Thursday 22 December 2011

The glow of the Street Lanterns

 For the generation born after emancipation, life in Port of Spain was possessed of great contrast. The economic collapse brought on by the demise of free labour drove many French Creoles  from the countryside to the eastern extremities of the city streets. Later to be known as the “French Shores”, these streets had names that recalled the provincial towns of France whence their ancestors hailed, like Besson Street, and had French names that persisted way into English times: Rue des Trois Chandelles (Duncan Street, named after the three candles burning outside the Mason's Lodge), Rue d'Eglise (Nelson Street), Rue de la Place (George Street), Rue de Sainte Anne (Charlotte Street), Rue Neuve (Henry Street), and Rue des Anglais (Frederick Street).
The wooden mansions they built when they moved to east Port-of-Spain are now all gone. Old-timers, however, recall that the town had about it an air not dissimilar to Fort-de-France or Pointe-à-Pitre in the French Antilles. The land over the dry river known as Piccadilly was then called “Grand Jardin” (Big Garden), and further north was Mango Rose and Lacou Harp. The large central area, stretching from Argyle Street to St. Paul Street, was called Sorzanoville, with large parts covered with sugar cane. The entire are to the north and east was bounded with high woods, ancient forest that had never been cut.
Former slaves who had escaped in previous times and the newly emancipated encamped in the forest, to be later joined by an increasing population of former slaves from the other West Indian islands. As a consequence, many African customs and usage's were maintained in east Port-of-Spain form many decades. Several yards, divided along tribal lines, were established, along with  gangs or bands which originated in the secret societies of West Africa. There were “malongues”, special groupings of people how had shared the experience of the slave ship or the barrack room.
Smart town houses, lived in by the now somewhat impoverished French gentry, existed side by side with amazingly squalid yards, peopled by the city’s poor, who were mostly black, but also contained in their number many destitute Europeans, some Spanish, some French, some of indeterminable origin. There were wakes, dances and religious ceremonies. The sheer volume of noise emitted by these astounded the visitor of Port-of-Spain. C.W. Day, English traveler, describes such a dance with astonishment (note his ignorance of how drums are made):
“One night, hearing a horrible drumming, I followed the sounds and in the suburbs of the town came to a Negro ladies’ ball. A narrow entry led to a spacious shed, rudely thatched with palm branches. Standing in the four corners of this dingy salon de dance were well-muscled young men holding aloft wooden candelabras with tallow candles casting a fearful glare over the place. There were five huge Negroes thumping might and main on casks, the tops of which were covered with parchment. Ranged along the side were twenty negresses roaring a chorus. These dingy damsels, of whose features nothing but their rolling eyeballs and brilliant teeth were visible, raised their voices to a pitch that would have satisfied the King of Ahanti.”
Another man, C.H. Eckstein, had the following to say about this period:
“At this period of history of our experimental island, the town society could not yet boast of sufficient stock of elegance to assume a ‘bon ton’ and the ‘haut ton’, to which it has since so rapidly aspired, was scarcely suspected. The seductive soirees at Mademoiselle Annie’s - the fascinating Ninon of Trinidad, collected at this time, the male beau-monde round her sofa or the harpsichord satiated with the ordinary indulgences of human appetite, relish of higher society became so exquisite nothing less will now soothe the modern ear than Parisian-tuned harps. None must touch the bosom of the finished school miss except the pedal lyre.”
Against this contrast the city fathers struggled to establish a semblance of modernity. One such was the introduction of street lighting. The Port of Spain Gazette reported in 1878 (as reported in the Guardian Centenary Issue):

First Lighting On The Streets

The inauguration of the lighting of the lamps placed by the Municipality in Marine square and from the square northwards to the gaol, took place, as announced on Christmas Eve. The lamp was lit by His Excellency the Governor; and among those present we notice the Hon. the Attorney General, The Hon. T.A. Finlayson, The Hon. L. Guiseppi, John Agostini Esq., L. Mathieu Esq., Oliver Warner Esq., R.D. Mayne Esq., John Fanning Esq., J.F. Rat Esq., (Town Clerk). We also noticed that, His Worship the Mayor’s published program notwithstanding the Borough Councilors were conspicuous by their absence. We were ourselves unable to be present at the display of fireworks offered to the population, (at the cost of the population), by His Worship the Mayor. (28th Dec., 1878)”
These lamps like most elsewhere were imported from England. Made of cast iron, they were shaded by glass and burned whale oil. They were placed on street corners and were lit at dusk by the lamp lighter who made his way in a ceremonious style, accompanied by a boy carrying a ladder and another ringing a bell signaling the close of day as dusk settled on the little town.
In the distance the bells of the towns two cathedrals tolled the hour. It would be another generation that would see the marvels of the introduction of electricity.

Interview with the last lamplighter

“Me mudda, she da make me de year de cholera be so bad. Dat be so long time and look how I get, I must be well old.”
He may have been born in 1855, he may have had no idea really, black people seldom knew how old they were or when they were born.
“Yes, I be dey de day de govener light the first street light.”
He could also remember the small pox epidemic, when no precaution was taken to isolate cases to prevent infection. People said that if you were brave, and you visited all your friends that had it you were safe but if you tried to run away you’d inevitably catch it or it would catch you. In order to combat the “disease in the air” they burnt pitch on the street corners under the newly installed oil burning lights.
Mosquitoes carried the fever and to drive them out of the house a Wood-ants nest was burnt in a coal pot. The smell of smoke pervaded the town. The streets were swept and the drains flushed once a week by a gang of short time prisoners and the corbeaux saw after them in the interval. Carnival, well, no descent person would attempt to go about the streets on Carnival days as the masqueraders had a free hand and the opportunity to settle old scores. The confrontations between Baker and his bobbies (policemen) and the stickmen reached a high point in 1881. The Cannes Brulées broke every lampshade in the city. He remembered that the lamps remained unlit for a long time until new glass shades could be imported from England. Creole patois was prevalent he said, and it was the habit that when “you had a dead” you hired a Patois speaking person, preferably a woman in a Martiniquan dress: chemise, jupe, foulard, a pair of "zano cylendre" in her ears, a string of "grain d'or" round her neck and a stiff "canlanday" head kerchief tied turban wise. It was important that she had a good voice for she would pause at every street corner under the new lamp post and proclaim “Ladies and gentlemen Pierre Jean Modeste has died. His funeral will leave the house at the back of the grass market this afternoon at 4 o’clock for the cathedral. His wife Marie Louis the seamstress, his mother is Mrs. Murphy who sells chutney by the cab stand, his aunt is Mrs. Chantall who lives at the back of the Black Lion Bar on Park Street, his uncle is the baker from Venezuela, who in jail for stabbing “Doudouts“ the carterman.

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