Monday, 30 July 2012

White servants in the Caribbean


When we think of emancipation, we know we are thinking of a time when human bondage was an economic reality. Driven by avarice and greed, the New World was "opened up" on the backs of those who laboured. But it was not only Africans who were brought here and sold as slaves.

The Spaniards, the first Europeans in this part of the world, tried to meet their need for labour by enslaving the native tribespeople. They needed them to clear the forest so as to establish villages, farms and ranches. They needed them to search the rivers for gold and to dive for pearls. The native tribal people, possessing no concept of work or being made to work, drifted away. They were hunted down in the forest and killed. Others, losing interest in life, sat down and died. Thousands were tricked or kidnapped and taken away to other islands or to the main. Some rose in rebellion and were wiped out. Whole villages committed suicide. Within a short space of 100 years or so, most of the Arawak population in many islands had fallen victim to genocide. The settlements could not prosper without people. Food had to be grown, fields tilled, houses built. These new settlements in St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, Antigua, in Virginia and New England, all tried to obtain the workers they needed from the British isles.
There were many poor folk there who wished to try their luck overseas. Some were tired of the harsh laws of tenancy which put great power into the hands of the landlords and left them little better than the slaves. Many Germans were anxious to get away from a religious war between Protestants and Catholics that had gone on for thirty years, producing terror and suffering. The New World offered a chance of betterment. It seemed well worthwhile to sign a contract and serve a master for five or seven years. At the end of that time, one would be free and have a grant of land and some cash. Between 1654 and 1685, more than 10,000 people sailed from the port of Bristol alone. This was a large number, bearing in mind that the population of England was then only around 5 million. A steady trade developed in bond servants and when the supply of willing men and women fell off, kidnapping, child stealing and the transportation of prisoners became the order of the day.
Kidnapping increased, especially the kidnapping of children. The "spirits", as the kidnappers were called, frequented the streets of the sea ports and "spirited away" people, causing that term to come into common usage.
Dr. Eric Williams, in his account of this business, describes how "the captain of a ship trading with the West Indies would visit Clarkenwell House of Correction, ply with drink the girls who had been imprisoned there as disorderly, and invite them to go to the West Indies..."
Then, there were the convicts. At that time, a man who committed a trivial offense might be sentenced to death. He could be hung for stealing a horse or sheep, or for picking of pockets. We read a petition that a wife who had been sentenced to hanging for stealing goods worth 3/4 of one penny might be transported overseas instead.
In the wake of one of England's many wars with Scotland, a judge by the name of Jeffreys sentenced hundred of innocent men and women to be transported to the islands to work in the fields. So many were sentenced to be transported to Barbados, that the phrase "to Barbados a man" came into use. To this day, there are the remnants of two classes of people of European descent on that island, the descendants of the masters and those of the servants. Hence the term "bacra".
It is said that in slavery days on that island, the masters and their wives sat in the front rows of the church on a Sunday, the white servants and overseers in the back rows, and the slaves stood around outside. As the service came to an end, the masters left the church first, and the slaves of course took off their hats in deference, but as the servants and overseers started to come out, the word went round, "Back rows, back rows," and hats were replaced...
The condition on board the ships were bad, even for the captains, and horrible in extreme for the indentured servants. Up to 100 people were packed into small compartments. The hatchway was guarded by armed men who prevented them from coming up on deck for air or easement. The water was stinking and the rations were small. Dirt, excrement and urine transformed the ship into a pest house. Smallpox, fever and the plague killed many. Others were devoured by lice until they almost died.
When the indentured white servant arrived in these islands, he or she was sold. A man by the name of Ligon, who lived in Barbados from 1647 to 1650, said that the African slaves were better treated than the white servants, because the owner knew he had a bond servant only for five or seven years, and so drove him hard during that time. Those owners who were merciful treated the bond servants well, but "if the masters be cruel, the servants have very wearisome and miserable lives... Upon the arrival of the ship that brings servants to the island, the planters go aboard. Having bought such of them as they like, they send them with a guide to the Plantation. Being home, he commands them instantly to make their cabins. The next day, they are rung out with a bell to work at 6 a.m. with a severe overseer to command them... I have seen such cruelty there done to servants as I did not think one Christian could have done to another."
So as we mark emancipation, let us remember all of those who laboured in the fields of the Caribbean. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The East Indians in Trinidad

by Jean de Boissière

Full of the typical anti-colonial sentiment of the times, the young author looks at the conditions of East Indian indentured life in Trinidad. Written in 1937.

After 1834, the slaves, given the liberty to work for a shilling a day or starve, thought freedom meant freedom and scorned the wages offered by the sugar companies. They went into the hills of Trinidad where they formed primitive communities that were entirely self-supporting.
Instead of solving the labour problem, emancipation merely proved to be the progenitor of a host of future problems. To solve the immediate difflculty, the ever-resourceful British government hit upon the plan of importing indentured labour from British India.
The Indians recruited in Bombay and Calcutta were even more greatly deceived than the "freed" slaves. They were cruelly misinformed about the great possibilities of Trinidad by the recruiting officers and immigration touts, who associated that backward, almost feudal, island with the fabulous development then going on in the United States. With this portrait of paradise across the seas painted for them, they signed labour contracts that sold them into an even worse slavery than the Africans had had to endure.
With the African, in ordinary cases, the value of a strong body in the open market had made the physical well-being of the slave a matter of concern to the owner. His old age usually was secure in a hut on the master's estate. The East Indian, after serving his term of indenture, which gave him wages just barely sufficient to keep him alive, was released just when the useful period of his life was over and his need of security had begun.
Under the terms of these infamous contracts, they received one shilling a day for their labour. What was the actual value of this shilling and its purchasing power was not told to them. They were housed in what proved to be overcrowded, filthy barracks. At the expiration of their contracts, they were friven the choice of remaining free citizens in the land or being repatriated at the expense of the government.
Thousands of them, unable to save a penny out of their miserable wage, returned to their native land, with which they had completely lost touch, penniless, old and broken irreparably. Those who stayed did so only because they had children who had established roots in the island. To these children belongs the credit for laying the foundation of the power of the East Indian community in Trinidad.
These young East Indians worked on the sugar estates alongside the newly arrived contract labourers from India. Here they saw the conditions under which their parents had worked. They would see a party of white and mulatto overseers hide in the canefields to ambush a recent arrival who had revolted against the unexpectedly harsh conditions by refusing to work. The pain inflicted upon the backs of their brown brothers was not.hing to the hatred each stroke of the tortuous leather cut into the souls of these East Indians of the second generation.
They buried their hatred in their hearts and worked and saved. Born agriculturists, they performed miracles of thrift to purchase small holdings of land. On these, they made every inch produce all it was capable of doing. With all the disadvantages they faced, in two generations they became the largest group of peasant proprietors in the island.
The full story of the settlement of the East Indians on the land will no doubt one day be told. It is already written indelibly in the events of the past half-century. The swamps of Oropouche and the fever holes of Fyzabad, all its settings, and then in the backwoods the struggle curved. The government remained indifferent to the questions of a water supply, roads, public health, education and indeed of every sort of public service—which alone justifies the imposition of taxes.
Oil with historic precedent helped to break this indifference. The impenetrable lands were promising an importance that can only be gauged by the dishonesty, secrecy and cunning in  which the situation was allowed to develop.
As the third generation was growing up, much to everybody's surprise, petroleum oil was discovered in Trinidad. Oil in such quantities that it was destined to make the island the richest of the West Indies; but the mineral rights were theirs.
Local and English companies were formed for exploitation. In advance of their geologists came a non-conformist minister. He saw opportunity knocking at his door and set out to win leases and lands from the unsuspecting peasants. With the aid of a pious mein and some soul-saving meetings, innumerable blocks of land in the richest oil-bearing districts shortly appeared as the property of the minister. A system of expropriation, common under capitalism, was at work in deadly earnest.
Because he had to work alone, the minister missed a lot of valuable pieces he might otherwise have swindled from th unsuspecting peasants. Those peasants whom he had missed, and some who had been cunning enough to wonder what lay back of all these efforts to secure lands and leases, were in a few years to make fortunes almost overnight.
Meanwhile, the expropriated ones soon lost the small sums they had received for their land (and oil) in an island where mad commercial scramble was rapidly replacing the former stable agriculture. These unfortunates would invariably end up sleeping, almost naked, in the streets of Port-of-Spain, waiting for a ship to carry them back to India that was merelt a figment of their imagination.
Others lapsed into the position of under-paid labourers on the sugar estates, taking  place of the contract labour that had been stopped during the war vears. They were undornourished while every ounce of energy thev possessed was used up in the broiling sun of the canefields. In the night, many took refuge in tho illusory world created for them by the smoke of the ganja leaf.
By l 920, oil had got over company-forming, land-filching stage and was flowing from the numerous derricks by the millions of barrels. The East Indians who had held their land against all effrorts of law and religion to dislodge them, now began to cash in. With the oil gushed their royalties. A definite era of prosperity lay ahead.
As usual, it all went to their heards with the rapidity of imbibing. They imported and raced highly-bred horses. They built large, uncomfortable houses and furnished them with red plush sofas and sea grass chairs.
With practical experience they soon learnt that life as lived by the West Indian ruling class was not all it was cracked up to be. And the difficulty of winning races (with horses, no matter how highly-bred), without having sufficient experience of the turf, was not long in becoming obvious to them.
When eventually to their Eastern eyes the incongruity of red plush and sea grass became a painful sight, they abandoned these childlike efforts to follow the ways of a people they had looked up to in their ignorance and turned their attention to educating their children in the philosophies of the East and consolidating their fortunes.
In attempting the latter, they found that the principle that kept them from winning races on the turf was the same as that which prevented them from making any headway against what was crystalising into a rigid monopoly of all trade by a small group of British and creole men, all working for the overdrafts thev had at the English and Canadian banks.
The chief difficulties put in their way was getting credit from the banks, exclusion from the higher councils of government and most unjust partiality in favour of monopoly in the administration of the laws governing commerce. With all this against them they still continued to hold their own against the entrenched interests.
If the East Indian community had heen comprised solely of a class of suddenly wealthy individuals, it would have met the same fate as its French prototype. But the prolific breeding capacity of all Eastern peoples had been at work and they were now more than one-third of the island's population.
The largest pure racial unit. Although unaware of it themselves, it was the down-trodden masses of the race that had saved it from extinction as a class.
Continuously stale-mated in commerce and dissatisfied with the second-rate social position offered them, they turned their attention to the one line of action opened to them. They entered the political arena.
Here the solidarity of their race made them more successful than any other subject people in the island. While the solitary French of Captain Cipriani had had to assemble a heterogeneous mass of followers, the numerous East Indian politicians had their mass following already formed and hungry for leadership.
This leadership was at first divided hetween the old business men and the younger generation. The older ones, weary and satisfied with the status quo, which left them barely hanging on to their fortunes, sat on the benches of the stacked legislature like frizzled fire-crackers. The younger ones, mainly muzzled by the third-class civil service positions they held, dissipated their discontent by creating a Moslem-Hindu controversy,
This storm over nothing (on the whole the race was more or less apathetic to the religion of their forebears) was cleary nurtured in the Indian section of the local press. There would be columns of Hindu anti-Moslem propaganda and vice versa. This was reaching the stage of splitting the East Indian community when their race threw up the leader who was to show them the true course.
This young man shows them that they should neither waste their energies squabbling over problems that belonged to oId India ,or accept the defeat of "inferior success" as meted out to their elders. He teaches them to consider themselves now as West lndlians and in a merging unity with the peoples of the other islands seek to break the bonds of class and race which binds them to most of their agonies.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Where the Belmont Tram went


The Belmont tram was probably the most important of the Port of Spain tram lines, as Belmont was the city's first suburb, densely populated. Belmont was initially an area of coffee and sugar estates, but, like most other estates surrounding the capital, those at Belmont had to be abandoned after the emancipation of the slaves, when the former labourers turned to find work in the city and shunned the estates. However, people still had to live somewhere, and soon shacks and settlements began to spring up on the no longer cultivated fields. Town planning was completely absent, and many of the curving streets criss-crossing Belmont and the narrow little lanes where hardly a car can pass date from the mid-19th century.
The boundaries of Belmont are the Circular Road in the north, Observatory Street and the East Dry River in the south, the Laventille hills in the east, and the Queen's Park Savannah and St. Ann's River on the west.
But even before the abolition of slavery in 1834, Belmont had an interesting history of African settlement—here for once the term "African" is to be taken literally and not as the lowest common denominator for political purposes. As described in the article about the Company Villages in this edition of the Digest, the British had abolished the slave trade in 1807. What ensued was that the British Royal Navy proceded to patrol the west coast of Africa to prevent slaves being taken to the New World by other nations or by illegal British ships. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Africans were freed by these patrols on the high seas, and some of them were brought to Trinidad. Coming from various tribes—Yoruba, Rada, Mandingo, Ibo, Krumen and others—they were given land at Belmont to settle. These Africans had never known slavery, were free people and came with the whole cultural spectrm of village life, priests, chiefs, tribal leaders, and often families. For a while, an area in Belmont became known as Freetown, named for these African settlers, and street names still commemorate those first men who lived there: Sampty Lande, La Rue Rada, Mayock Place. Freetown extended from the East Dry River, at the north end of Circular Road, and up into the Belmont Valley Road. In 1852 and 1866, other liberated Africans were given land to settle beyond Erthig Road, and many of the families living there are descendants of those.
In his "Reminiscences of Old Trinidad", written by L.O. Innis in 1932, he says about Belmont:
"In the 1860s, Belmont was mostly unoccupied land, belonging to white Warner and black Warner. The land over the Dry river known as Piccadilloy was called Grand Jardin (great garden); further north in teh same direction was Mango Rose; and more north, Belle Eau Road was known as Shapotie. The sugar factory stoo on lands now occupied by St. Margaret's Church and a house of Erthig Road, still existing and occupied, is thought to have been the estate manager's house. This area, known as lands of White Warner, was bounded on the north and east by Circular Road, on the west by the St. Ann's River, and on the south by Erthig Road, with the exception of a small area around Industry Lane which was known as black Warner's land. The old building of Mike's Taxi and Car Rentals is thought to have been the house of black Warner."
Olga Mavrogordato, in her book "Voices in the Street", quotes Sir Pelham Warner from his book 'Long Innings':
"In the fifties of the last cnetury, my father bought some twenty acres of land at Belmont—within a quarter of a mile from Government House—and he left four acres of these on which to build a church."
In fact, the church records of St. Margaret's show that Mr. Charles W. Warner, the then Attorney General of the island, gave two lots of land to build the church. These two lots of land are on what is now the eastern part of the church property. The Warner family was immortalised in the street names of that area, e.g. Cadiz Road (Mr. Warner's wife was Ellen Rose Cadiz); Archer Street (which should be Aucher, named after Aucher Warner, another Attorney General of the island); and Pelham Street (after Sir Pelham Warner, the distinguished cricketer quoted above). Charles W. Warner, whose grave you can visit in the Botanical Gardens cemetery, was the person instrumental in making Angostura Trinidadian: he facilitated the move of the Siegert family from Angostura in Venezuela to Trinidad.
Before 1904, there existed the Belmont Asylum, which now has moved to St. Ann's and became the "Mental Hospital". The Belmont Asylum had been founded in 1851 on the Circular Road, opposite to where the secondary school is now. Some of the street names around where the asylum most likely was commemorate planation owners of long ago, such as Smart Place and Weir Street.
Belmont in the latter part of the 19th century also saw a large influx of West Indian immigrants, namely from Barbados. Olga Mavrogordato links the wave of immigration after 1879 to the failure of the French Panama canal scheme. Belmont started to become a part of Port of Spain, which in those years was very overcrowded. The suburb's streets were straightened and widened as much as possible, but their winding character often remained. They were properly paved. The old shacks were replaced by proper little wooden houses. Only very few of these still stand in their quaint, picturesque gingerbread style; most of them have been replaced by more or less ugly concrete structures (yours truly was born and raised in one of the nostalgic wooden ones on Hermitage Road, which probably had been built around the 1860s, when there were only two houses in our street, the de Boissière's and the Henderson's).
In connection with the Belmont tram, mention should be made of a Belmont character named "Arthur Tramcar". The Belmont or blue tram started from the railway station, went up Almond Walk, along Frederick Street, turning east at Keate Street, up Charlotte Street and Queen’s Park East as far as the café and the big silk cotton tree (which fell this year) at the corner of Belmont Circular Road to return by the same route.
The fare for each journey was 5 cents. Tickets could be purchased at six for one shilling (24 cents). In 1895, the mules went into retirement and the trams were electrified. The new trams, imported from Philadelphia, were painted red, blue and green. They had seats that could be reversed by swinging round their backs. It was forbidden to speak to the motorman, and one was warned to wait until the car stopped before getting on or off. This did not prevent the famous city personality ‘Arthur Tramcar’ from performing spectacular feats of acrobatics on, in and around tramcars. He, to the delight of both passengers and onlookers, would rush a tram, leap on to the running board, and perform several cartwheels along the board that ran the length of the car, to jump off with the flourish of an Olympic star.
A lunatic rivalry commenced between Arthur and the motormen. Arthur took a bet one time that he could run right through a tram as it passed the crossroads of Erthig Road and Norfolk Street in Belmont, waited poised on Erthig Road, facing east. His brand-new, white watchekongs gleamed in the sunlight. The tram, traveling south on Norfolk, had picked up maximum speed from as far away north as Clifford Street. Arthur pounced as the tram bolted past and emerged triumphant on the other side of Erthig Road. For those of you who wondered, the word ‘watchekongs’ is derived from an advertisement that described canvas shoes as “Watch Your Corns”. 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

By Rail to San Fernando

by J.H. Collens (abridged), 1886
When hundreds of wild cows roamed Caripichaima

The different estates and objects of interest on the line between Port of Spain and St. Joseph junction have already been enumerated in the previous chapter (published in last month's digest). It will therefore be necessary to take up the journey only from the point where the line branches off, viz., at the signal box between St. Joseph and Tunapuna. Here, you will turn sharply round in a southerly direction, leaving St. Augustine estate works on your left and passing through the estate. After crossing the iron bridge over the Caroni, you reach the station, which is named, like the district, after the river. To the right are the hospital and factory  Frederick estate (Mr. Gregor Turnbull). On the public road to the west of Frederick is another substantial iron bridge spanning the river. The road from the back of the station leads to St. Clair estate (Mr. Zurcher), Mon Jaloux (Mr. Q. Kelly), and several cacao estates along the bank of the river. Beyond these is St. Helena estate (Messrs. G. Turnbull & Co.), where is the very fine new iron bridge alluded to in the former chapter as being on the road from Golden Grove. Still farther is an Indian settlement, with several more cacao estates, the principal being those of Mr. Centeno.
It was originally proposed to extend the railway system to Cumuto. Three and a half miles of embankment were thrown up, bridges constructed, and a mile and a quarter of rails laid down at a cost of £5,000, when the work was abandoned, I believe by order of the then Secretary of State. The first station would have been St. Helena, and from Cumuto in all probability the line would have eventually reached Mayaro.
Parties bent on alligator shooting frequently have their boat sent from town up the Caroni to meet them here or at the adjacent estate of Mc Leod Pain. Still better sport, however, is to be obtained at a small lake about two miles inland, known as the Bejucal. Here alligators, wild birds, and the queer armour-coated cascadoura positively swarm.
Following the rail again from Caroni station on the right is Wilderness estate (Mr. J.W. Warren); Mr. F. Zurcher's Mon Plaisir faces the Cunupia station. This part of the country is becoming famous for the cultivation of tobacco and limes by Mr. C. Fabien, who has been successful both with regard to the growth and the manufacture of the fragrant weed. Apropos of tobacco, His Excellency has just published a smart little brochure advocating the growing of this plant, and certainly the recent experiments have clearly shown that there is no earthly reason why we must either pay an exorbitant price for the Havana article, or else as an alternative have badly made up cabbage-leaf foisted upon us. Mr. Fabien's best cigars at the recent exhibition were of very good quality. Mr. Anderson, who has had some experience in that line, is also going in for the cultivation and manufacture of tobacco and cigars.
Leaving Cunupia station, Reform estate (Messrs. Coryat and E. Cipriani) is the next estate on the right, and beyond it Léonice (Mr. Cornilliac). I omitted to state the rather interesting fact that the site of the little Anglican Chapel at Cunupia was given by a wealthy heathen Indian living in the quarter.
St. Charles, a small estate belonging to Mr. C. Smith, is on the right near Chaguanas, while beyond it on the left is Endeavour (Mr. René de Verteuil). Opposite the latter is Woodford Lodge, the property of the Hon. G. Fitt and Mr. S. Henderson. The oscillated centrifugal sugar system, adopted first on Messrs. Tennant's estate, Inverness, has been improved upon here, with highly satisfactory results. The soil of Chaguanas, especially in the vicinity of the sea, is of the description commonly known as "crab-land", from the innumerable holes in the surface made by the land crabs.
Chaguanas has generally the reputation of being a dreary kill-joy sort of place, suggestive of muddy roads and legions of mosquitoes and sand flies. So it may be, but the forests and high woods are full of hidden treasures that the keen and vigilant eye of the naturalist will spy out and gloat over. The Noel Baptist Chapel in McDonald valley of this district is interesting as having been built partly by subscriptions of the neighbouring planters, but mainly by contributions form the Sunday School Children of John Street Church, Bedford Row, London.
You cross the Chaguanas Road immediately before entering the station. To the east lies the Montrose cacao estate (Hon. G. Fitt), and Mr. Latour's sugar estate, Edinburgh. Beyond these is the convict depot. To the west lies Perseverance (Messrs. T. Daniell & Sons), and Chaguanas village with its Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. A new church is being built for the former denomination quite close to the line. Beyond the village are Trafalgar (Messrs. Cadet and Ambard), Petersfield (Mr. Burgos), Adela (Mr. J. Coryat), and near the bay Messrs. Daniell's large estate Felicité. The proprietors of the last named generously gave a site for a new Wesleyan Chapel, erected in 1878.
Taking up the route again from the railway, you pass through unopened lands, the huge trees, with their burden of parasites, not having yet succumbed to the woodman's ax. When nearing Carapichaima, on the right you catch a glimpse of the fine Waterloo works (Mr. J. Cumming), furnished with the Brush Electric Light. Opposite these is a road leading to the village and to Orange Field (Mr. L. Preau).
From Carapichaima, Mr. Cumming, who is the largest resident proprietor in the island, and one of the most liberally disposed, owns a series of estates, extending a distance of fully seven miles. A part of his property is as yet uncultivated, and is to all appearance high woods, but it is tenanted by a herd of wild oxen. Some twelve or fourteen years ago, about fifteen head of cattle escaped from Felicité estate, Chaguanas, and took to the woods. There must be now not less than two hundred of them, and noble beasts some of them are! Occasionally, sportsmen and hunters come across a drove them, when they immediately do a stampede.
Passing another of Mr. Cumming's estate, Exchange, on the right, and crossing the road, we enter the Couva station. Here in a cluster are the post office, warden's and savings bank offices, Roman Catholic church and school, and police station. The last is a creditable building of concrete, containing also the magistrate's court. Couva is a fast-growing flourishing district, comprising four villages—Exchange, California, Spring and Freeport. The eastern direction of the road lately crossed leads to the new Presbyterian church and school now in course of erection, near which is an excellent manse; the site for all these have been generously given by Mr. Cumming from the lands of Camden estate; then Spring village, Spring and Caracas estates (Mr. J. Henderson),  and finally Montserrat. It is proposed to lay a tramway between Couva station and the junction of the two roads to Gran Couva and Mayo. This is very much needed, as it will open up the way to what is practically an unknown region to a great many even of the residents in Trinidad.
But the train has started again; rolling over the muddy Couva river by the longest iron bridge in the island, you see on the right the fine works of Brechin Castle estate (Mr. G. Turnbull) in the Savonetta part of Couva (Savonetta—little savanna). These were the first vacuum pans worked erected in Trinidad, and the fine crystals made here took the first prize at the local exhibition in February this year (1886). On the left is Sevilla, worked in connection with Brechin Castle. the first building is the estate hospital; a little further, on the rising ground, is the residence of Mr. John S. Wilson, planting attorney of Messrs. Turnbull, Stewart & Co. There is a telephonic communication between Brechin castle and Sevilla, and from the former to the shipping place. Behind Sevilla, in the direction of Montserrat, are Milton estate (Messrs. C. Tennant, Son & Co.) and Rivulet (Mr. G. Turnbull).
Leaving California station, on the left is the residence of Mr. Bernard Kenny, a genial son of Erin,  who has charge of Mr. W. F. Burnley's Couva estates, Esperanza, Phœnix Park and Providence. Phœnix Park is easily recognisable by the avenue of coco palms on the left. On the opposite side are Providence works and about a quarter of a mile beyond the distillery.
Nearing Claxton's bay village and school, you cross the road just before entering the station. The eastern direction of this road leads through the village and on to the four estates of Mr. Abel Devenish—Mount Pleasant, Forest Park, cedar Hill and Diamond, in the direction of Montserrat.
The westerly direction of this same road brings one almost immediately to the Gulf, and to the jetty, 1,300 feet in length and ten feet in breadth. This is now the property of the Mr. Devenish just mentioned, and was built in 1871 by his uncle, Mr. Le Roy, at a cost of nearly £2,000. It stands on cast iron screw piles, with runners and decking of balata, one of our most durable native woods. Being connected with the estates by a tram line, Mr. Devenish thus avoids much of the expense of carting, the sugar being conveyed to the extreme end of the jetty, where the lighters lie alongside to receive it.
Claxton's bay railway station is grimy-looking, like all the rest of them for want of clean new paint, but the collector, all honour to him, does his best to improve it by planting creepers, and attaching orchids to the woodwork. I have not the pleasure of his acquaintance, but I feel convinced he must be a good man. Would it be a liberty to suggest to the authorities that this horticulturist should be removed to each station in turn along the line, say for six months at a spell, so that he may continue the work of reformation at each, and show what nature can do when she is helped a little?
Leaving Claxton's bay, you approach Plaisance estate (Messrs. C. Tennant) on the left. Here is one of the most interesting curiosities in the island, the thermal spring, or rather springs, for there are at least two distinct ones. A bath house has been put up, covering two good-sized concrete baths. The clear spring water, apparently like other water till you become cogniscant of its warmth, flows directly into the baths from the hillside, in just such a stream as might be poured from a bucket. The temperature of the water is from 100º to 105º Fahrenheit. On the occasion of my visit, by the courtesy of the manager, I was allowed to take a bath, which I found particularly pleasant an soothing, after the first strangeness of the unusual warmth had subsided. It is curious that hi water cools more rapidly than ordinary water would if heated artificially to the same pitch.
Rolling over the viaduct, near which is the government school, you see Pointe-à-Pierre R.C. church on the hill, commanding a fine view. The building, a wooden one, is of good size; over the altar are two large figures of St. Peter and St. Joseph. The Pointe-à-Pierre railway station is the merest apology for anything of the kind that I ever saw. Near it is Mr. Le Gay Johnstone's Plein Palais estate. The cutting a quarter of a mile long through the Pointe-à-Pierre hill was one of the chief engineering difficulties in the construction of the line, owing to the tendency to landslips.
At Marabella junction, passengers going towards Princes Town change to the Guaracara railway, which here branches off. As our destination is San Fernando, we keep our seats, and crossing the Guaracara we have a good view of the Gulf on the right and Marabella works (Mr. A.P Marryat) opposite on the eminence. The pasture, with its trees dotted about, strike one as resembling an English orchard. You will see plenty of pelicans flying busily about the Gulf, sometimes suddenly swooping down straight as an arrow for the unwary fish they have spotted during their flight. The white egrets, too, look very pretty wading through the shallow water, or stalking along the muddy banks. Passing and abandoned estate, Vista Bella (Mrs. J. Lambie), and skirting the Naparima Hill, you come to San Fernando.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Mama Glo's Gift

From the time of her earliest memories, she always entered the forest quietly, silently stepping, slowly moving through the dew-wet underbrush, trying not to tread too hard.
She paused, not so much to listen but to learn, to learn the feel of the day, for every day was different in her forest. Her forest—it lay along a steep valley through which rushed a river called “Shark”, halting only in selected places to make pools deep and sure with eddies that swirled backwards in their own placid repose, slick on the surface, secret in their tumultuous depths, where enormous, ancient trees stood sentinel. All fast asleep in ageless repose, same height, same girth, same breadth as though created simultaneously by some mighty hand that reached out from eternity and sowed their dreams in unison so long ago, before words like day or night were made to punctuate the passage of time.
Time had been invented by one of her ancestors, she was sure. Before she entered her forest, she left it, together with her shoes, down by the road. Papita had told her about the Caribs of long ago, their family, the old people who owned all the land. She had told her about the river and of the Oriyu, the water spirits. She always felt that she had just missed them and that, had she come a little earlier, she would have seen them. But she was always just in time to see the ripples they left on the water fade away into placidity. Sometimes, she heard a loud slap upon the surface of the pool. Once, she saw an enormous shape turn around and around in the water like a wheel. Today, she saw the face. A shimmer just beneath the surface of the pool, it seemed to call out with open mouth. A song, she thought. Now she knew for certain that there was a Maman Dlo living in Shark River.
After that, she would bring flowers and pretty buttons, a buckle from a shoe, a dolly’s head, quite pink, with staring eyes of blue and tiny holes where hair would have been implanted. She brought little gems made of red and green glass, pins and pretty bow clips. One morning, as she slipped in silence throught the woods, the river, coursing with a roar through the rocks and bolders, gray and striped with white lines, she saw something glimmer in the water. It was a lovely comb made of shell and silver, gold-tipped. She stood there entranced, the river foam, a lacy frock around her legs. She picked up the comb and ran it through her hair. At once, she heard music, a song, sighing, which filled her heart with yearning—for what? She had no idea. She knew she must keep this gift a secret.
She would spend her days sitting in the sunshine where the water fell from high up to crash upon the rocks, its spray a brilliant rainbow irridescent about her, combing her long, black hair and listening to Maman Dlo’s comb. She learnt that Amana was her true name and that she had a sister who was called Yara, “beautiful river”, which flew into a bay not too far away. Others were called Marianne, Madamas and Paria. She heard the sirens’ song of sailors who had been dashed to death upon the rocks at Saut d’Eau, and learned not to dread the deafening silence of the forest.
She saw the stranger come into her forest. He grew afraid at her sight, his eyes were startled. She did not smile but combed her hair, listening to the melody of Maman Dlo’s song. The river’s spray made iridescent colours swirl about her. He ran away. They laughed at him. He would return.
In the time that followed, whenever she combed her hair with the magic comb, she heard a voice that warned her of her curiosity for the stranger and cautioned her to dismiss him from her memory. Maman Dlo’s voice came to her like a mother’s plea to remain pure and not fall victim to curiosity. But she longed to meet the stranger and would dream him with her in the river.
One day, Maman Dlo rose up from the water to tell her “no”. She saw her terrible beauty, her feminine form conjoint with that of a massive anaconda that swirled about and slapped the water with its tail, making a sound like the cracking of huge branches. “No,” Maman Dlo breathed, “don’t go.” But go she did and as time went by, her comb no longer sang its silent song. Mr. Borde and herself would build a house at Cachepa Point and live a happy life.
Close upon a century later, as a very old woman, she sat to the back of a pirogue which was plunging through a turbulent sea towards Yara bay in the hope of beaching at the river’s mouth. The outboard engine wined and coughed, and the huge waves threatened to swamp the overcrowded boat. She sensed the terror in the group and took an old, broken comb with an unusual shape out of her pocket. Standing up in the plunging boat and steadying herself, she called to the tillerman to point the bow at the river’s mouth and asked the passengers to pray. In a voice at first old and frail, then strong and commanding, she began to sing:
“Maman Dlo, oh Maman Dlo, save us from this terror sea. Be calm, be calm,” she told the waves, “Be slow, lie low.”
The swirling waters seemed to pause and flatten into an insulent roll that fell away at her call.
“Ma Dolly calmed the sea,” they would later say. “She calmed the sea at Yara Bay.”

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Company Villages


People of African descent came to Trinidad and Tobago in various ways. Some arrived in Spanish times as slaves; however, because there was hardly any industry, these early arrivals were distinguishable from their owners only by their colour and lack of freedom, in that all were more or less equally impoverished.
With the French colonists came some 10,000 slaves. It has been said that the majority of these were creoles, that is, born in the Caribbean. Slaves out of Africa came in considerable numbers from 1783 to 1807. During this period, free black people with wealth, education and slaves of their own arrived as well. Under the aegis of the Cedula of Population, they enjoyed significant rights and privileges unknown to blacks in other islands in the Caribbean. Other freed men came to this island: men from disbanded West India regiments who had served in the Ashanti wars and in the Gambia were given lands at Manzanilla and Sangre Grande.
During the period between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and emancipation in 1834, disbanded regiments from the American Wars arrived here. However, tens of thousands of West Indians, by far the majority of any other group of Africans, came to Trinidad from the first decade after emancipation down to the present. The other interesting migration of people of African descent came about as the result of the British taking slaves off of Portuguese slavers in the mid-Atlantic in the 1850s and bringing them to Trinidad and Tobago, where they lived in freedom. The subject of this article is the penultimate category, the Americans.
Heading along the swift highway, the Northern Range, behind you fading to a paler shade of blue. Going beyond San Fernando always makes one feel that Trinidad is larger than it is. Over to the east, the Montserrat Hill with Mount Pleasant and Mount Kelvin. See it 185 years ago, thick virgin forest, as impenetrable as the Amazon's, crowded with wildlife, a world unknown. In the world outside, significant events were taking place. In Europe, Napoleon's doomed army was invading Russia. The Duke of Wellington, Britain's greatest general, was at the start of the Peninsular Wars to liberate Spain and Portugal from the French stranglehold. On the other side of the Atlantic, the young nation of the United States of America declared war on Britain and had invaded Canada. The war at sea saw three American frigates, the "Constitution", the "United States" and the "President", designed to outclass all other frigates and to outrun England's ships of the line, for a time get the upper hand. On land, the British army marched into Washington, which was defended only by a small force of militia, some of the British officers arriving in time to eat a dinner at the White House that had been prepared for the President and Mrs. Madison.
In the south, an army of frontiersmen, led by tall, long-haired Andrew Jackson, wearing his old leather cap and patched blue cloak and oversized unpolished boots, defeated the British army under General Pakenham at New Orleans, giving rise to the song:
"We fired one round and the British kept a'coming,
there wasn't as many as they were a while ago,
we fired another and they began a'running
from the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico".
Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this extraordinary and unnecessary war was that the peace treaty between England and the United States was signed in Europe before the Americans signing the treaty got the news of Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans.
During this was, as in the previous war for independence, many men of African descent fought for the British and many also fought for the Union. Their pay was always the same, freedom. As this war in America wound down, black soldiers in British regiments were offered the opportunity of settlement in Trinidad. Several companies set out to an unknown island in the distant west.
The island was passing through a difficult period of adjustment. Its laws and institutions were Spanish. The British military administrators had imposed martial law for some 18 years. The landowners were a mixed group of Spanish, English and French. There were black families who had very big estates run by slave labour. These formed a separate establishment. All these people had very mixed loyalties. When we see huge crowds today filling the stadium of thronging the streets at Carnival time, it is difficult to believe that in 1811 there were only 8,455 free people, white and coloured, in Trinidad, and the total population, slaves included, was only 30,742, about the size of a crowd at the Oval when it is filled to capacity.
The sugar cane had been introduced by refugees from Santo Domingo; the Otaheite variety by M. St. Hilaire Begorrat who owned a plantation in Diego Martin.
The soil was fertile. Governor Woodford, the first British civil governor who took office in 1813, declared in a dispatch in 1824 that "in other islands, the planting of canes is attended with great bodily exertion to the labourer—with all this trouble, the canes do not rattoon or sprout afresh for above one or two seasons after the first plantation, when the land must be again enriched and replanted.  In the new lands of Trinidad, it is sufficient to clear the surface and to lay the cane in the soil where it will for 18 or 20 year throw out fresh canes. The cultivation of cocoa, of which there are 101 plantations established with 1,622 slaves of all ages producing 1,166,224 lbs of cocoa or 719 lbs per negro, forms a very distinguished feature in the agriculture of the colony".
But only a small part of the land mass was under cultivation, only about 44,000 acres out of the 1.5 million! The island was short of people. Indeed, shortages of labour is one of the salient features of the history of Trinidad throughout the whole of the 19th century. Such is the background. Now we must link the war between the United States of America and England with the newly conquered British colony of Trinidad, which was short of people.
Some of the free Africans in the United States joined the British forces and fought for them against the Americans. At the end of the war, groups of these people were brought to Trinidad. A party of fifty arrived in 1815 and in the following year, 34 men, 15 women and 17 children were brought in. Other followed. All of these "Americans" were finally settled round about Savanna Grande (now Princes Town). They did not want to become tradesmen. Land was to them a symbol of security and of liberty. They all wanted to settle on the land to own it, cultivate it and be independent.
By and large, the "Americans" were members of the Baptist church, and so in 1843, a Baptist missionary began to work among the men and women who settled around Savanna Grande. Other mission stations were established as well at the first Company Village, at Mount Kelvin and in the third village at Mount Pleasant, where the settlers were part cultivators and part hunters.
It is said that the second Company Village was never founded because the settlers were lost at sea. The descendants of these brave men and women are now woven into the colourful quilt of this the most cosmopolitan island of the Caribbean. They have become another element of the overall African diaspora in the Western World.