Thursday 31 May 2012

Arrival of the Coconut in Mayaro

From an uncertain date, perhaps in the first or second decade of the 16th century, the 1510s or 20s, Portuguese adventurers had set sail for the west. Their King, Henry the Navigator, had, some say, inherited the secrets of navigation from the sea captains of the disbanded and discredited Knights of the temple of Solomon, whose fleet vanished upon the arrest of their master and preceptors two centuries before.
Sailing under the pate cross of that order, the caravels of Columbus had crossed the Atlantic in the 1490s. With the same charge flying at their mastheads, the Portuguese explorers had sailed along the coast of west Africa, using the sea charts of Andrea Bianco and of Bartolomeo Benin Casa, in search of a passage to the spice islands of the east and their ... to follow the trade winds and the mile-long Atlantic rollers towards the western sun in search of an island known in legend as Hi Brazil.
Christopher Colombus had discovered in his voyage of 1498 the island which he had named for the Trinity, which was a point of sail. The Portuguese too knew of this destination which lay just about 10º north latitude, a degree that was ascertained by the observation of the stars and may have used this island's eastern cost, known in those days as the Bande de l'Est, as a port of call in sailing to or returning from their colony of Brazil which had been claimed for Portugal by Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500.
This was a period of a great exchange of both people and commodities, food from central and south America went to western Europe and from there to Asia went chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, maize, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, pineapples papayas, kidney and butter beans, sweet peppers, chilies, and the turkey. To the New World came sugarcane, bananas, rice, citrus, wheat, cattle, chickpeas, breadfruit and the coconut.
Laden with a cargo of nuts, the Portuguese merchantman was under full sail, bound for Recife in Brazil. She was out of Java, making for the Cape of Good Hope, racing with a running sea, when she was overtaken by a powerful storm that drove her into the South Atlantic. Reducing her canvas and maintaining only her foresails and flying jibs for stability, she attempted to ride out the wind and driving rain. Just when the weather was appearing to improve, she was again caught in a new and even more violent storm. Born out of the furnace heat of South central Africa, this weather pattern surged into the Atlantic and swept northward, heading for the coast of the northern end of the South American continent.
The captain had by this time battened down all hatches and had reduced his sail to "sticks", meaning she carried topside just her masts, yards shrouds and rigging. Brave men took turns at the helm, lashed to the ship's wheel, in unsuccessful attempts to steer a course. The captain, an old hand, knew that the Atlantic hurricanes tended to smash their way through the Antillean chain into the Caribbean Sea.
On the fourth night of the storm, as the eye passed over, he was able to catch a glimpse of a certain group of stars that gave him the hope that the powerful wind and enormous seas would drive him towards an island, the island of Trinidad. It did. After eighteen days of buffeting, the Portuguese merchantman was driven ashore at Mayaro. Her holds burst asunder on impact with the shallows. Huge waves drove her cargo of Javan green coconuts towards the long stretch of deserted beach. Great rollers tossed them upon shore between  Guayaguayare to Radix Point. In the coming months, the coconuts took root. The year was 1760, and the coconut had arrived in Mayaro, Trinidad.x 

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Fidel Castro

Some 130 years after "the Great Liberators" of the Western World, Toussaint L'Ouverture and Simón Bolívar, came another significant personage, a modern-day liberator, one that history still has an open and unfinished chapter on.
Dr. Fidel Castro burst upon the world stage in the 1950s, with the Cold War and all its attendant fears and dramas as a lurid backdrop to his entrance. He was not the first liberator of the island of Cuba. We have already written of José Martí, who broke the chains of Spain's stranglehold on that island in the 1890s. Fidel Castro's revolution sought for another kind of freedom for the Cuban people and other peoples in the world at large. It will be weighed and written in his final chapter as to whether this work was indeed achieved and whether he really freed the Cubans or just imposed yet another yoke on them.
Let us first look at Cuba, the largest island of the Greater Antilles. It is in truth a giant among the islands of the Caribbean, 44,146 square miles, an area that is larger than England minus the principality of Wales. Cuba is larger than all the other islands of the Caribbean put together by several thousand square miles. And not only its size is significant, but also the comparative smallness of its population, which stood in the 1960s at just 6 million, or 150 people per square mile. Barbados, in contrast, has a population density of 1,300 people per square mile.
The Spaniards settled Cuba early, in spite of the brave resistance of the Arawak Chief Hatuey, who fled from Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) with a small party of followers to escape from Spanish colonial tyranny. His forces were defeated in Cuba and he was captured and burnt alive.
It is said that before he died, Hatuey was exhorted by a priest, who tried to persuade him to allow himself to be baptised so that as a Christian he might go to heaven. Hatuey inquired whether there were any Christians in heaven. On being told that the good ones went there, he begged to decline baptism, as he did not want to meet any Spaniards in the next life.
Cuba came under Spanish rule in the early 16th century. It was, however, much neglected  despite its fine harbour at Havana. As it was developed over time, it became famous for the quality of both its sugarcane fields as much as for its tobacco cultivation. By the late 1700s, Cuba turned to sugar, joining Barbados, then Jamaica, then the French half of Hispaniola, to be followed by Puerto Rico in its production. It soon dwarfed those, and the increase in sugar production in the early 19th century meant an increase in the number of slaves and an alteration in the nature of the population.
In the 1830s, between 10,000 and 12,000 Africans were brought to Cuba each year, and slavery did not come a an end there until 1886, fifty-two years after the British West Indies had abolished slavery.
Enormous fortunes were made. The wealth and splendour of the old Spanish and creole grandee families were proverbial. The Spanish creoles disliked the officials from Spain, but they disliked even more the idea of Cuba becoming a predominantly African island like Haiti and Jamaica. In 1843, there were slave uprisings, which were put down harshly. The Cuban whites, although ashamed of slavery, were even more afraid of emancipation. They knew that once the Africans left the plantations, they would not willingly return, as happened in the other Caribbean islands after the abolition of slavery. It was a case of political and economical avarice.
Cuba's first great struggle for freedom from Spanish colonial rule came in 1868 under the lawyer Carlos Cespedes. This was a war that lasted ten years. Other freedom fighters, such as Maximo Gomez from Santo Domingo, came to Cuba to lend a hand in much the same manner as Ché Guevara, who came from Argentina some 75 years later.
The ten year war devastated the eastern part of the island and destroyed the coffee industry. It wiped out the European market for Cuban sugar. Balancing this, however, was a rapid expansion of the U.S.A. sugar market. For the most part, this was in the hands of the "new imperials", the big combines like the American Sugar Refining Company, which for twenty years, from 1890 to 1910, controlled 80% of the refined sugar consumed in the United States.
José Martí was born in 1853 and to use the well known turn of phrase, "lived his life like a candle in the wind". Like the men of the previous century, he burnt with the fire of liberty, and he died young. 1894 was the crucial year. In the heat of battle, the rebel commander Gomez had asked José Martí to keep to the rear so as to live to lead the new republic. Martí, however, was among the first to die at the front...
The shackles of Spain fell, but other, more home-grown dictators, replaced the chains of bondage of the Cubans. Some were worse than others. For example, in their reaction to the dictator Machado, the Cubans demonstrated with remarkable unanimity the limits of their tolerance. They would not endure brutal repression and senseless cruelty.
The rising of 1933 against Machado really had no previous parallel in Cuban history. It was followed by a return to elected government and, for a time, by an improvement in the competence, the honesty and the scope of the administration.
There were men and women in Cuba who belonged to the communist movement that was sweeping the world. Cuba probably had in the 1930s the only serious organised communist movement in the West Indies. Apparently imported by Spanish immigrants in the 1920s, not very numerous, Cuba did, however, produce an elected left-wing government under Dr. Gran San Martín in 1944 that had some communist support. At the other end of the political landscape from Gran San Martín stood a remarkable individual in the person of Sergeant - later President - Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar. Batista was born in 1901 in Oriente. He was a labourer's son, and rose from sergeant-major to colonel in the army campaign against President Machado in 1931-33, during which time he was seen as the chief architect of revolutionary success. With his skill in organising the non-commissioned officer element in the army for political ends, Batista had the knack of picking and supporting honest and respectable presidents for years before he sought office himself. Batista became president in 1940, a position which he held until 1944. With genial and therefore tolerable periods of personal rule between 1934 and 1944, Batista's political strategy was both opportunistic and flexible. He accepted the communists and created a working arrangement with them when it suited him. In this period, he kept his promise to the Cuban people. He went into voluntary exile in 1944 and returned in 1952 to overthrow President Prio and to be subsequently re-elected in 1954. His military coup inaugurated another  era of personal dictatorship in Cuba and was a good-bye for free elections. Batista sought to keep himself in power so as to secure his own personal fortune, often by brutal means. Memories of the dictator Machado returned to the people's minds. It was at this stage that Fidel Castro, following in the footsteps of generations of Latin militarists, started to collect an irregular army in the Sierra Maestra. From these majestic mountains, deep in Cuba's heartland, he proclaimed an armed revolution. Batista, with a professional army, was able for many months to resist the threat, but his civil support behind the lines crumbled rapidly. At the end of 1958, he was driven from office and fled to the Dominican Republic, where he died in 1973. Castro and a group of revolutionary enthusiasts, totally inexperienced in the task of government, took control of Cuba's future. Their proclaimed objectives included the restoration of the constitution of 1940, the electoral code and land reform. After their victory, all these were forgotten.
Similar to Stalin, Castro opted to govern by propaganda and police execution of large numbers of his political opponents and to imprison many who had supported him against Batista but subsequently differed from his policies. The communists in his entourage—semi-professional revolutionaries in a crowd of amateurs—rapidly extended their influence, insisting upon a strict revolutionary orthodoxy in all public spheres.
The treatment of universities is usually a reliable measure of the tolerance and self-confidence of a government. The University of Havana had been closed under the regimes of both Machado and Batista. Under Dr. Castro, it was bullied into conformity in its teaching and writing.
It is important to remember that Fidel Castro has pursued the economic objects of the revolution. He confiscated large land holding and distributed these to peasants and co-operatives in an unprecedented scale in the Caribbean or Latin America. His impressive housing developments for the poor, his success in education and the development of medical services with its significant advancements are widely remarked upon. These radical departures won for the government the enthusiastic support of a peasantry long accustomed to poverty and hopelessness, the root of national discontent.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, and under an aging Fidel Castro, Cuba's communist system and economy stand alone in the Western World. History will prove what will follow and whether the island has come to the end of its revolutionary cycle.

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Thursday 17 May 2012

The Police Force

Under Spanish law, before the conquest of Trinidad by the British forces in 1797, the police force in Trinidad  came under the control of the Agualcil Mayor, who was a member of the Illustrious Cabildo which formed the effective government of the colony.
The police in those days comprised six men. These were kept in at St. Joseph, the old capital of Trinidad. As the little village of Cumucurapo grew into the town known as Port of Spain, their activities became increasingly concentrated there. At the time of the British conquest, Trinidad was going through a very turbulent period. The Spanish colonial establishment was relatively small, comprising a dozen or so officials, headed by Governor Chacon and supported by a handful of local Spaniards, a few Frenchmen and a couple of Irishmen. Their chores derived mostly from criminal elements and republicans both black and white, runaway slaves, freebooters and members of various militaries who absent without leave. All these found a ready heaven in Trinidad, arriving by the hundreds from the nearby islands and from down the main. They challenged Chacon's authority almost daily and alarmed the French creole establishment, who were conservative royalists and who had invested what was left of their fortunes in the purchase of slaves and the establishment of plantations. Both property and life were under threat on a regular basis. Chacon could not handle it for much longer.
All this changed with the arrival of the British forces. Sir Ralph Abercromby left his aide-de-camp Colonel Thomas Picton in command of the island. Historian Michael Anthony recounts his words to Picton:
"I have placed you in a trying and delicate position, nor ... can I leave you a strong garrison: but I shall give you ample powers. Execute Spanish law as well as you can. Do justice according to your conscience. That is all that can be expected of you."
With some 15,000 people, mostly French-speaking, both European and African, who had republican sentiments and disliked the English for their support of the French royalists, Picton's job must have been a tough one. History shows that he dealt forcefully with insurgents, malcontents, revolutionaries, lunatics, criminals and opportunists by deporations, public hangings, decapitations and the exposing of body parts of the executed at the town gate and other public places, as was the custom in England and the continent of Europe at the time.
Colonel Picton created a military police force. One could say that the military tradition of the police service in Trinidad, which has come down to the present, has its origins from Picton's time. Picton "instituted the compulsory enlistment of Free Blacks and coloured men into the police and as a result the police force was soon regarded (and so it was considered for many years) not as an essential service but as a form of punishment." writes Fr. Anthony de Verteuil in his "History of the Irish in Trinidad".
Certainly, it became an important employer for the Barbadians, Grenadians, Vincentians and other "small islanders', who came in great numbers to this island. Even in the 1930s, when former police commissioner Eustace Bernard joined the service, he could write in his memoirs:
"The Trinidadian, not the Tobagonian, thought that it was 'infra-dig' to become a policeman, and that the policeman's status, if he had one, was low indeed."
From very early on, recruits did in fact come from overseas, not just the British colonies in the West Indies, but significantly from Ireland. Fr. de Verteuil recounts that in 1823, the police force consisted of James Mean, who was the Chief of Police, Assistant Chief H.G. Peake, Corporal Alexander Sandy, and Constables John McCarthy, B. Vasquez, Peter Stevens, Michael Christie, James Stephens and Peter MacDonald. 2 years later, there were 100 constables in the service, mostly from Barbados.
The commissioned officers were of course from Europe, as all positions of authority during this period of colonial rule were held by British officials. There was an inspector, later called inspector commandant, and two sub-inspectors. Not all the Barbadians who entered the force in those years had African ancestors.  There was in Barbados a relatively large community of impoverished white people, who had been transported to the island during the previous century, some to be servants of the upper classes, others to serve indentureships on similar contracts as the Indians who came to Trinidad. These were called "Red Legs" for obvious reasons and because of the class system endemic in the colonial period were treated no differently from the coloureds by the official establishment, who were or pretended to be of the upper classes.
A quarter of century later, in 1877, five members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were brought into the local police force. In 1876, the Police Headquarters was built on St. Vincent Street. On the site of this building once stood the barracks of the old West India Regiment which was brought back from Martinique in 1802. It was built in the Italian gothic style of limestone quarried at Picadilly Street in Port of Spain and cost some £90,000 altogether. It was equipped with an iron ball on a flag post, which fell precisely at midday Greenwich mean time.
It contained a residence for the head of the force as well as quarters for the volunteer fire brigade and the volunteer corps. At one time, the stipendiary magistrate of Port of Spain held his daily court there. In 1882, it burnt down as a result of a fire started in the lamp room. 1862 [?] saw the establishment of a "plain clothes detective branch".
In 1884, Commandant Baker described the force as being composed of 436 men of all ranks including 30 additional in that year. His staff consisted of two inspectors, Englishmen, one posted in Port of Spain, the other in San Fernando. A sergeant major from the Irish constabulary for each division, five sergeant superintendents, one a black man, the others former soldiers from the Irish constabulary, 21 sergeants, both white and coloured, 26 corporals of mixed ancestry, three grades of constables, full strength 350, some of who were European, the others mostly from Barbados "and two or three natives of Trinidad in the whole force, who are usually wathless from stupidity. Besides this stupidity, there is a great dislike to enter the force amongst the natives and the dislike has existed for years." [Source?]
J. N. Brierly came to Trinidad in 1874 to join the police force. Making a name for himself as a detective, he became senior inspector and was instrumental in laying out San Fernando and Port of Spain into beats. Fr. de Verteuil recounts that he travelled extensively to all parts of the island on horseback, giving lectures and instructions. Amongst those Irish were Darcy Costelloe, Fahay Flynn, Murphy Peake and Fraser.
The police force was to be severely tested in the last decade of the 19th century with the Hosay Riots and with the Cannes Brulées Riots, when pitched battles were fought both in the countryside and in Port of Spain between poui stick wielding batonniers and policemen armed with riot batons. By 1890, the York and Lancaster regiment that had been stationed at St. James barracks, left Trinidad. They had been stationed here from the conquest, a distinguished corps whose battle honours include the peninsular wars (March 29, 1815) to the 2nd battalion Aribia (Feb 24, 1824), to the whole regiment India (December 12, 1826). To this day, buttons are found bearing the distinctive rose and the numbers 65 and 84.
A great many Irish policemen were to stay on in Trinidad and marry into local families both black and white.
In 1903, the force now considerably strengthened and housed at St. James barracks in quarters vacated by the York & Lancaster regiment, assumed a military character and was turned out in force to deal with the rioters of the Water Riots, who subsequently succeeded in burning down the Red House. Former commissioner Eustace Bernard, who entered the Police Barracks in 1934, remembers a police force cast in the model of the old school, 2000 strong, commanded by Colonel A.S. Mavrogordato, "every officer was white and with few exceptions came from the United Kindgom. They were termed commissioned officers."
Their appointments had to be published in the Royal Gazette, an official British publication. Bernard recalls that the highest rank a constable could get was sergeant major. He remembers the three local men who rose to that rank as Sgt. Major Rose of the ... department, Sgt. Major Woods in charge of training and Sgt. Major Williams in charge of police headquarters. There was a  Sergeants' Mess for non-commissioned officers of the rank of sergeant and above, where no one below that rank may enter and in a similar manner the Officers' Mess.
In those days, there was no such thing as a 44-hour week. Men in training worked for their officers, "making up beds, sweeping floors, cleaning yards and boots, chopping wood etc." Eustace Bernard was in fact the first local man of colour to rise from the rank of constable to that of Commissioner of Police.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Winston Churchill

It might be argued that Sir Winston Churchill was the most significant person to live in the 20th century. The grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and the son of one of the leading British parliamentarians of his time, Lord Randolf Churchill and his beautiful American-born wife Jenny, Winston personified several significant archetypes: he was a consummate empire builder in the spirit of say Sir Cecil Rhodes; a soldier, adventurer, cast in the mold of Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. He was an author and journalist in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling or Rider Haggard. He was prolific and for many years lived off his writing. As an ambitious politician, he eventually followed in his father's footsteps, surpassing him and indeed completely overshadowing all his contemporaries.
He was on the one hand the ultimate conservative colonial, and on the other a sufficiently modern-minded man to be able to invent the tank. In doing this, he turned the tide of World War I. One may say that he impacted on Trinidad and Tobago twice; once when he was First Lord of the British Admiralty, when he ordered the conversion of the ships of the British Navy from the burning of coal to the burning of oil; the second time when he was Prime Minister in the dark days of the Second World War, when he was able to arrange with American President Franklyn D. Roosevelt the establishment of U.S. army and navy bases in British colonial Trinidad, in exchange for 50 vintage destroyers.
Winston Churchill as such changed the history of this island. Our petrochemical industry had a headstart because of his decision compared to other countries. This impacted on our cultural and economical life, giving us, for example, the unique steel band, as well as a highly developed infrastructure and access to advanced technology and of course significant wealth.
The establishment of British and U.S. army and naval bases in Trinidad changed forever the social fabric of these islands. It placed us at the hub of land and sea communications and introduced our lifestyle and culture to hundreds of thousand of men and women. It allowed us to contribute to that great enterprise that saved western civilisation as we know it from being overrun by lunatic totalitarianism in the Second World War. This collaboration of Chruchill and Roosevelt is remembered by a highway that runs eastward from Port of Spain.
The significance of the Second World War, particularly in its opening stages, was lost on most Trinidadians. the idea that Great Britain could fall seemed out of the question. The facts of the matter, notwithstanding, were arranging themselves quite differently. Great Britain as an island depended on an ongoing supply chain, so as to maintain production of food and a vast range of military material needed to equip her huge war effort. It had to be supplied from the Americas, from British Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India on an ongoing basis so as to survive.
Britain had held out during the previous war, that of 1914 - 1918 by organising convoys of ships sailing together. This had frustrated the German submarines. In the second war, the German "Kriegsmarine" (navy) had responded by organising its U-boats to attack in well organised formation, which became known as "wolf packs". This strategy became highly effective in the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. By October 1940, well over one thousand British merchantmen had been sunk by the Germans.
The basic problem was that the Royal Navy could not produce enough escort ships to protect the convoys. Convoys could proceed only as fast as their slowest members, and there was a difficulty in the availability of destroyers. Swift, built for speed, they could hunt and destroy German U-boats. It was almost impossible for them to stay with the slow-moving ships as they made their way across the oceans to England.
The real crunch came in September of 1940. At that time, Britain's distroyer fleet stood at 171. These had to serve in both the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters of war. Of these, over 80 were undergoing repairs after having been damaged in action. During that year, 21 new distroyers had been launched by the Royal Navy, but 34 had been sunk. It was obvious that by attrition the entire system of supplying by convoy would collapse, in that there would be no distroyers to protect them form the German U-boat wolf packs.
During this period, the United States of America had stayed out of the conflict. There was a strong pro-German lobby that encouraged a policy of isolation. Many Americans felt that they had saved England, in fact Europe, during the First World War, and performed their duty. The country on the whole had recently been in the grip of a terrible depression. All this served to strengthen the isolationist movements. Notwithstanding, the president, Franklyn Roosevelt, had developed a close personal friendship with Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This, together with the support of numerous Americans, served to stimulate a sense of commitment to England as she stood alone against a vastly superior foe.
Churchill was in need of help. As the year 1940 drew to a close, his country's reserves were at a low point. What he required was basically 50 destroyers to guard his Atlantic supply chain and to see him through these dark winter months.
Many felt that Roosevelt was backing a lost cause and things would go against the U.S. when a victorious Germany dominated the Atlantic sea lanes. Roosevelt, however, understood the gravity of the situation and knew well the peril the world would face if Nazi-controlled Germany under Adolf Hitler were to win this war.
He sought a found a way to supply England with the destroyers she needed. Albeit being somewhat old-fashioned, these formed part of a reserve fleet that had been "moth-balled" at the end of the last war. The plan to make them available was based on an earlier idea that had come out of the First World War. Britain should hand over all her naval and military bases in the Americas as payment for its debts owed to the United States. This plan had never been implemented, and other arrangements had been made. Now, it was put back on the table.
It was proposed that American bases may be placed alongside British bases in the colonies. America would get a form of defense, stretching from South America through the Caribbean in exchange for 50 old destroyers that were just sitting there.
The sticking point was the length of occupation. A lease arrangement was obvious, and 99 years was arrived at. To local people, it seemed very long to have one's property taken away. Perhaps 20 or 30 years at least, something in the lifetime of their children.
But in those years, no one knew how long this would last. Churchill was concerned with the survival of western civilisation. Roosevelt needed to know that a ring of steel could be put into place across the Caribbean, so as to guard the underbelly of the USA. In any event, all the territories involved were part and parcel of the British Empire. They were her assets and she could do with them as she pleased. Land for bases, both army and navy, were made available on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas and in Jamaica, in the Lesser Antilles, Antigua and St. Lucia. Also selected were Trinidad and British Guiana towards the southern end of the island chain.
On November 28, 1940, Trinidadians were astounded by the quantity of aircraft overhead. The steady droning of motors, planes flying in formation. All this had never been seen before!
Trinidad was being photographed and studied from the air. The Americans had arrived. There was great excitement. Everyone welcomed the Americans. There was a huge sure in patriotic fervour - here was Trinidad actually doing something real for the war effort. We were to be occupied, fortified and primed to deal with a terrible enemy! The lease bill would deal with 32 sq. miles of the island's territory. Eleven square miles of the north-western peninsula at Chaguaramas were earmarked for a naval base and air station. Some 19 sq. miles were used for a military establishment at Cumuto and several smaller areas were to act as auxiliary airfields. Other areas, such as Docksite on the waterfront in Port of Spain were taken over for the duration of the war.
Work commenced on 1 March, 1941 on the naval base at Chaguaramas. Some 500 Americans and a local work force of 5,000 prepared the site of one of the more significant naval bases in this part of the world, certainly one that would play a very special role in the years to come.
March 31 of that year saw the arrival of Major David Ogden, the District Engineer in charge of cconstruction in the Trinidad area. The colony's governor, Sir Hubert Young, welcomed the Americans:
"It is my great pleasure to welcome you here as the advance detachment of those who are to live and work with use here for the next one hundred years."
The army airbase at El Mamo, Cumuto, was called Fort Read, named for Major-General George Windle Read, a distinguished American general of World War I. Some 2,000 local workers cleared more than 2,000 acres of land. The 434th infantry regiment was stationed there.
Britain had to receive at her oil terminals at least four tankers full of oil every day so as to maintain the war effort. Most of this oil came from the fields in Venezuela and Trinidad. Trinidad and Aruba possessed very large refineries. Britian was also dependent on all sorts of commodities, bauxite from British Guiana to process into aluminum was vital to the aricraft industry. Other imports, such as sugar, coffee, fruit, leather and beef were important. Supplies came from even further afield.
Almost all the shipping carrying these cargoes had to pass through the Caribbean and the great bay that is the Gulf of Paria was the obvious point of rendezvous. Port of Spain was to be the mother of the convoys from here through the Grand Boca across the Caribbean Sea and eventually through one of the several passages between the islands in the lesser and the Greater Antilles into the open Atlantic to make the crossing to England.
In a short period of time, the installations a Chaguaramas became one of the largest in the world, and it became home to a major tactical base for the war against the German submarine fleets.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

The Black Caribs of Saint Vincent

She proudly showed me a picture of her mother and her aunt, two very good-looking black women, well dressed in the style of the 1910s. They had handsome, regular features with bright, intelligent eyes that looked directly into the camera. I could not help but notice their hair. Both girls had luxurious, thick, wavy black hair, parted in the middle and arranged at the back in a bun. She looked across at me and smiled.
"Carib," she said.
"From St. Vincent?" I asked.
"One of the finest vistas in the Caribbean is that from Coke's View in the St. Vincent, looking down the rock-bound coast to the Grenadines; a view that is best on a day when the trade winds are freshening and the white foam breakers against the dark rocks and the sea seem to be racing towards Bequia," wrote Sir Philip Sherlock in a radio script, which he delivered one Sunday in October, 1963. Because there are so many Vincentians or people of Vincentian descent living in Trinidad today, and especially in memory of Mrs. Gittens, who showed me the photograph of her mother and her aunt, I will bring to you the text of Sir Philip Sherlock's most interesting account of the Black Caribs of St. Vincent.
"Drive over the mountain ridge behind Kingstown, and you come to a very different view, as Mesopotamia valley opens up before you with some of the finest terracing of land in the West Indies. This fine sweep of cultivated land is in sharp contrast with the north end of the island. St. Vincent is as mountainous as Dominica, and the central ranges are so high and difficult that up to several years ago it was the only island that was not crossed by a road.
"Mount Soufrière itself rises to just over 4,000 feet, and it reaches this height within two miles. Flying over the crater, you could look straight down into a bleak, deep cup, sinister with its yellow lake 2,000 feet down in the centre. Perhaps Soufrière looks all the more sinister because it is one of the two active volcanoes remaining in the Caribbean. It's a fantastic location and holiday makers and groups of excursionists make their way down the inside of the crater. In 1902, Soufrière and its partner, Mt. Pelée in Martinique, erupted. Before that, Soufrière erupted in 1812, causing the most dreadful destruction and laying waste much of the island."
"This triggered a mass exodus from St. Vincent of entire families to Trinidad, a migration that continues to this day.
"The volcano is itself a reminder that the island is almost entirely volcanic in origin," writes Dr. Sherlock. "It is made up chiefly of ash and other broken material. It is not too fanciful to say that St. Vincent has had elements of the volcanic in its history also. It was a Carib stronghold. Columbus testified on the strength, courage and determination of the Caribs, and in his journal, when he advocated making slaves of them, he writes that—'they are a wild people, fit for any work, well proportioned and very intelligent, and who, when they have got rid of their cruel habits ... will be better than any other kind of slaves.'
"The Caribs held St. Vincent in such strength that the island was one of the last of the lesser Antilles to be settled by Europeans and the first group of settlers, whether French of English, had to make treaties with the Caribs in order to get a foothold. The last of these treaties was made in 1773, ten years after the island became British.
"As in Grenada, so in St. Lucia, the French and English fought each other for possession of the island. The sharpest conflict took place in the 1790s, the period of the conquest of Trinidad by the British and the revolt of Fedon in Grenada. One of the most skillful of the revolutionary leaders in the Caribbean was Frenchman Victor Hugues, a man of extraordinary energy who stirred up the slaves and the Caribs against the English.
"In the years immediately before Hugues arrived in the Caribbean from France, the English expanded sugar production in St. Vincent in preference to cotton, with the result that sugar production rose from 3,700 tons in 1787 to over 14,000 tons in 1828. The increase in sugar meant an increase in the number of slaves, and where there is slavery, there is the fear of slave uprisings. Hugues knew well how to organise disaffection and he had considerable success. On landing in St. Lucia, he immediately proclaimed all slaves were free, organised a rising and recaptured the island from France.
"After St. Lucia, he stirred up the Black Caribs of St. Vincent. These Black Caribs were a mixture of African and Carib. You will find them in St. Vincent to this day. The 1960 census showed that there were 1,200 Caribs in St. Vincent, most of these are in fact Black Caribs.
"Urged on by Hugues, the ancestors of these same people rose in rebellion and there was desperate fighting, so desperate that it looked at one time as if the French and their Carib allies would succeed in throwing the English off the island, as they had done in St. Lucia. In the end, the rebellion was put down, and large quantities of Black Caribs were carried away from St. Vincent and settled in the Bay islands, in Ruatan and Bonacca off the Mosquito coast of South America.
"Years later, some of these Black Caribs were allowed to leave Roatan and settle in the southern part of British Honduras, and today you will find them among the most progressive and hardworking of the inhabitants of Belize. Some make a living cutting timber in the forests, others fishing, others are farmers. They number about 7,000. It is because of this transportation that the number of Black Caribs in St. Vincent is so small.
"After a period of turbulence, St. Vincent settled down to become a sugar island. England often exported criminals. Many "poor whites" came to the Caribbean and made a home for themselves at Dorsetshire Hill, northeast of Kingstown. Many Portuguese were settled there in the same way that many also came to Trinidad. West Indian immigration to Trinidad and Tobago over the last 150 years has contributed to an aspect of our cosmopolitanism in that tens of thousands of people, mostly of African descent, have come here, their origins at first very diverse, but in the melting pot of Trinidad and Tobago we all have become one people."

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Wednesday 2 May 2012

Monkey Eric

Thinking about death, he slipped away from Lapeyrouse cemetery through the Tragarete Road gate and began to make his way home. He knew that they would miss him, even see him go—he didn't know. What he did know, however, was that he did not want to stay through to the end and hear the thud of the earth falling on the mattress they always put on the coffin to cushion the sound.
Robbie had been his friend from the time they were about three. He had lived right across the street. They had seen each other every day ever since. It had come as a surprise to realise that his partner, his buddy, was gone. For eleven years they had gone to school together, fought in the road, both been in love with Janice Lockhart, shared food from the same plate, slept in the same bed, "brothers of the spear" all the way. Now this boy just gone and dead—wow.
In the facing evening light he walked up Stanmore Avenue. The streets seemed empty and bathed in a pale gray glow. It would be good if he could make it to the tram stop opposite Marli Street. Then he could ride the Savannah car all the way home, or nearly.
As it turned out, he missed the car, and decided to walk through the Savannah. The night came on quickly. The setting sun blended with the rising moon, which appeared fully mature, accompanied by an icy wind and the smell of wreaths and newly-turned earth.
The wide stretch of the Queen's Park Savannah lay before him. He was from around here, so he knew that many cows grazed in the park. He knew too to avoid the cemetery and how to jump the racetrack railings. He was at home.
He remembered how he and Robbie used to break l'ecole biche in the Savannah, spending the whole day up in a big tree, eating hale filé and cowature pocham. He remembered the kite-flying days, kicking ball, turning out in white flannels to bat for St. Francis and blaze Robbie's bowling. Robbie went to Mr. de Four's school. He could remember everything, everything.
They had a whistle, their own code to call each other. If you put words to it, it would go "Monkeeeee eric! Monkeeeee eric!" He whistled it now, loudly, over and over, as loud as he could, then again even louder, to the echo this time. That startled himhe looked around the clear, lit ground, almost expectingwhat? Ahead, on the Circular Road, the tram that he had missed passed with a clang. It passed the big silk cotton tree, the café and the Overseas Forces' Club. At the corner of Cadiz Road, it stopped to let off a flock of pretty girls in big hats, lacy dresses and white stockings. He vaulted the Savannah rail, sprinted across the street and headed for Industry Lane, where he lived with his granny, never noticing the little fellow who had appeared with the echo, and who now hovered just a little off the ground with knees slightly bent and feet facing the direction from which he had come.
He didn't know why, but after that evening he often walked through the Savannah from Marli Street to Cadiz Road. Many a night he used to whistle, "Monkeeee eric!"—loud, until the sound of his whistling would come back as an echo which never failed to startle him a little. Then, with queasy sort of fear, a slight panic, he would run, vault the Savannah rail, and head for Industry Lane and home. The little fellow would fly unseen behind him, taking with him a whiff of old flowers and stagnant water.
In the morning, he would wake up to the smell of the smoke from the coal-pot, blending with the rich aroma of chocolate boiling. He and his grandmother lived in a little two-bedroom house on a small plot of land under the shade of a very large breadfruit tree. As an only child, he was accustomed to be by himself and, although he really missed his partner Robbie, he was busy attending Mr. Pantin's school for Pitman's shorthand and bookkeeping. He liked to go to the cinema, Olympic, Royal or Rialto, to the 4.30 matinee.
One afternoon in the Royal, alone in "house", watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the second time, he heard the whistle. It made him jump. It seemed to come from very close, almost in his ear. He looked around the darkened space—no one, except quite up in the back, two people kissing. The huge beam of the projector was slicing through the dark.
Rain was drizzling as he left the Royal that night. Not a cat in the road as he walked quickly up Charlotte Street. As he crossed Oxford Street, he looked back. He thought he saw a strange reflection in the wet and shiny street. Just beyond the streetlight a white shape flashed on the ground. He quickened his step. He knew the town had strange things aplenty, but he was not in that. As he turned into the lane, almost at his gate, he heard the whistle, low, from far off. He ducked inside and went to bed.
That night he dreamt that he and Robbie were playing "bloké", standing side by side, pitching marbles into a hole in the wall behind his grandmother's kitchen. Robbie had hundreds of bright, glassy marbles. All he had were some dull gray "codens" and two blue "quiawoue". He turned in his bed and halfway woke up and thought he was dreaming that he was hugging a little, naked baby with icy cold feet.
The next morning he woke up late and there was a funny smell like pee. He spent the day alone; his grandmother had gone by train to San Fernando and would come back about midday the following day. That afternoon he went for a walk on the pitch round the Savannah. He sat in the Botanical Gardens, looking at the children playing, and he whistled his habitual whistle, "Monkeeeeee eric!" Later he took his tea in the little gallery, enjoying the haunting zither music that was the theme of a radio programme about a man called Harry Lyon, who had been shot in Vienna. That's when he heard the whistle. It sounded like it came from inside. As he rose to look, he saw the little fellow hovering just inside the gate. A fat little baby with his feet turned backwards and a wide old-time straw hat on his head. His whole body went cold. He knew it was a duenn.
Quickly the vision faded. That night he stayed up until Rediffusion went off the air with a prayer at eleven o'clock. He kept all the lights on in the house and sat in the tiny drawing room until sleep overtook him in the wee hours. Sure enough, he dreamt of the little fellow floating around, whistling "Monkee eric".
The next morning he couldn't stay alone. He took a tram down to the railway station to wait for his grandmother. Because he knew old Mr. Popplewell, the ticket collector, he was allowed to wait on the platform for the train. With a rush, much hissing and great clanging, the big old train filled up the station. There was his granny, nice and plump and real, with a bag of paw-paw balls for him and lots of news from Auntie Leone. That afternoon he told her about the duenn. She became quite still and looked long and hard at him.
"He was your friend. You called him back," she said. "You know Robbie came from China when he was little. He came to the Lees, he was their sister's son. I don't think they baptised him."
It occurred to him that the one thing he and Robbie had not done together was First Communion. That very afternoon his grandmother set to work. She swept the house and yard with a new cocoyea broom. She turned his bed around so he now slept with his head to the west. That night she prayed, "Out of the depths we cry to you...", and as he went to bed she sprinkled holy water, which she always kept in a little bottle in the cabinet, around his bed. Then, she sat in the rocker at his side to wait, her chaplet in hand.
He stayed up as long as he could, but the orange peel tea she had given him eventually took effect and he drifted off to sleep. She was just dozing when the cocks in the breadfruit tree started to crow. Their noise woke her, but what brought her to her senses was the little fellow who hovered just inside the door. "Monkeee eric," he whistled softly, "monkee eric!" Making the sign of the cross, she got up and went to him.
"He can't play with you again, Robbie, you have to go back now where you come from." She raised the little bottle with the holy water, letting some drops fall.
"I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen. Go home now, Robbie, go home."
To prevent similar experiences with duennes, never call your children's names out loud in the open, as a duenn might overhear and lure them away. Also, you shouldn't whistle in the middle of the Savannah, or whistle in the dark night. Robbie might be looking for a tree to climb...

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