Wednesday, 30 May 2018

President’s House, or The Ups and Downs of Trinidad & Tobago’s Official Mansions

With the restoration of some historical buildings in Port-of-Spain underway, it might be useful to give an account of their origins and something of the history behind them. The one that comes immediately to mind is President’s House, or, as it was once called, Government House.

Plan of Port-of-Spain, indicating the Port, or Puntilla, in the area of Besson Street 
and the first three Government Houses in the town as well as some 
other government buildings of Puerto d’Espagna.

Eight Government Houses
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that we have had, beginning from 1592, perhaps eight of these official buildings. 
The first Government House was built in Trinidad by Don Antonio de Berrio y Oruña when he set up San José de Oruña (St. Joseph) as the capital. Like all Spanish towns, it was laid out with a central square, around which were placed the church, the Cabildo Hall or Town Hall, the residence of the Governor, and the prison. 
The church at St. Joseph, today, stands on the spot that was originally selected for it 426 years ago, which may makes it the oldest identifiable plot of land selected by government for the erection of a public building. (The church that stands there today is a newer building on the same location). To the west and in front of the church was the open square, on the north side of which stood Government House.
One hundred and sixty two years later, in 1757, another Spanish Governor, Don Pedro de la Moneda, for want of suitable accommodation at St. Joseph, decided to make the little port town of Port-of-Spain his home and in so doing put into place the moving of the capital from St. Joseph. 
In those days the town, which was really a fishing hamlet, not even yet a village, consisted of only two streets, which are now know as Duncan and Nelson. Nelson Street was called Calle Principe, Main Street, and Duncan Street was called Calle del Infante, Prince Street. At the eastern extremity of this very small place, across the river, was to be found the Governor’s house near to a spring of water called “The Spring of Madame Moncreau”. It was somewhere along the Eastern Main Road, probably in the vicinity of the present-day fly-over.
Ajoupas in the Piarco area in the 1930s. 
This is what the streets of Puerto d’Espagna 
could have looked like in the 1780s.

Early Port-of-Spain
The Spaniards did not have stone buildings, so the Governor’s house would have been built of daub and wattle, that is rods or sticks laced with vines and covered with mud, white-washed, and thatched with a palm leaf called tirite. 
In those days, the port of Port-of-Spain was actually the mouth of the Dry River, and this was where ship’s boats landed passengers and goods. The entire sea front was covered in mangrove, looking like the Caroni bird sanctuary today. 
In 1781, the first church in Port-of-Spain was erected on the site now known as Tamarind Square, right next to the sea, and on the northern side, between Charlotte, George, Nelson and Duncan Streets, were the Artillery Quarters, the Secretariat, the Receiver General and the Treasury. This was the heart of town. In 1783 the population of the entire island stood at 126 Europeans, 295 mixed race ‘free’ people, 300 enslaved Africans, and 2,032 tribal people, making a total population of 2,753. The actual population of Port-of-Spain might have been a few hundred people. 
During this time, almost all the buildings in the hamlet, hardly more than forty or fifty, were ajoupas built of daub and wattle with thatch roofs, with perhaps one or two partially constructed from untrimmed lumber. 
The streets were dirt tracks that ended in either the mangrove or the forest. The area, forested, was characterised by the abundance of large silk cotton trees. It was called by the tribal people “Place of the Silk Cotton Trees”, Conquarabia or Cu-Mucurapo. 
Everyone went to bed—or rather to hammock—early, because with nightfall the place would teem with tens of thousands of crabs and with caimans that came out of the mangrove and ambled freely about, not to mention the very large boa constrictors making sudden and uncomfortable appearances. 
The course of the Saint Ann river swung westward around where Park and Charlotte Streets are, went along Park Street and down Frederick Street, across Woodford Square, then down Chacon Street, thence to the sea. 
The Dry River, mostly dry except for the duration of the rainy season, occupied its present course from Park into Piccadilly Street (which was once known as Arnold Street) to the sea at the first port of Port-of-Spain. The Saint Ann river would be diverted to run into the Dry River with the advent of Don José María Chacón, who arrived as Governor in 1784. 
Because of a Spanish imperative called the Cedula for Population of 1783, there had been an increase in the population, which required new public buildings. One of these was a new Government House, which was complected in 1788. It was situated on the northern side of the Plaza del Marina or King Street near the Artillery Quarters on the south-west corner of Charlotte Street. King Street later became Marine Square, now Independence Square.
With the conquest of Trinidad by the British in 1797, a new government was established. The first British Governor, Colonel Thomas Picton, lived in the old Spanish Government House near the south-west corner of Charlotte Street and King Street, until for a variety of reasons in 1803 a Government House was created at 29 Brunswick Square, now Woodford Square. This would be on the north-eastern corner of Knox Street and Pembroke Street, where the old public library building now stands. 
In 1808 a fire, which started at 12 Frederick Street, swept through the town, destroying almost all of it.

This building was erected after 1808 
on the site of a Government House that was 
used by both Governors Chacon and Picton. 
It was demolished in the 1960s.

“Neither wind- nor rainproof and much decayed”
A new Government House had been selected in 1803 at Belmont Hill, where the Hilton Hotel now stands. It was an estate house belonging to an Irishman named Edward Barry (whose grave is in a little park at the top of Norfolk Street in Belmont), which was a plantation that belonged to him and a gentleman named John Black. 
The ‘new’ Government House was described by Governor Hislop, Picton’s successor as “a hut, neither- nor rainproof, and much decayed.” 
By this time the population of Trinidad stood at 2,361 Europeans, 5,275 mixed race ‘free’ people, 20,464 enslaved Africans and 1,154 tribal people. Making a total population of 29,254.
Sir Ralph Woodford became Governor of the colony in 1813. With great reluctance he continued to live at Belmont Hill, where he found that “there being scarcely a dry spot during heavy rain.” 
In 1818, negotiations were opened with Henri Peschier for a property of over 200 acres at Saint Ann, which was eventually purchased for £9,160 Sterling. The new Government House was completed in August of 1820. The building was situated a little in front of what is now President’s House. It continued in use as the official residence for ten Governors until in 1867 it was destroyed by fire.
Government House on Belmont Hill, middle building. 
Painting by Peter Shim from a contemporary watercolour.



 Government House on the corner of Pembroke & Knox Streets.

The Original Cottage
This was the estate manager’s office and residence from before the sale of the property. It was utilised as the Governor’s residence for nine years, from 1867 to 1876, by four Governors. The well-known travel writer Charles Kingsley wrote his famous book, “At Last—A Christmas in the West Indies” there. It was eventually demolished in 1886. The old stables, now garages with a clock dated 1821, are the last remnants of the original buildings.

The oldest surviving part of the estate, dating from the time of the Peschier house,
its the clock dated 1821

Woodford’s Government House was erected just a 
little in front of where President’s House now stands. 
Drawing by Richard Bridgens.


The original Cottage. Lady Chancellor Road is 
the hillside behind. Painting by Michel-Jean Cazabon.

The Present House
In July of 1876, the foundation stone was laid for a new Government House, which was built on the present site. It was designed by a Mr. Ferguson on what was called the Indian model and built of limestone at a cost £44,630 Sterling. 
Sixteen Governors lived there until it was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1938. Rebuilt and modernised, it served as the residence for the last five British governors until it became the home of the Governor-General of the Federated West Indies on 30th of April 1958, when Lord and Lady Hailes took up residence there. The Federation came to an end on the 31st May 1962. Trinidad and Tobago attained Independence on the 31st August 1962 and the building was declared open as a museum and art gallery by H.R.H Alice, The Princess Royal.
In 1965, Sir Solomon Hochoy was appointed the first Governor-General of Trinidad and Tobago and took up residence in the renovated Governor-General’s House. The renovations cost the government some $650,000. On the 24th September 1976, when Trinidad and Tobago became a Republic, the Governor-General’s House became the residence of the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, His Excellency President Ellis Clarke, our first President, and it is now know as President’s House.

Today's President's House


During the period of the Federation, this small building
on the grounds of Government House,
called the Cottage, was renovated and occupied by
Sir Edward Beetham, the last English Governor in Trinidad. 


Tobago Government House
Tobago, from a western European perspective, possesses a longer and far more dramatic history than its sister island Trinidad. This may easily be recognised in its architecture and the remnants of its plantation economy, as seen by the windmills and water-wheels, which was driven up until the 1830 by African slave labour.
British colonial administration in Tobago began in 1763. The island was divided into seven parishes, and land was sold to prospective sugar planters. African enslaved people were introduced, and thus began the cultivation of sugar, cotton and indigo. In 1764, the first Lieutenant Governor, Alexander Brown, arrived and settled at Fort Granby, near Studley Park. Georgetown, situated in Barbados Bay on the southern coast, became the capital from 1764 to 1789, when it was moved to Scarborough which was considered to be a more healthy place. In the early days, the Governor and his staff lived for two years on board two hulks anchored in Barbados Bay. From 1769, during the British occupation, it is recorded that the home of the Governor was situated at Orange Hill.
In 1802, during the French occupation, the Governor having died of fever, it was suggested that Government House should be moved to a more healthy part of the island, and it was decided to build the new residence at Mount William. The house and lands at Orange Hill were sold at auction, and construction of the new building commenced and was not completed until 1807, at a cost of more than 25,000 pounds.
From 1803 onwards, Tobago was to remain  British. In 1807 Sir William Young arrived and was the first Governor to occupy the new buildings. The original plans were for a two-storied building, but when the post of Governor was reduced to that of Lieutenant-Governor, the House of Assembly built a house of one story instead. The present Government House stands on the same site today having been built and completed in 1828.
In 1958, at the time of the Federation of the West Indies, when Government House in Trinidad became the seat of the Governor-General of the West Indies, Sir Edward Beetham-Beetham, the last English Governor of Trinidad & Tobago, moved over to Government House in Tobago, where extensive repairs had been carried out at a cost of $45,187.

Government House in Tobago has been the residence of Governors and Governors-General for many years, and will now be for the use of the President of the Republic of  Trinidad & Tobago. Many distinguished visitors have occupied or visited it, including Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and H.R.H. Prince Philip, as well as many celebrities too numerous to mention.

1828 Tobago Government House

Tobago Government House today


1 comment:

kabeesha said...

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