Wednesday, 22 February 2012

No Flint Grey

In the heat of the mid-morning, Alexander Grey sat in his gallery looking out at his fields. They stretched from what is now Maraval Road to the Boundary of Paradise estate, which belonged to the Peschier family.
If he glanced to his right, he would have seen his cane in arrow waving in reflection of the light hot wind that came across from the little port town, bringing with it the smell of overheated mangrove, warm molasses and the fragrance of rum being poured from the large copper ladles into massive oaken hogsheads.
The warm wind also carried the voices of his 137 slaves raised in song as in unison they slashed, as some forceful machine almost half a mile long, the full-bodied Otaheite cane, thick as a man's forearm.
St. Clair estate was named by him for Scotland in memory of the Princes of Orkney, in commemoration of Roslyn, his one true love. The house, large, too large, a wooden labyrinth built by slave labour, slave masons, slave carpenters, wood carvers and plasterers who had been brought from Barbados. The layout of his garden was in the English style. He had slaves to work his cane, to feel his lash, to be locked in his stocks, to warm his bed, to cook, clean, to serve, to be silent, to fan him in his sleep, to wake him gently, to help him into his shoes, his pantaloons, his coat, to pass his hat, his cane, to hold the door, close the door, to drive his carriage, to curry his horses, to bow before him, to bow after him, to whisper even in his absence, to rise, to wake, to sleep, to die for him. He was master of all that he surveyed.
He could see beneath a spreading Samaan tree, large for its young years, the estate graveyard. It contained the remains of his wife Jane, daughter Mary and six slaves brought to Trinidad from the wars, men already mature by the time he acquired them in Bridgetown, Barbados.
The warm wind brushed his clean-shaven cheek but hardly moved his great gray mane, gathered at the back and tied with a black velvet ribbon. Jezebel bent gracefully before him as she placed a silver tray on a low table. She did this slowly so as to allow him to admire her charms, tipped a darker hue than she. He was old fashioned and like his house slaves to serve at the table half-naked.
He dozed the doze of old men in a place where memory and dream meet in a netherland of might have been, should have been and never really happened but had become legend soon to be made history and still remembered by legless men, some blind from fire, some deaf from the thunder of cannons that still reverberated in the silence of their dreams, dreamt in cold dark hovels two thousand miles away on rainy nights when the wind howled on the blasted heathlands, his men.
The dream came, hadn't it, he would have summoned it. In 1794, General Grey attacked Martinique with a force of 19 ships and 7,000 soldiers. A little island, called Ramier's Island or Pigeon Island, stood in his way. It was strongly held by the French who had 22 heavy guns on it. Grey knew that he had to silence these guns if his ships were to have success against Fort de France.
"Signal to the fleet, Captain Stone, we tack to windward."
"Colonel, inform Major Henderson to prepare the landing parties, tell the 64th that they shall get their feet wet."
"Captain Dalrymple, we shall require artillery. Prepare twenty guns for loading. I will expect you to lead the gentlemen of East Riding. Tell the 15th I shall expect from them their duty."
Alexander Grey looked to his friend, Colonel Harold Ditmus, Colonel of the East Yorkshire Regiment (the Duke of York's own regiment).
"Harry, silence those guns. We must take this island before the week is out."
Leaving the battlements of Fort de France behind him, the British squadron sailed along the south east coast and landed its men at three points. At the head of the 63rd, General Grey made his way through the bush and across fields coming to the headland overlooking Pigeon Island. Thunderheads sent sprawling squalls across the horizon; the sun, breaking through in vast splashes of light, illuminated the aquamarine Caribbean Sea to brilliance. He and Ditmus stood beneath the snapping regimental colours, the sweating men of the 15th dragged and man-handled the heavy cannon into place.
"Prepare to fire in volleys of five! Start at the top, Mr. Henderson."
"Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Reload! Fire at will."
Flocks of seagulls, very white against the gray, wheeled overhead, the British guns blazing fire to hot to handle. In the distance, the French batteries were tumbling into the sea. But this was just the beginning. There were two forts protecting Fort de France, and they had to fall. He had to take St. Pierre also, much further to the north under the shadow of the volcano, Mt. Pelée. He sent a force against St. Pierre. They battled their way through the island's forested interior, struggling in their heavy uniforms beneath the blazing heat of the sun. When they came upon a French strong point, they took it by assault, charging with their bayonets. These soldiers had flint lock muskets but General Grey held a prejudice against these.
"Too much damn noise, Mr. Henderson."
"Shouting and shooting off muskets all well and good for the parade grounds, good for fighting in the open but not for scrambling over mountains and storming redoubts, what, what?"
The General's method was to remove the flints from the muskets of his men. Then their only hope against the enemy was "to get to close quarters with your bayonets and stick it to them." They called him "No Flint Grey".
Before long, all the forts were taken except one, Fort Louis, on a rock that jutted out into the sea like a finger.
"We shall not waste shot and shell against that rock, Mr. Henderson."
"What do you have in mind, Sir?"
"Tell Captain Faulkner to prepare the 'Zebra'."
Later that afternoon, under full sail, he ran the 38-gun frigate ashore under the guns of the fort. While the ship keeled over, he and his men scrambled over her sides and swarmed up the sea walls of the fort, making use of every crack in the rocks, every tuft of grass, every tangle of roots, climbing on the shoulders of their comrades until at last they were over the top and the fort surrendered.
So Martinique became British in 1794 and British it remained until peace was made in 1802 and it was handed back to France. Alexander Grey came to Trinidad in 1805 and acquired a parcel of land that he called "Sweet Briar Farm". This became the St. Clair estate. A few years later, it was owned by the Scott-Bushe family and also by William Gordon. The great house itself became the St. Clair club. Acquired by the Alstons, it was torn down to make room for the Tatil Building.

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