Gouverneur Chapeau Paille: Woodford's Years

Despite the fact that Spain controlled Trinidad for more than two hundred years, no public buildings and no churches were left behind from that era built of stone. Those were the days of a thatch and wood culture in Trinidad, conveying a sense of impermanence.

The French settlers introduced a timber style in the late 18th century, particularly in the estate houses, which had timbered frames and thatch roofs. The English on the other hand, started to build in stone and brick. It was their way of demonstrating political strength, especially in public buildings.

Philip Reinagle, a British architect, lived in Trinidad during the early 19th century, and worked for governor Sir Ralph James Woodford's administration (1813 - 1829). This was a period of both construction and re-construction, in that the town of Port-of-Spain was being rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1808, as well as being extended and enhanced.

Philip Reinagle was responsible for the design of both the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

History tells us that originally Trinity Church was built of wood and stood on the corner of Prince and Frederick St. It had been built around 1801 and burnt down in 1808. A new church was built in Woodford Square, then called Brunswick Square, taken down and re-erected in its present position, since it should not have been placed in the square in the first place! There were petitions presented to protest against its erection. The petitioners complained that the square was private property, and in order to compensate the owners for taking it as public grounds, the owner was allowed to charge an extra heavy price for the lots bounding the square. They felt they had a vested interest in the square, and they also felt that the placing of a protestant church there was not in keeping with the original arrangements. It spoilt their view! They appealed to His Majesty's Council to prevent this breach of their privileges and rights. They were successful: Trinity Cathedral was dismantled and rebuilt where it stands today.

Proprietors around Brunswick Square

Francisco Bermudez
Manuel Piar
Manuel Valdez
Lincenciado Gaspar Marcano
Casimiro Isava
Juan Bautista Videau
Jose Manuel Navarro
Jose Rauseo
Juan Bautista Cova
Rafael Mayz
Manuel Mago
Agustin Armario
Jose Rivero
Ramon Machado
Luis Vallenilla
Bernardo Olivier
Carlos Penalosa
Antonio Alcala
Froilan Peralta
Vidente Villagas
Jose Serpa Bruzual
Patricia Rubio
Bernardo Bermudez
Dr. Manuel Matamoros
Manuel Isava
Mateo Guerra Olivier
Jose Maria Otero
Francisco Marcano
Manuel Nillaroel
Francisco Rivas
Jose Maria Amaya
Jeronimo Carbon
Pedro Domingo
Bruzal de Beaumont
Vicente Gonzalez
Pedro Meuias
Jose Leonardo Brito
Francicso Penalosa
Rufino Peralta
Jose Manuel Torres
Ignacio Certad
Valentin Garcia
N. Carreno
Luis Marcano
(Source: Master of thE Rolls and Deputy Keeper of the Public Records Office, London)

The Catholic Cathedral, on the other hand, is possessed of a somewhat more docile past. In 1757, the new governor Don Pedro de la Moneda decided to leave the delapidated old city of San José de Oruna (St. Joseph) and to establish himself in the swampy, makeshift 'port town of Spain', where things for various reasons were looking up.

In those days, Port of Spain had one church, which stood on the site now occupied by Tamarind Square. Standing not far from the 'puntilla', the landing place, it was built of wood and clay, had a shingled roof, was painted white on the outside and prettily decorated on the inside. This early church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary under the name of the Immaculate Conception.

With the conquest of Trinidad by the British in 1797, the importance of the town grew, and its population increased. With Governor Woodford's administration in place, Philip Reinagle was instructed to design and build a church for the catholic congregation. On the 24th March 1816, with rites fitting the occasion, the Governor laid the foundation stone of the Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Both sites chosen for these churches could not be easily bettered. The catholic one stands on the main axis of the main square, and the Anglican in a large area near to the seat of government, bordering the other principle square in the city. Architect John Newel Lewis, H.B.M., observes in his book 'Ajoupa' that they "seem to avoid visual demonstrations of authority, so that instead of two great, imposing, solemn monuments, we have two churches, sincere and charming, but which do not dominate."

The city of Port of Spain grew and improved under Sir Ralph's administration. In 1813, just after his arrival, he ordered the footwalks of the town be paved with macadam. He straightened the streets and their paving was done under the direction of the Surveyor General. Each householder was being assessed for the amount of paving cost he had to bear. There was much grumbling and discontent by the people who were taxed! The work done, however, has stood the test of time. Woodford turned our capital into the most stately town in the West Indies. As traveller Henry Coleridge wrote in 1825:

"Port of Spain 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 a spacious market place with a market house or shambles in excellent order and cleanliness. The Spanish and French females, their gay costume, their foreign language, and their unusual vivacity give this market the appearance of a merry fair in France."

Under Woodford's direction, both Brunswick Square and Marine Square were laid out in 1816. He even imported trees! Baron Schack, the town engineer, was made responsible for this.

Woodford was a handsome man of only 29 years of age when he took up his post in 1813. An old lady whom I interviewed more than 20 years ago told me that he attracted much attention from the pretty little society ladies of the day. She went to relate how these ladies would promenade in front of his new residence at St. Ann's and "shake their bustles" for his attention.

Woodford supervised the work being done in the town. Mounted and wearing a large straw hat, he became a familiar sight, getting the name 'gouverneur chapeau paille'. He was responsible for the purchase of Paradise estate in 1818, which gave us the Queen's Park Savannah. David Lockhart was appointed as the first curator of the Botanical Gardens, and he and Woodford laid it out. By the time of his death in April 1829, after fifteen years of service, the economy, the efficiency of the militia, the regular and open administration of justice, the general health of the town and the cleanness of the streets, buildings and markets all bore testimony to his endeavour.

The first governors of Trinidad, all military men, were Brigadier-General Thomas Picton (1797 - 1803), Commissioners Colonel William Fullarton, Brigadier Thomas Picton and Commodore Samuel Hood (1803 - 1804), Brigadier-General Sir Thomas Hislop (1804 - 1811) and Major-General W. Munro (1811 - 1813). They were concerned with maintaining order internally and being prepared, at all times, for an external threat. The western world was at war.

In the period from the French Revolution (1789) to the first decade of the 19th century, Europe was assailed by a brand new world force in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte (1769 - 1821), the great military man, was born in Corsica and became the emperor of France by a 'coup d'etat' in 1799. In his warfares against Austria, England, Italy and other places in Europe, the established order of many places in the world changed. In the Treaty of Amiens, for example, signed by the French Republic and war-weary England in 1802, England was allowed to retain Ceylon and Trinidad but relinquished Egypt, Malta and the Cape of Good Hope; France agreed to evacuate Naples in Italy; and the independence of Portugal and the Ionian Islands was recognised.

In Trinidad at that time, a civil conflict was brewing which reflected the military conflicts in Europe. Under the Cedula of Population, the document which had created a population for this island in 1783, local people - white and non-white - were granted certain rights. In the Articles of Surrender of 1797, the British had accepted these rights, which allowed Free Blacks and People of Colour along with their fellow countrymen of European descent to inherit property, hold commissions in the local forces, practice professions and apply to the crown for grants of land. They were also exempt from certain taxes. Many of these Free Black people were slave-owning proprietors of large sugar estates.

Not all of them, mind you, became very well off. They lived in 'petit maisons', surrounded by pretty gardens. Their lovely 'café-au-lait' complexioned daughters grew into beautiful, graceful and accomplished young ladies. Their sons were sometimes educated in France or at Edinborough. Some became doctors, others, because their parents could afford it, took the grand tour of Europe. They affected the style of European aristocracy and were in a sense so by virtue of their education, training and wealth, and in some cases their familial connections to titled people of a previous generation, something which was very important in the value system of the time. The Free Blacks and People of Colour became indeed the aristocrats of the New World.

This 'state of grace' was challenged after Trinidad's military governors departed. The arrival of Sir Ralph Woodford instituted a new order in the colony. Woodford came from a background that had benefitted financially and politically from England's European successes and from the change in the ruling dynasty from what was left of the House of Stewart to the German Hannoverian Georges. To describe him as a 'parvenu' or even 'nouveau riche' would be to misunderstand the social order from which Woodford came. There was, however, a wind of change.

Gone were the days of an almost surreal life and life style in these frontier colonies, where pirates roamed free and islands changed hands sometimes from day to day, and where bloody revolution took its toll. Plantation life, slavery itself, produced a kind of wild disorder, expressed in miscegenous relationships which had produced a whole new type of people in the Americas.

From young Sir Ralph's world view, all this 'disorder' born out of Trinidad's vicarious origins had to be calmed, structured, ordered and simply made more civilised. It was relatively easy to impose this sense of order upon the cityscape. For example, he removed the tropical rainforest in the immediate vicinity of his new government house at St. Anns, and had a Botanical Garden planted with imported trees. This demonstration of colonial control could be compared, with a little imagination, with the proliferation of hamburger restaurants today, imposing a new orderliness, this time modelled after North American fast food culture.

Trinidad's society was a different matter. It was not like Barbados, for instance, where 99% of the population were of African descent and 1% were white, these divided into the upper class British and the servant class British.

In the case of Trinidad, almost everybody was a foreigner in Woodford's eyes. Most of the whites were French, several were Irish, many were German and ask for the Spanish grandees, well, you could not even tell if they were white! Many of these people were well off, and a few even very rich. But the most difficult to deal with were the Free Black people. To Woodford, they seemed to be in everything.

Notwithstanding the acceptance of the cedular code under the articles of surrender, the military governors who preceded him had tried to enforce all the anti-colour rules as they existed in other parts of the British Caribbean. Humiliating laws were enacted, quite new here, but familiar enough elsewhere. For instance, Free Black people had to carry a lighted torch when out a night. Port-of-Spain was as dangerous a place then as it is now, and they could not carry even a stick or a cane to protect themselves. After 9.30 p.m., a curfew was imposed on them, and they had to pay a special tax to have a ball. Picton stripped all the coloured militia officers of their commissions.

These new laws, promoted by the military governors and executed by Woodford, came into existence for basically two reasons: firstly, there was an economic reason why the British administration was far less sympathetic to the Free Black people than the Spanish government under Chacon had been. The Spaniards were in need of rapid development, and the Free Coloureds brought with them expertise, slaves, and worked the land hard to open up the island.

The other rason was that the British administration viewed people of African descent as dangerous, given to revolutionary thinking, and holding republican ideas. Like the French, they could not forget the horror of Ste. Domingue, the civil war that ended in the independence of Haiti and the destruction of the planters. It had begun with an uprising by the Free Coloureds to gain civil rights. They knew that amongst the Free Blacks who had come to Trinidad, were many republicans and those who supported the French Revolution.

The 'half-breed' children of the estates and their descendants were literally a 'mixed bag': some were loyal to the British crown, wanting 'the good life', while others, disaffected for all sorts of reasons, wanted bloody revolution. In fact, many of the republicans had moved on to the real conflict taking place in Venezuela, and the Free Blacks who were in Trinidad had a stake in the status quo. Bearing in mind the times, however, the British and the white French creoles did not want to know. Dr. Carl Campbell sums up the difference in aims between the military governors of 1797 - 1813 and Woodford in these terms:

"The soldier governors used military terror to keep the fragmented population in order, but Woodford, the first civilian governor, de-emphasised military force in favour of the institutionalisation of racial prejudice. His intention was to establish a settled society, institutionally fixed, racially defined and graduated in terms of social rank. To Woodford, the Free Coloureds had been allowed to get out of hand. They were too numerous, too rich, too immoral, too intimately associated with whites, too insubordinate and too ungrateful. If it had not been for the British government, he would have undermined their economic position by setting legal limits to their land ownership."

Woodford was stopped, however, he could put social pressure on the Free Blacks. He tried to prevent marriages between them and whites. He never addressed black respectable people as 'Monsieur' or 'Madame'. He prevented their advancement wherever he could. This style was adopted only too quickly by the whites. It was from this point that the easy familiar modus operandi, which had existed previously between the two elites of the island, began to go downhill. Under this pressure Free Black people found themselves sitting in the back of the church with the slaves, even on the coastal boat. The last straw came when a law was passed in 1822 that would make it possible for a Free Black person to be flogged for a minor offence on the word of a city magistrate, who was usually a white slave owner. It was at this stage that one of their own emerged to challenge this other side of Woodford. His name was Jean Baptiste Philipe.

On Trinity Cathedral: "The church itself is one of the most elegant and splendid things in the empire; i is wainscotted with various rich woods of the island, and the pews are arranged with not 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." (..., 1825)

© Paria Publishing Company Limited 2000


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| 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 |