011

Water as a Weapon

What happened in 1903, when an angry mob set the Red House to the torch? A look at the Water Riots by Lenny Anduze from his book "When the Lion Stumbled". It seems as though history repeats itself in Trinidad - this time the other way round, but with the same intentions on all sides!

Looking back at the first Red House, which had been designed in 1844 by Richard Bridgens, Superintendent of Public Works, architect John Newel Lewis, H.B.M., observed that “the building was sober enough, heaven knows”. Its main feature was a carriageway through its courtyard. This was to keep Prince Street open to Sackville Street, and was the only stylish motive in a somewhat austere and boring building.
The original drawings did in fact have an ornate facade, but Bridgens died before he could finish the implementation. His executor asked too high a price for the construction, so the Red House was left plain like it was for several years. As time went by, however, it was decorated somewhat enthusiastically.
This is the story of 1903, when the first Red House was burnt down. The story actually begins a few years earlier, when the Secretary of State for the Colonies closed down the Port of Spain Borough Council, replacing it by four Governor-nominated officials. The official reason was the Council’s debt to the government; the unofficial reason was that the Borough Council was regarded as a “hot bed” of dissent with the Colonial Government, where middle class coloured professionals and “pseudo intellectuals” were in pursuit of their own agendas.
Some of the councillors had made a little money and had risen to “insular importance and sophisticated living”. They had forgot, however, that in the final analysis an “overlord does not have to bargain with his subjects”, as Lenny Anduze puts it in his historical novel “When the Lion Stumbled”.
They had been disenfranchised at the stroke of a pen. The rage at which they saw this as a public humiliation and denigration of their status turned into open hostility to the government, and they vowed revenge.
As Anduze points out, “their discomfort was all the acute because the Colonial Government itself was very efficient in administrating the island. The town’s streets, squares and public buildings were maintained to a high standard, as were hospital services, the post office, treasury and audit offices; the law courts dispensed justice which was put into effect by a disciplined police force and prison service. The country districts were under the control of a warden and all were fully controlled and supervised by the central authority at the Red House in Port of Spain.
“The disenfranchised burgesses knew that they could not claim that it was an incompetent government that had dissolved their bankrupt council, so they sought ways of seriously embarrassing the government, hoping that if the consequent outcry of the population was sufficiently damaging, the Governor would be forced to seek their aid in settling matters. They would then demand the restoration of the council with full powers to manage their own affairs."
Then they discovered that the weapon was already in their hands - actually in their homes - water! It is paradoxical that a tropical island with an average rainfall of about 70 inches per year, often as high as 90 inches, should ever lack water, but a water shortage came about in the towns because the pipes to the houses were connected to reservoirs, built to hold only sufficient water to supply the ‘reasonable needs’ of the population. An ‘unreasonable’ use would run the reservoir dry, and that was the weapon which the disenfranchised group chose to fight the Government.
“In 1900, the Government realised that water was being deliberately wasted and the levels in the reservoir were falling," writes Anduze. "In its checks and surveys, it discovered that leakage in the old mains was not responsible. Rather, taps and fountains were being left running all day and all night; pools were being emptied and filled more frequently than usual; large private plunge baths holding between one thousand and two thousand gallons were in constant used - often emptied more than once each day, and that one house alone consumed 8,170 gallons daily."
The Colonial Secretary, Courtenay Knollys, told the Governor, Sir Alfred Moloney, that something needed to be done against the deliberate wasting of water.
"Sir, there is no longer any doubt that much, if not all, of this waste is deliberate. Taps all over the town are being re-opened as soon as Government officers shut them, and thousands of gallons of clear water can be seen flowing through the gutters every minute," said Knollys.
"But why?" asked the Governor.
"A very deliberate motive, Your Excellency. Since the abolition of the Borough Council, there is a section of the inhabitants doing its best to create unrest in the town."
"No, Sir, They keep well within the law; but my information leads me to think that the instigators of the waste water campaign intend to cause trouble for us by depriving the town of water."
"With the hope of gaining what?"
"Of creating a situation where they would be called on to co-operate with the Government when they will state their terms, one of which would be the immediate re-instatement of the borough Council."
"I will not stand for that, Knollys. They had more than one chance to come to a reasonable settlement over the Council and threw it away arrogantly - I will not be defied."
Turning to the Director of Public Works, Walsh Wrightson (after whom Wrightson Road is named), Sir Alfred asked:
"What do you suggest, Wrightson?"
"That our action be in two parts - the short term and the long term. In the short we should consider cutting off the supply to selected areas of the town for specified hours; these times to be dependent on the rainfall and condition of the reservoirs. As regards the longer outlook, we should begin immediate construction of the pipeline and pumping station to provide an additional water supply to Port of Spain from the Diego Martin valley and install meters for the consumers."
"What effect will the cost of all that have on the water rate?"
"An increase of not more than 1 percent."
"All right, draw up the plans."
"As soon as these decisions were made public, the members of the dissolved Borough Council, angry that their plan to force the Governor's hand was to be contested, formed the 'Ratepayers Association', writes Lenny Anduze. "They held public meetings in Brunswick Square opposite the Red House within sight and earshot of the Governor's private office, calling on the people to resist all the proposed changes - especially the installation of meters.
The more Governor persisted in his plans and in refuting the Ratepayers Association misrepresentations in the daily press, the more abusive theygrew. In February 1903, with the dry season imminent, the Governor ordered the cutting of 80,000 gallons daily used in flushing the gutters, and introduced a bill entitled "The Port of Spain Waterworks Ordinance 1903".

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