Monday, 23 January 2012

Cycles of Revolt

Trinidad in the 1840s was going through a state of flux. The time of African slavery had officially ended. About 25,000 former slaves were actually on the move. Some left the country districts and walked for miles through  the bush to get to Port of Spain. Others travelled from one estate to another to get work in better or simply different environments. Some stayed where they were, working as domestics in the houses of Port of Spain.
Fr. Anthony de Verteuil in his chapter "The End of Slavery" from his publication "Seven Slaves and Slavery" gives and excellent perspective of the period before emancipation and following. He notes that in 1777, there were only 225 slaves in Trinidad, scattered around St. Joseph, Maraval and Diego Martin and on the islands in the Bocas. Some lived in the Naparimas, cultivating crops of mostly cotton and coffee.
With the French came the Otaheite sugar cane, and only 20 years later, in 1797, the slave population stood at 10,007. By 1813, it counted in Port of Spain alone 6,170 slaves. In the second decade of the 19th century, it was 23,227.
Estate life during slavery produced craftsmen such as carpenters, tanners, coopers, blacksmiths, boat builders, whalers to name a few.
After emancipation, most of the slaves left the estates and never returned. As such, the economy just about collapsed, and there was also no work for the skilled craftsmen. The French plantocracy was much affected; estates were abandoned; many families migrated to the southern United States.
By the 1840s, there were several experiments with the importation of labour. Some Chinese were tried and also Portuguese. The first influx of "small islanders" took place. The real turn-around came with the arrival of the Indians. José Bodu, social commentator, remarked:
"An event of immense importance in the history of the colony is the arrival of the first batch of East Indian immigrants on board the ship Fatel Razack."
1845 also saw the emergence of the Reform Movements, the repercussions of which are still felt 150 years later. Bodu remarks:
"In 1845, the question of reform began to occupy the minds of the people of Trinidad. Nearly 50 years had elapsed since the capitulation, and although Spanish institutions which then prevailed and which it had been covenanted to respect had been Anglicized, no modicum of direct representation such as obtained in other parts of the Empire had been afforded the colony."
Trinidadians had little, in fact no control over their fate, particularly their economic destiny. This lack of local representation was also the reason for the high maintenance cost of the colony, and was not approved of by all Englishmen. Already in 1822, a Mr. Hume moved to appoint a commission of enquiry to report on the state of Trinidad. Joseph Marryat, Esq., gave the following speech in the House of Commons on July 25th, 1822:
"The amount of the taxes annually raised in Grenada are about £30,000 currency. The amount of law expenses and fees of the Courts of Justice are estimated at £20,000. The annual expense of the Registry of Slaves is £ 200. The expenses attending the apprehension and restitution of a runaway negro seldom or ever exceed £4, and frequently do not amount to half that sum. In Trinidad, 44 runaway negroes were apprehended together about two years ago, [...] which amounted to no less a sum than £5,272; or nearly £120 each, which in many cases exceeded the value of the negroes.
"Large sums are also raised in Trinidad for objects of embellishment, utterly inconsistent with the means of the inhabitants. The Governor [Woodford] ordered the streets to be new paved, and assessed the proprietors of houses £4 6s. 8d. per foot on their frontage to defray the expense of the alteration. [...] Some of them have been actually obliged to mortgage, and others to sell their houses, to liquidate their assessments to the pavement.
"The inequality of the burdens imposed on the inhabitants of Grenada and Trinidad is easily accounted for; Grenada enjoys a British constitution - her laws are framed by representatives chosen from among the people, and who can impose no taxes to which they do not themselves contribute, in common with their fellow subjects. But Trinidad is under an arbitrary government, and her laws are made by a single individual, who has no common interest with those over whom he rules."
1846 saw the arrival of Lord Harris, an extremely able and most progressive administrator under whose aegis the difficult question of educating the population was first tackled. The first Portuguese shop was opened in that year by a Señor Esperanza. This marked the commencement of an institution that would continue for generations. Two deaths occurred in 1849 of men who, apart from leaving their mark, also left many descendants who are still with us. In April of that year, the venerable and much respected Mr. Paul Giuseppi passed away, aged 78 years, at his residence "Valsayn" (then an estate house, not a suburb). It was in that same house that the articles of capitulation had been signed almost 50 years ago. A native of the island of Corsica, Mr. Giuseppi held the office of Teniente Justica, Mayor of St. Joseph, during the governorships of both Sir Thomas Hislop and of Sir Ralph Woodford. Passing away that year was also the Hon. Francisco Llanos at the age of 71. Dr. Llanos was a native of Caracas and had come to this island in 1810. A lawyer by profession, he enjoyed a large practice at the bar. He held the office of Defender of the Absent and at various times filled the positions of Assessor to the Court, Intendent and Judge Criminal.
The year 1849 was remarkable for what is known as the 1st October riots. The cause of this lamentable occurrence was an Ordinance to compel civil prisoners in the Royal Gaol to have their heads shaved in the same manner as the criminals. It was sought to pass this Ordinance through the Legislative Council. The public feeling of all classes revolted at the proposed indignity, which would have mainly affected people of some respectability which had nevertheless incurred too many debts. On Saturday, 19th September, placards were visible all over the town, announcing the convening of a public meeting for the morning of Monday, the 1st October. The place selected was a house on Almond Walk (now Broadway), Port of Spain, which was soon found to be too small a location to accommodate the vast number of people who congregated on the occasion.
An adjournment was therefore made to the Eastern Market, where the butchers had struck work in sympathy with the objects of the meeting.
As an outcome of the meeting, a deputation composed of Messrs. Dessources, Radix, Scott, Jean Louis, Edward, Phillip Rostant and Hobos were appointed to wait on the Governor, which they did at the Governor's office in the building that was later known as the Red House.
They were followed by a large crowd that grew increasingly noisy. The Governor agreed to withdraw that part of the Ordinance which had reference to the shaving of the heads of prisoners for debt. Notwithstanding these assurances, the crowd, now numbering some three thousand and comprised of the lower orders, rioted, destroying property and threatening to overrun the Governor's office. Some young men even got into the Council Chamber. One was arrested. When the rioters outside discovered this, they hurled a shower of stones in the buildings. At this point, the military was sent for, comprising the 88th regiment and the 2nd West Indian Regiment. The riot act was read by the Attorney General Charles Warner under a hail of stones, and the order to fire was given. Several people fell. This did not stay the fury of the mob. They continued to attack the soldiers and the police with large stones torn up from the streets. Four six-pounder cannons were landed from H.M.S. Scorpion, and preparations were made to open fire on the unrelenting rioters.
In the meantime, several of the crowd lay dead or dying in the streets and in the square opposite to the government Buildings. It was some time before order could be restored and the ringleaders arrested. They were later brought to trial.
With this incident, the colony had experienced its first civil riot. This was to be followed some 30 years later by the Cannes Brulées riots, which in turn were followed by the Water Riots 24 years later, in 1903. These were followed by the general strike in 1937 and by the Black Power uprising in 1970 and by the Muslimeen insurgents in 1990.
For close to 150 years, six generations of people have taken their lives into their hands to revolt violently against authority in Abercromby Street, Woodford Square, both outside of and in the Red House: Trinidad's cycles of Revolt.

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