Monday 26 March 2012

The Bishop's Grave

The burial ground at St. Joseph, clustering close to the old church, keeps many secrets. Some of its grave stones are enigmatic and for Trinidad extremely old.
Beneath the church itself, or strictly speaking beneath the church upon which the present one now stands, this being built in 1815, lies  the grave of a Bishop martyred in the upper reaches of the Orinoco 273 years ago by a Carib cacique named Taguaria.
In 1729, the island of Trinidad was quiet and peaceful. Its handful of Spanish colonists, mostly living in or near to its capital San José de Oruna, lived out an indolent life whose tedium was only occasionally punctuated by the odd massacre perpetrated  by the Caribs, who had by now grown disgusted at being coerced into accepting a civilisation that they did not admire and a religion unsuited to their natural state of cannibalism.
The staple crop, cocoa, was suffering from blight. The government was in the hands of a capable and active governor, Don Augustin de Arredonda, who had guided the destinies of this island for the past four years. The town of San José was first marked out in 1592 by Don Domingo de Vera y Bargoen. He marked out first the site of the church which he named Nuestra Santa Fe de la Conception. Highly biodegradable, the "city" had been built of tapia, sirite and mud; an ajoupa community on the banks of the Caroni, in the middle of literally nowhere, in as much as the few maps that did exist in the world did not mention it. It had neither grown nor changed in the 137 years of its beginnings.
When on the 10th February, 1729, its Governor Don Augustine received a letter from the illustrious Bishop Don Nicolas Gervasio, which reported his arrival at San Tomé, on the river Orinoco, and his intentions as Apostolic Commissary, "to establish missions among the Indians of this river, the Paria Coast and Caribbean islands". He claimed the right to do this by virtue of an Apostolic Bull from His Holiness, the Pope.
It would be very difficult to convey to the present reader the nature of this wilderness, the remoteness of the Orinoco region and the obscurity of its inhabitants. Dignitaries of the rank of Bishop were very uncommon visitors to these parts. The province of Guyana was then part of the government of Trinidad, and in view of the visit of  such a distinguished personage, the governor summoned in due and ancient form at San José an assembly of the Illustrious Cabildo conjoined with the highest ecclesiastical representatives in the island.
At this "junta", this strange event was fully discussed, and finally it was agreed unanimously that the Governor himself should go at once to San Tomé to deal with the exceptional complications which might arise. With due pomp and ceremonial, he set out in a flotilla of corials and pirogues with banners flying, his armor of the finest Andalusian steel well oiled against the inevitable sea blast, across the Gulf of Paria and down the coast of present-day Venezuela, they sailed to enter the vast delta of the Orinoco River so as to make their way up to the tiny hamlet of San Tomé.
San Tomé was built as the mirror city to San José in Trinidad in 1592 by Don Antonio de Berrio, during the time of his life when he had quested after the gold of El Dorado. On the morning of March 22nd, 1729, from out of a primeval mist that hovered over the vast river, the governor's party emerged to beach their craft in the mangrove swamp near to the mud and thatch city of San Tomé and there to meet the illustrious Bishop, who presented his papers of authority and identification for inspection. From these it appeared that the Bishop was a Frenchman, being a Canon of Lyons. A Bull from Pope Benedict XIII, dated 27th July, 1726, authorised the Bishop to establish missions. Included also was a letter from the Marquis de Champignon, Governor-General of Martinique, dated January 8th, 1729, showing that the Bishop had arrived in the French Antilles. Unfortunately, nowhere was the document essential for residence in the Spanish dominions, a certificate that the permission of the King of Spain had to grant specifically. In his zeal, the church man had over looked its necessity.
The duty of the governor was plain, and he refused the Bishop any facilities to proceed with his inclinations, and forbade him to found missions anywhere within his government. Anxious, however, to assist the distinguished visitor so far as lay within his power, Don Augustin offered the Bishop the accommodation at San José in Trinidad, where he could wait until the Royal Pleasure should be made known. This the Bishop declined, preferring in his enthusiasm to proceed towards the Dutch settlements in the upper reaches of the Essequibo River, where he hoped for a better reception.
The following morning they parted. The Bishop, tall, distinguished, handsome for his age, stood mitered and robed, his shepherd's staff in hand, as hordes of multi-coloured macaws gawked and stared and shrieked in ridicule in a language comprehensible only to the man-eating Caribs who, having assumed invisibility in the surrounding jungle, were awaiting their turn in the events.
The governor returned to San José in Trinidad, pardonably satisfied that he had dealt tactfully and successfully with what might have been an awkward situation. However, his peace of mind did not survive many months, since November 11, 1729, the Teniente at San Tomé sent to inform him that Aruac Indians had brought the news that the French Bishop Gervasio had been to the Essequibo and even further to the Suriname, but at neither place would the Dutch receive him or allow him to begin his religious obligations. The Bishop had returned along the coast and had settled on the River Aquire at the mouth of the Orinoco and within the Spanish dominions. The Teniente added very significantly that his camp is only one day's journey from the Carib villages. It should be noted that this journey, even by today's means, would be regarded as significant.
Through this vast and ancient jungle, dark even at noon, followed by the flock of shrieking macaws, howled at by hordes of huge red monkeys, impervious to giant anacondas or the yellow icy stares of black jaguars, the Bishop and his party of Negro bearers had passed before the startled eyes of the man eaters, camouflaged in their nakedness, standing as still as the effigies of dead kings in the crypts of St. Denis, the cathedral just outside of Paris, where he had experienced ecstasies during his noviate.
The Caribs were an intractable and warlike people. They were proud and dominating and preferred death to subjugation. Throughout history, the Caribs have always been indomitable and implacable opponents of all invaders. The early conquistadors such as Ordaz, Herrera, Sedeño, Juan de Uppin and many others found in the Caribs valiant and worthy opponents, and only to often the Spaniards suffered disastrous defeats.
The Bishop's incursion had come at a time when the great cacique Taguaria, perhaps one of the last great old ones, had assumed power. He made as his territory a vast landscape, comparable to the size of Belgium, and viewed the tall, pale Bishop, ascetic in his habits, aristocratic in his mannerism, as worthy of his digestion. To assimilate such a one would make him as great a one and in so doing he would subsume the aliens who had invaded his world.
At the beginning of December 1729, a Dutch trader from the Essequibo River, Jan Ravensburg, had been going to the River Aquire to trade with the Caribs, when he found the dead and mutilated body of the Prelate, his two Chaplains and the two Negro bearers. Jan Ravensburg brought back to Essequibo certain books and ornaments which he found in a hut nearby. Missing from the Bishop's body were certain vital organs.
Once again Don Augustin journeyed into the wilds of the South America's second-largest river system. Here the Governor disinterred the body of the Bishop which he brought reverently to San José in Trinidad, where it was buried in the church of that town and where it remains to this day.

(based on a story by K.S. Wise)

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