When the early Spaniard, Don Diego Martin, discovered and give this name to that river flowing through one of the valleys of the north-west peninsula he could have known that valley was going to be home to many settlers. The settlers, entering Trinidad under the Spanish Cedula of Population of 1783, were also fleeing from unrest in French Windward Islands.
Diego Martin was considered, in terms of its terrain, one of the gentlest of the Northern Range valleys and it was proving to be one of the most productive too. When the British captured Trinidad in 1797 they found that the Spanish Crown had granted out more land in this district that in any of the other valleys of the region.
By 1797, 26 French families, numbering 141 persons, had settled in this area. They worked their estates, which were mainly of sugar cane, the rest of the population being free blacks. Diego Martin, Port-of-Spain and the Naparimas, had the highest concentration of people in Trinidad at the time.
The settlers paid attention not only to sugar, but to coffee too, for along with 19 sugar mills, which the valley possessed - mills worked by mules - there were 12 mills that were grinding coffee,according to a survey carried out shortly after the British seized Trinidad. The estates referred to, took up the whole valley from the north of the Rio de Diego Martin (Diego Martin River) that was on the Gulf Coast, right up to the heights of the Northern Range.
In 1812 the population had risen to 1,655 persons, of whom 63 were white; 315 were Free People of Colour and 1,277 were slaves. There was no increase either in the mills grinding coffee or sugar cane, but the valley was more productive and one noticed that 18 distilleries were producing a goodly amount of rum.
The settlers of the Diego Martin valley needed not only their estates, but the spiritual lift too and early in the British days some sort of church was kept in the house of one of the prominent planters, St Hilaire Begorrat. St Hilaire, one of the biggest of slave-owners and one of the most extraordinary planters of Diego Martin, was a member of the Council of government and was instrumental in drafting at least one series of Codes Noir. These were anti-black laws and made the lives of the slaves a nightmare. Many stories have came down to us about St Hilaire and on of the most interesting is related to a slave of his called Gros Jean. St Hilaire is said to have profited from a certain flair of Gros Jean to sing witty remarks on people he did not like. St Hilaire encourage this, often slyly calling in Gros Jean when one of his less-esteemed guest arrived. It was these cruel, biting remarks, sung without pity (sans humanite) and taken up by other slaves on other estates, that led, the story goes, to the art of Calypso, or Kaiso, as it is preferably called. Incidentally, although what Gros Jean sang about these people were usually a pack of lies, both he and Begorrat insisted that is was the truth. Hence "lavway - "truth" in Patois. (French: le vrai)
The first church appears to have been in the house of Begorrat. Then later, as records show, a church was built in the Diego Martin valley. This must have been built in 1830 or 1831, for the parish priest, Father Vitaiis Tabaudo, began his register in September 1832. This was still the zenith of Slavery and it is interesting to see that one of the posts that Father Vitalis held was "Protector of Slaves." The church referred to must have been very temporary for at the end of the 1830s, decade the Church of St John the Evangelist replaced it.
This period, the end of the 1830s, was a most significant time for all the people of the Diego Martin valley, for the Abolition of Slavery in 1838 threw the plantations into disarray. The chief estates at that point were estates likes La Puerta, Green Hill, Hermitage, and Reunion, and these saw their prosperity suddenly vanish, because of the Labour crisis.
In 1849, Governor Lord Harris, in order to bring in a form of Local Government, divided the island into counties and wards. The fact that this measure meant that estates owners now had to pay rates and taxes on their land caused widespread antagonism and many refused to pay. A great number of estates changed hands then, for the Government’s answer was to sell off the valuable properties, sometimes for just a few shillings to cover the arrears. The only alternative, of course, was for the estates to revert to the Crown. However, most seemed to have survived through the 1850s.
However, it was not so much Harris’ measure as it was the abolition of slavery in 1838 that led to one of the noticeable changes in Diego Martin Valley. The labourers had walked off the estates and now were free to settle where ever they pleased and where they seemed leased to settle was in the area of the estate called Green Hill and also on the estate called Reunion. It could be that this was where most of the working population had been already concentrated, or perhaps these labourers wanted to be near the church of Father Vitalis, close to the La Puerta estate road. At any rate the settlement was beginning to look very much like a village. There was already a police station nearby, in which at least two policemen were to be found: Constable P. Wylly, attached to the Ward and Special Constable John Woodley. In 1853, the Warden, George Cockerton, responding to the needs of the many children to be found in Diego Martin, started a ward school there - one of the first ward school under Lord Harris’ education scheme. The man running the school, and therefore the first schoolmaster in Diego Martin was Robert Roxborough, who, apart from teaching school was also Registrar of Births and Deaths for Diego Martin. It was the first time that such records were being kept.
Came the 1860s and because of the persistent labour problems, East Indian indentured workers were brought to this valley for the first time. Records for 1866 show that one of the Diego Martin estates, Diamond, had a total of 73 indentured workers. River Estate had 47, and Green Hill Estate, slowly becoming the essential Diego Martin Village, had 43.
These workers had come to save the sugar plantation, but it was ironical that very shortly afterward sugar itself began to give way to the new crop, cocoa. By 1870 there were several cocoa plantations in the Diego Martin valley and the enthusiasm for cocoa was so high that in the ten years between 1870 and 1880, cocoa pushed sugar into second place. In 1880 there were 950 acres under sugar in Diego Martin, while 1,332 acres were under cocoa.
In the ten years between 1870 and 1880, Diego Martin Village, the village that had developed on Green Hill Estate, had a population of 764 persons at the census of 1881. The police station seems to have been a little distance away, at the junction of four key estate roads, an area already known as Four Roads.
The village itself was thriving, for at that point, 1881, there were eight people there described as merchants or hucksters. There were also two priests in the village and there were six teachers at the school - now not a Ward School, but a Government School. The schoolmaster, W. Dolly, had 106 children on his roll, each paying a small fee - but in fact very few paid in 1881.
Naturally, estate work was the staff of life of the valley and Diego Martin Village had 176 of the workers that kept its estates functioning. According to the census of 1881, which was taken on the fourth of April that year, Diego Martin village had 164 buildings.
At this period, apart from the village on Green Hill estate, there were several other settlements in the valley of Diego Martin. Among these others were Congo village and Sierra Leone - both settlement recalling Africa. Sierra Leone in particular, recalled the free Africans who were brought here from Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1841. There was also the settlement called Patna, an area near to River Estate, where ex-indentured Indians had set up their homes. There was also a settled area on the eastern side of the valley - an area that called itself Petit Valley.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, it was Petit Valley, which often took the spotlight of owing to the extraordinary Emmanuel Mzumbo Lazare. Lazare's house, renovated in the 1960s and lately converted into a church and surrounded by high walls, stands at the corner of Morne Coco Road and Simeon Road. The house, built by Lazare around 1890, was an architectural delight and was enhanced by arbours of fruit trees, all of which Lazare planted himself. (With the recent renovation, the last of the fruit trees were cut down). Lazare was a practical man, and when pipe water had not been establish in Trinidad, he tapped the springs in the hills behind his house and brought water in pipes to the house. But perhaps what made this house, called Lazdale, the focus of attention for several years, were the resplendent Old Year’s Night balls which Lazare gave here, a ball which the country’s prominent people never missed.
Lazare, a leading agriculturist, was also known for the big agricultural competitions he held every year for the farmers of Diego Martin and nearby areas. He was also a solicitor and barrister - and indeed one of the first black men to emerge in the professions. But what he is best known for is political agitation in favour of the down-trodden, and this agitation led to an occurrence never intended by him - the destruction of the Red House by fire in March 1903. On that occasion he was leading a protest at the red House on water issue, when matters get out of hand. After the destruction of the Red House he brought on of its fountains to Lazdale, and it decked the front of the house for many years. But with the recent renovations it was thrown out and destroyed.
The valley, especially after the cocoa crisis of 1921, lost its image as an agricultural area. Then the advent of the troublous 1930s further checked its growth. However, if it is true to say that the economic nightmare of the 1930-decade brought quietness and gloom to the valley, and then it is also true to state that the 1940-decade saw that valley wake to life.
The event causing this change was simple the coning of the American soldiers to Chaguaramas in 1941. The building of the American naval base, and all the implications of hundreds of affluent soldiers - to whom money was no problem - suddenly let loose on the society, was enough to "turn Diego Martin upside down," to apply a colloquial phrase. The social impact was great and made greater by people rushing into the Diego Martin area so as to be near the American base for work and other purposes. The population of Diego Martin, which was 764 in 1881 and 1,000 in 1931, was 5,774 in 1946. (1946 was the year following the end of the war, when the American soldiers were preparing to return).
The 1940-decade saw the development of the area called New Yalta, whose Jewish owner Averboukh, seems to have come to Trinidad as a result of displacement caused by war. In the New Yalta street-names could be seen several of the name of the Jewish heroes who fought for the creation of the State of Israel.
Then as a result of Government’s quest for housing sites, Diamond Estate was brought by the authorities in 1957, and in the early 1960s was developed as Diamond Vale. Old settlements of the valley, names like Rich Plain, Bagatelle, and Union, which date to times long before the abolition of slavery, saw new development in their midst. There arose as well as new settlements a new housing development in the 1970s.
So Diego Martin, the valley that took its name from the Old Spanish explorer, is vastly different today from when it was first settled in the 1780s. The first calypsonian, Gros Jean, a slave on Begorrat’s Diego Martin estate around 1800, in naturally not around to sing about these changes, but not far away are the seats of other calypsonians, the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, and maybe they will keep Diego Martin alive in song.
Towns and Villages of Trinidad & Tobago by Michael Anthony
Atilla's Kaiso: A short history of Trinidad calypso by Raymond Quevedo
West Indian & their Language by Peter A Roberts
Calypso & Society in Pre-Independance Trinidad by Gordon Rohlehr
British Historians and the West Indies by Eric Williams