Easter Special

The Antique Saints of Trinidad

Few genuine relics remain from Trinidad's Spanish period. One of them is to be found in the church dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat. This little wooden figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the 'Black Virgin', is said to be a copy of a statue of Our Lady in a shrine in Montserrat, Spain. Port of Spain was probably not founded by the Spaniards at all. There is no reason to suppose that its importance to the indigenous inhabitants was not supplemented in time by the activities of migrants, refugees and transients. The tribal people had a name for it; they called it 'Conquerabia'. The Spaniards merely referred to it as 'Puerto de los Hispanioles'.

By 1560, the Spanish placed troops there. Historian P.G.L. Borde says in his book 'The History of the island of Trinidad under the Spanish government' that there was a fort and a trading post. The mangrove swamps that we can glimpse at today off the foreshore for example, covered all of today's downtown Port of Spain. Huge silk cotton trees and other forest giants grew, and housing consisted almost entirely of open ajoupas, scattered here and there in bush. There was a small,mud-walled enclosure with a shack inside, a flagpole, two or three cannons and some dishevelled, unshaven Spanish soldiers. The Caribs came and went,; there was some traffic with the mainland and up the Orinoco river a couple of times per year.

In 1680, when the French commander Comte D'Estrées visited, he reported that there was no Port of Spain at that time, only a military post, an earthen mound with two guns and some fishermen's huts. In 1690, governor Don Sebastien de Roteta reported in writing to the King of Spain:
"Already six houses have been made and others have been started. There is already a church in this place, so that it was unnecessary to build a new."

It was hard for the Spaniards to establish a settlement. The natives were always restless, even hostile, and that is to put it mildly! Even the 'pacified' ones "were in the habit of showering scorn and abuse upon the Holy Faith and ridiculed with jests the efforts of the Holy Fathers", as the alcaldes of Trinidad reported to the King in December of 1699. But notwithstanding something of a permanent settlement, meaning permanent occupation, did begin around 1700.

A fragment of a letter survives in Tom Cambridge's collection, written by Martin Perez Anda y Salaza. It says in part that a church was erected in 1722 with the assistance of the parish of the town. But in truth, the place was a port, not a town. It was around the grass market, Besson Street, or thereabouts, that there was activity. Traders from 'down the main' and illegal immigrants came and went; contraband goods were stored in temporary shelters.In 1739, there was fear of smallpox.

Architect John Newel Lewis comments in his book 'Ajoupa', that this laissez-faire, free-for-all style is a characteristic of Port of Spain up to the present.

In 1768, an area around what is known today as George, Nelson and Duncan Streets and about as far west as Frederick Street was settled. A plaza was staked out in conformity to the King's ordinance of 1573 for the laying out of towns in the Spanish colonies. There was an Amerindian village called Cu-Mucurapo nearby.

By 1777, Philippe Roume de St. Laurent, a Creole from Grenada who was seeking new land to settle, could report that there were eighty houses made of light cane, plastered with a mixture of mud and grass, then whitewashed and covered with with thatch. He goes on to say: "The Governor lives here."

The problem with the mud buildings, whether fort or house, was of course that the rainy season dissolved them. They ran and bent, and when dry season came, they dried up and cracked and became completely misshapen. Also, the bush never ceased to grow. The alligators ate the dogs and the chickens.

With the arrival of the French in 1783, the pace of development accelerated. Better port facilities came about as there was much landing of cargo, both animate and unanimate. The jetty was lengthened, the mangrove cut away, and most important the Rio Santa Anna was diverted. Captain Ricketts of Barbados wrote: "The present capital of the island three years ago contained only a few mud houses; the inhabitants of which were fishermen. Now it contains 600 houses, mostly built of wood, and shingled. They are laid out in eleven streets at right angles of a good width, but unpaved. They are very dirty after rain. The number of inhabitants is about 3000, of which 1,500 are supposed to be white."

Monsieur Picot de Lapeyrouse established the first sugar cane estate on the island. The Otaheite variety of cane had been introduced by St. Hilaire Begorrat.

Benoit Dert became the first worshipful master of the freemason's lodge 'Les Frére Unis', which was brought by himself and others form St. Lucia in 1795.

The Spanish authorities could hardly handle the locals - much less the high style emigré French creoles. No one really expected that the French Revolution would send whole communities of French creoles with their slaves, 'octaroon' mistresses and 'pass-for-white' children tumbling in backwater Trinidad by the the 1790s. In that period, the town grew not as a result of town planning, but inspite of it.

The town was a haven for the flotsam and jetsam of the Caribbean in 1797. It was peopled by half-caste Spaniards, broad-nosed Zambos, high-strung mestizo women, French republican soldiers, retires pirates, French nobility and the ghosts of the conquistadors who had died in the previous centuries in search of El Dorado, eaten by the anthropomorgai people in the jungles of Guairia.

All this disorder gave the English their chance. With war generally in the air and Governor Chacon fearful of republicanism, they took the island in 1797 without hardly a shot being fired. although it was reported that the guns at Fort St. Andres fired round after round.

But they too had many problems with the mixed population, squatters, vendors, transients, more traders, free Africans, itinerant mainlanders and illegal immigrants. Bearing all the above in mind, one comes away with the feeling that nothing much has changed in the last 200 years in Port of Spain!

"In Tortuga, the 'Black Virgin' is placed in a side chapel reserved for its veneration," writes Sister Marie Therese in her excellent book 'Parish Beat'. "People come from all parts of Trinidad to pray at her feet, beseeching favours. At a date close to September 8th, her feast is celebrated. No one knows, really, when the little wooden figure of the 'Black Virgin of Montserrat' was brought to Tortuga, but it is presumed that it came through a Capuchin missionary from Spain."

It is interesting to note that the earliest missionaries, the Catalan Capuchin priests, first arrived in 1687. The last Aragon Capuchin came in 1758. This serves to give an idea of the age of the 'Black Virgin of Montserrat'.

Another remarkable figure of veneration is that of La Divina Pastora at Siparia. Sister Marie Therese relates:
"Siparia was one of the missions of the Spanish Capuchins who came from the Santa Maria province of Aragon in 1756 - 1758. Devotion to the divine shepherdess is centuries old, originating in Spain. It is said that in 1703 Our Lady appeared to a Capuchin known as the Venerable Isidore. In this visitation he was instructed to spread devotion to her under the title of 'Our Lady, Mother of the Good Shepherd'. This devotion was introduced in Venezuela in 1715 and the first church was built in her honour in an Amerindian mission."

The date of when the devotion to her was introduced to Trinidad is not known. There is, however, a parish record that states that the statue of La Divina Pastora was brought from Venezuela to Siparia by Spanish priest, who said that the statue had saved his life. This record dates from 1871.

The statue may well be over 100 years older than that date. Perhaps it had travelled from Spain to Venezuela in 1715, perhaps it had been taken into safekeeping by the priest in those turbulent years of Venezuela's post-revolutionary period, when much of the church property was destroyed in the wars.

Santa Rosa de Lima was canonised in 1671. She was born in Peru of Spanish parents and became a nun in the Dominican order. She devoted her life to the sick and the destitute, and is remembered even today by the tribal people of the high Andes.

In 1757, the Capuchins of Aragon founded a mission at Arima and dedicated their work to this first New World saint, Santa Rosa. Some 30 years later, this mission was enlarged to accommodate the tribal people who had been displaced from Tacarigua, Caura and Arouca. Dating from an early period, a figure said to be that of the saint was brought to the church. It had been discovered by villagers in the high woods, and has been the focus of veneration ever since.

Sister Marie Therese records the words of Fr. Thomas:
"In 1813, the youthful Sir Ralph Woodford attended the Santa Rosa festival. On this joyous occasion, the church is decorated. During the service, a cannon was discharged at intervals. At the end of the mass, ceremonial dances were performed in the church to the accompaniment of the cuatro and the chac-chac. The four leading Caribs of the mission bore the statue in procession, immediately followed by the Carib queen, who was dressed like a bird of paradise."

According to H.A.A. de Verteuil, the king and the queen of the Caribs in the early 19th century were usually young people. The church was elaborately decorated with produce, and people came from afar to view the ceremonies. An excerpt from a report by Don Domingo de Vara to the Spanish king in 1595:
"The Indians for their labour will gain instruction in the matters of Our Holy Faith and shelter and protection, as though our children, so that they may recognise and appreciate the great work which our Commander does in bringing them to the obedience and protection of His Majesty. From this, those who wish to go will learn that we intend to populate these lands and not to depopulate them; to develop them and not to exploit them; to control them and not to destroy them. Those who do not accept this are warned that they will suffer the anger of God who has clearly shown that those who rob and maltreat the Indians, perish in the land they try to desolate, and their riches, acquired by deceit and tyranny, are lost in the sea and their families perish and are forgotten."

© Paria Publishing Company Limited 2000


| The Immortal 45 | The History of banking | History of Aviation | The Lost Portraits |
| Nothing has changed in 200 years | The Antique Saints of Trinidad | The men who shaped the 20th century in T & T |
| The Missions | The History of Sugar Cane and Rum | Comfortable with cocoa |
| Religious diversity in the Indian-Trinidadian community | Gouverneur Chapeau Paille - Sir Ralph Woodford |