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Notes on the Geography of Trinidad: Trinidad: Relics of Empire

Henry Nelson Coleridge, nephew of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, visited Trinidad in 1825 in the company of his uncle, the bishop of Barbados. "Port of Spain," Coleridge wrote, "is by far the finest town I saw in the West Indies. The streets are wide, long, and laid out at right angles; no house is now allowed to be built of wood, and no erection of any sort can be made except in a prescribed line. There is a public walk embowered in trees and similar in all respects to the Terreiro in Funchal, and a spacious market place with a market house or shambles in excellent order and cleanliness... The Protestant church is beautifully situated , with a large inclosed lawn in front of it, which is surrounded on two sides by the best houses in the town. The church itself is one of the most elegant and splendid things in the empire; it is wainscoted with the various rich woods of the island..."

Those words might almost appear today in a certain kind of glossy magazine, but Coleridge spoils things in the next line, where he wrote that "the pews are arranged with no more regularity than with a liberal consideration of the feelings of the colored people. These last sit in the area towards the western end, and the difference of their accommodation from that of the whites is scarcely perceptible." Does it help much that he was committed to the abolition of slavery? Six Months in the West Indies in 1825, p. 60.

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The governor of Trinidad at the time of Coleridge's visit was Ralph Woodford, who had already held that position for a dozen years and who had arrived in Trinidad in 1813 to find a city still severely damaged by a fire in 1808. Woodford dictated that in the city's reconstruction only stone be used. He ordered the paving of the city's streets. He established Brunswick Square in the town center; since World War I, when German names were purged, it's been Woodford Square. Woodford arranged the purchase of an abandoned sugar estate on the edge of town and converted it into the city's renowned Queen's Park Savannah, a grassland half a mile across at its narrowest. All praiseworthy, but, unlike the visiting Coleridge, Woodford supported slavery.

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Something of Woodford's enduring reputation at least among the propertied class in Trinidad may be inferred from this statue placed sixty years after his death. It stands prominently in Port of Spain's Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, which had been consecrated five years before Woodford's death, age 42, in 1828. The sculptor was the eminent Sir Francis Chantrey, perhaps the most successful British sculptor of the day. Chantrey sculpted James Watt, Joseph Banks, Robert Peel, Lord Melbourne, and--uniquely--four British sovereigns from life. He worked on subjects across the empire, too, including Bishop Heber in Calcutta, Mountstuart Elphinstone in Bombay, Sir Thomas Munro in Madras, Stamford Raffles in Singapore--and, of course, Woodford in Trinidad. He also produced a fine bust of George Washington.

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The cathedral replaced a wooden building lost in the fire of 1808. The exterior may not impress, but give some credit to the architect, Philip Reingale, who was moonlighting from his normal position as Trinidad's colonial secretary.

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The tower is stumpy, perhaps from lack of a suitable foundation, and the crenellations seem a bit toothy, but step inside.

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For an amateur production, it's very impressive, especially with those spectacular hammerbeams. The Woodford monument is under the arch on the right side.

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A few steps closer to the front.

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As usual, there's an assortment of monuments testifying to life's brevity. Dendas had served under Benedict Arnold and later under Cornwallis. He became a prisoner of war after Yorktown but later seized and became governor of Guadaloupe. There, at 44, he died of yellow fever. The French regained sovereignty over the island, and the new governor, Victor Hugues, issued a declaration "that the body of Thomas Dendas, interred in Guadeloupe, shall be taken up and given as prey to the birds of the air." The British were aghast and funded a very large monument to Dendas in St. Paul's Cathedral. It's still there.

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An infant dies, his mother follows a year later at 24. The father follows his wife nine days later. Yellow fever?

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Daughter of Trinidad's arch-deacon, Sarah Harris produced two children in three years of marriage before dying at 22. Is anything else known of her? Her husband is remembered for several accomplishments, including paving Port of Spain's streets with local asphalt, developing a public water-supply, and establishing secular schools open to all children of taxpayers. He went on to live another 20 years, including five as governor of Madras during the rebellion of 1857 or, as the shocked British saw it, the Indian Mutiny.

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The cathedral looks out on Woodford Square, closed for some reason on this day to the public.

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The view diagonally from the cathedral grounds to the old fire station and the Red House, now the seat of Trinidad's parliament. It faces Woodford Square.

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The fire station, 1896-7, was Port-of-Spain's first reinforced concrete building and is recognized by the National Trust as marking the "transition from traditional to modern Trinidad and Tobago architecture."

See http://nationaltrust.tt/location/old-fire-station/

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And what is modern architecture in Trinidad? Here's a good example, the national library designed by Colin Laird (1924-2018) and opened in 2003. Laird described is as "regional rationalism," a "strictly Caribbean and Trinidagonian expression of light and space encompassing the genus loci of the site." Are you persuaded? See http://icons.niherst.gov.tt/icon/colin-laird-tt2/

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This is the second so-called Red House. The first, painted red for Victoria's Jubilee, was burned in 1903 by rioters furious at having been excluded from discussions to raise the price of domestic water and possibly even install water meters. The replacement building was completed in 1906 and was getting a redo in 2020.

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No London architect here, either: the design was by the public works department's chief draftsman, Daniel Hahn. Whether he or someone else deserves credit, the building does seem to be overkill, appropriate to South Africa or even India. But no, here it is on an island that measures a bit over 40 miles square and which in 1900 had a population of about a quarter-million people.

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A mile to the north, this is the Queen's Park Savannah. With a circumference exceeding two miles and with very little in the middle apart from the graves of the family who once owned the land, the savannah is well-named and probably better seen as green space than park.

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Around its periphery are the city's most famous old buildings, in this case the Queen's Royal College, with its foundation stone laid in 1902 and a design by the same public works department draftsman, Daniel Hahn--himself a graduate of the school in its earlier home. The curriculum was as traditional as the architecture, including algebra and geometry, Greek, Latin, French, and English, history and (but of course) geography. The monument is for graduates lost in World War I.

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The school expanded with this North Block, whose appearance calls into question blithe assumptions about civilization's march toward a better and brighter future.

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A series of mansions lies north of the school. Here's Hayes Court, completed in 1910 as the residence of Trinidad's Anglican bishop and named for one of those bishops, Thomas Hayes, in office 1889-1904.

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Mille Fleurs was built in 1904 by the wife of a doctor and was in private hands until sold to the government in 1979.

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This is the so-called Ambard's House, built for himself by architect Lucien Ambard in 1904. The property was mortgaged and later foreclosed, since when it's been in various private hands.

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Most spectacular of them all, this was completed in 1876 as the Governor's House, now the President's.

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A few earlier, in 1858, the colonial government opened Port of Spain's general hospital.

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In 1876, the same year that the Governor's House was completed, the Trinidad Government Railway opened. It ran about a hundred miles of track until 1968, when it shut down and was replaced by a bus system that still uses the old railroad station as its Port of Spain terminal. A short but vivid movie called "The Last Train to San Fernando, 1965" can be found, like everything else in the cosmos, on YouTube. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdkz-rZs3s0

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Interior of the train shed.

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The old commercial core was gridded with mostly narrow streets and buildings designed for the weather. Most of those old balconies have been removed.

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Dozens of old houses survive in the core, some fairly substantial.

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Some struggle with maintenance.

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Strip away all the wire and cable, and it's easy to see the same buildings in 1910. Were they so thoroughly fenced then?

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Security becomes a curse.

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Were bars needed in the colonial past?

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Wooden shutters do seem more genteel, less threatening, and less confining.

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