The ancient town of St Joseph ...Trinidad's first capital

This article originally appeared in the Trinidad Express Newspaper which can be found here.

 

During the mid-18th century, money was a problem in Trinidad.

The treasury was near empty and money was not available to repair the governor's residence at St Joseph, Trinidad's then capital.

The house provided for Governor Don Pedro de la Moneda was in a state of disrepair. When he arrived to take up duties as governor in 1757, he was forced to occupy rented quarters in Port of Spain.

It was that unfortunate situation that caused Port of Spain to become the capital of Trinidad, after St Joseph had served in that position for more than 174 years.

San Jose de Oruna, the first capital of Trinidad, was founded in 1592 by Don Antonio de Berrio y Oruna, two centuries before Trinidad was ceded to Britain in a bloodless battle at Chaguaramas.

After the capture, British and Spanish officials travelled to Valsayn Estate, St Joseph, to sign the historic Capitulation Treaty which made Trinidad a colony of Britain.

The building where the historic signing took place was gutted by fire sometime in the 20th century. The site where the building was located on Farm Road in Curepe also lost its place in history when the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) began using it to stock PVC pipes.

Apart from being the oldest town in Trinidad, St Joseph has retained its historical importance in many ways. The most notable is the site where African ex-slaves Donald Stewart or Daaga, Edward Coffin, Maurice Ogston and Henry Torrens were executed in Barracks Square on Abercromby Street.

Historians record that Daaga and a number of soldiers belonging to the West India Regiment had seized the garrison, opposite Barracks Square, set it on fire and were on their way to Arima when they were captured by the 89 Corps from St James.

Four of the mutineers, including Daaga, were court-martialled and subsequently executed at Barracks Square. Until recently it was called George Earle Park, but on December 9, 2012, the name was changed to First National Park.

Daaga was a member of an African tribe in Guinea. He sold slaves to Portuguese slave traders.

It is recorded that on one occasion while selling slaves to the Portuguese, he was invited aboard a slave ship. As he entered the ship, he was overpowered by members of the ship's crew and taken prisoner.

The ship on which he was travelling was later intercepted by an English boat and Daaga and others were released in Grenada. Afterwards they were brought to Trinidad and recruited as members of the West India Regiment and stationed at St Joseph.

George Earle Park, where the execution took place, is the oldest park in Trinidad.

During Spanish occupation of Trinidad, it was an open space or plaza and the town was built around the square. Spanish troops paraded on it during important military celebrations.

It was also used as a burial ground for soldiers. On the southern section of the park the tombs of two English soldiers are located and they are maintained by the British High Commission in Port of Spain.

As the former capital of Trinidad, many historic events took place there. The old colonial police station was the venue where the first telegraph to Trinidad was received from Britain in 1870. The station was dismantled a few years ago to give way to a car park.

While many of the old Spanish and French architecture was dismantled, there are a few buildings that have been retained for historical reasons.

The former home of Trinity Cross holder Cyril Duprey, founder of the current contentious Colonial Life Insurance Company (CLICO), still exists on Abercromby Street.

Regrettably, Trinidad's first soap factory, which was located in a building opposite the Roman Catholic Church on Abercromby Street, was destroyed in 1930 and is now a car park. The factory was owned by the Gransaull family.

The St Joseph Roman Catholic Church, also on Abercromby Street (La Rue Decide), still exists. It was completed in 1815.

The church has the remains of three Capuchin Friars who were massacred at Arena by Indians working on the Mission at San Raphael.

From Arena the bodies were brought to the church, exposed for nine days, and buried in the foundation of the church.

In 1989 the burial site of the Capuchin friars was excavated by Dr Courtenay Bartholomew and Sr Marie Therese Retout, and the human bones found then were removed to St Raphael Catholic church. The bones are kept in a glass case and can be viewed by the public.

St Joseph has one of the oldest cemeteries in Trinidad which is located on the southern side of the church. In it there are several tombs dating back to the 17th century. The tomb of the daughter of General Monagas is among the oldest. Monagas was a general who fought in the Venezuelan War of Independence together with Simon Bolivar.

The Mohammed Ali Jinnah Memorial Mosque, built in 1948, is one of the architectural masterpieces in St Joseph. It is located close to the site of the former police station. The mosque is home to several Muslim groups and has been used as the venue for lectures by distinguished Muslim leaders and scholars.

The Mount Hope Hospital is within the St Joseph district. It is near an abandoned colonial prison built in the early 1900s to house women prisoners. This concrete ruin is sandwiched between Mount Hope Secondary School and the Mechanical Division of the Ministry of Works. Efforts are being made to have the building included in the register of historic buildings in Trinidad.

Although this ancient town was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1766, when British author Charles Kingsley visited it in 1870, he described it as "the most delectable spot which I have ever seen for a cultivated and civilised man to live and die in."