Tuesday 26 June 2012

Don José Maria Chacon

The foregoing article, which is sourced in its entirety from E.L. Joseph's "History of Trinidad", written in 1883, serves to provide an excellent description of life in Spanish Trinidad in the 1750s and 60s. The extent to which the island existed in total poverty, almost without any population, was the degree to which one family, indeed sometimes one individual, controlled the island. The steps taken to introduce schooling for the young or coins into circulation so as to implement commerce were tentative. It can only be imagined how the island would have fared, had the rigours of the inquisition been applied.
Within twenty-five years of laws being passed to compel the inhabitants to stop living in seclusion in the high woods, a new and enlightened government took office in the new capital at Port of Spain on the 1st September, 1783, in the person of Don José Maria Chacon, a rear admiral of the Spanish royal navy, a knight of the order of Calatrava, obviously educated.
Chacon faced during his tenure as governor of Trinidad several crises, starting with the recaltriance of the entrenched interest as personified in the governing body, the "Illustrious Cabildo", who in the recent past did not hesitate to imprison governors, putting them into irons and to forbid them their leaving of the colony. Also, he had to deal with the influx of a large quantity of French people under the Cedula of Population. E.L. Joseph mentions 12,000. The Spanish establishment, that is, the officials, were "few".
Chacon undertook large public works, such as diverting the St. Ann's river, whose course once took it across Park Street, going west, then down to, more or less, where Frederick Street and Chacon Street are now, into the Gulf of Paria. He paid about one third of this project from his own pocket. Chacon established the village of San Juan and the town of San Fernando. Port of Spain began to assume a respectable appearance.
This city was never an easy place to run. His Excellency had to deal with an influx of riotous French republicans, revolutionaries bent on overthrowing his government by force of arms and to murder the island's royalist inhabitants. He had to contend with violent riots in the city with a handful of trusted men, and with looters who broke into the state armory and stole guns and ammunition.
The British navy landed. This precipitated another round of riots in the city. The French revolutionary leader, Victor Hugues, was a very serious threat to the government of Trinidad, in that insurgents acting on Hugues' behalf were operating in the colony. The threat of slave uprisings in the style of Haiti and of mass poisonings on the estates instilled fear and suspicion on a large scale. Unruly blacks – "masterless men" – threatened disorder. The rule of law was slipping out of Chacon's hands. The island was a Spanish colony, but the population was almost entirely French. But even this was a divided population. On the one hand, royalists, well armed, swept the islands of the Caribbean. With the monarchy overthrown in France, they had nowhere to go. On the other hand, a republican menace made up of slaves who had freed themselves, free blacks looking for the opportunity for vengeance ("I will kill your white father, you killed mine") and republican French seeking their fortunes.
Governor Chacon might just have welcomed his next great crisis, the invasion of his island by a British army and his ultimate surrender. His return to Spain was under a dark cloud. The subsequent court marshall condemned him to exile. His reprieve arrived to find him on his death bed and he is remembered today in Trinidad by a city street which bears his name, and a wild forest flower which is our national flower. A fitting tribute for the last Spanish governor of Trinidad!