Tour Of The Caribbean - Holy Island
( Originally Published 1925 )
IT was on July 31, 1498, that the island of Lincoln green was discovered. The adventurer was Columbus who, with three ships, was making for the south on his third and most fateful voyage. He came, as heretofore, eager in the search for treasure. He followed that same will-o'-the-wisp whose light was ever to him a gleam of gold, and who led him all his days.
There was in his mind the belief that as he neared the Equator he would drift into a belt of great heat, where would be a burnt-up land, natives the colour of jet, and gold and precious stones in much abundance. He had pictured it all—the arid shore, the crackling scrub, the amazed black folk, the sparkle of gold in the scorching rocks, the glow of rubies among the pebbles. There had been some foretaste already of this fiery land, for on the way he had glided into a windless calm where the sea was as polished metal, with only a shark's fin here and there to tell that it was not solid, where the bewildered ships hung motionless with their prows turned different ways, where his men fell faint with the heat and blind with the whiteness of the light, and where the seams of the vessels gaped as the timbers shrunk in the sun. The water in the casks was nearly spent, while from the stifling hatch came up, like an evil steam, the reek of rotting meat.
The voyage had been the subject of many prayers, of many portents, of many vows, for to the treasure-seeker groping in the dark there was no hand to guide but that from heaven. The venture had been undertaken in the name of the Most Blessed Trinity, to whom was to be modestly ascribed whatever glory might befall its endeavour.
It seems to have been about the hour of noon when a servant, climbing to the mast-head for the fiftieth time, saw land to the west and yelled the news down to the deck. In a while the gazers from the poop saw rise out of the sea three mountain peaks united at their bases into one.
Here, in this vision of the three in one, was a wondrous miracle, an answer to months of prayer, an evidence that all the way the Holy Three had stood by the side of the unconscious helmsman. Thus it came about that the island was named La Trinidad.
At once all hands were called on deck for prayers and for the singing together of the hymn " Salve Regina." To many of the bareheaded crew this kind of chant was unfamiliar, for they were the sweepings of the jails of Castile. Still, with some heartiness the harsh song rose—together with the smell of putrid meat—into the blue of a tropical afternoon.
The three peaks were the " Three Sisters " which stand by the sea in the south-east corner of the island. As the shore was approached another wonder appeared. In the place of the arid uplands of the admiral's surmise was a wealth of soft, delicious verdure beyond all imagining.
Columbus cruised along the south coast of the promised land until he came to Cape Icacos, where he turned north through the "Serpent's Mouth" into the Gulf of Paria. While the ships were anchored in the entry of the channel by Cape Icacos, a great tidal wave bore down upon them with much foaming and roaring. Two of the ships dragged their anchors from the bottom, but the cable of the third ship parted so that the anchor was lost. In 1877, three centuries and more after this episode, an ancient anchor was dredged up off this very cape. It stands now in the garden of the Victoria Institute in Port of Spain, and there are those who have the boldness to state that it is the identical anchor lost that day in 1498, for it bears, without any apparent embarrassment, the title " Columbus' Anchor."
It was not until a day or so after making the land that any natives were encountered. They were found to be of even fairer complexion than those met with on previous voyages. Columbus had apparently formed an idea of fascinating the savage by means of music, after the manner of the snake-charmer. He had on board for this purpose a band of musicians. They came from the Spanish seaport, and, as exponents of their art, might be represented at the present day by strolling fiddlers from the Yarmouth sands. The first natives who appeared were in a canoe, and seemed disposed to be very offensive. At once the artists were called on deck to put forth their charm. They commenced to play. The piece would, no doubt, have been the latest music-hall song of the time. The natives listened ; seemed puzzled ; stared at one another, and then with one accord discharged a full flight of arrows at the would-be sirens. The experiment had failed.
Many wonderful things happened on this voyage, but the most wonderful of all was this. On entering the Gulf of Paria some low insignificant land was seen on the southwest. Columbus, no doubt, scanned it steadfastly enough. He was gazing for the first time in his travels upon the coast of the great continent of America, but he knew it not. He believed that the land he saw was an island—an insignificant island. He called it Isla Sancta. Thus it came about that the earliest name of America was Holy Island. A little later he caught sight of peaks on the mainland at Paria. He considered that they belonged to another island, whereupon, being in a soft religious mood, he named it the Island of Grace.
The three ships cruised round the gulf skirting the mainland. A party went on shore to formally take possession of the Island of Grace, otherwise America, in the names of Ferdinand and Isabella. Columbus never landed. Although only forty-seven years of age he was already an old man, and was at the moment much reduced by gout and a painful disorder of the eyes. So he stayed within his cabin and while he lay in his berth watching the ripples of the sunlit sea reflected on the deck above him he fell a-thinking. He was an imaginative man whose mind was alive with fancies, so he soon peopled the mean cabin with dazzling dreams. He had no thought of mere continents, no thought even of a continent greater than any yet known to the civilised world. His dream was more wonderful than all that. From certain signs and from subtle calculations he was convinced that in this very Gulf of Paria he had discovered the Garden of Eden. While he lay a-thinking, with his aching eyes closed, a smile would come over his face as he composed the phrases of that despatch which would announce to the pious queen that he had found the Earthly Paradise. His only idea now was to press on to Espanola so that he might send the great news post-haste to Spain.
One effect of the despatch, when it did arrive, was to cause an old comrade of Columbus, one Alonso de Ojeda, to start at once for Paria. He sailed thither, not with any hallowed wish to see the Tree of Life, but simply with the determination to make money, for the admiral had said that pearls were to be found on this shore as well as mementos of our first parents. With Ojeda went the Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, whom Filson Young speaks of as the " meat contractor." 1 They came upon a placid bay where the natives had built their huts on piles in the water. The little village reminded the Italian of Venice, so the place was called Venezuela, or Little Venice, which name it holds to this day.
Another curious outcome of this voyage was the circumstance that the vast continent itself come to be called America after this same Amerigo, the " meat contractor."
It was not until near about the year 1532 that the Spaniards undertook the colonisation of Trinidad. They succeeded so in-differently that the welfare of the island came in time to depend mainly upon certain energetic French settlers who landed at La Trinidad two centuries later.
In due course the inevitable British made their unwelcome appearance. It was in 1797. They arrived one day in February to the number of 8000 strong. Their ships blustered through the Bocas, jostling one another as they swarmed down the gap on the whirlpool of a tide. The Spanish governor was Don Josef Maria Chacon, a gallant man enough, but his garrison was so reduced by yellow fever, disaffection and long inactivity that he was unable to oppose the eager host. So he set fire to his ships, sat himself down on the quayside and wept over his lost island. The English, under Abercromby, landed near Port of Spain and pushing towards the place took it with the loss of but one single man. A few shots were exchanged some two miles outside the town, but with this exception there was no resistance.
On Laventille Hill there is even now to be seen an interesting relic of this day when the British captured Trinidad. The green hill commands the town. It is steep of ascent, yet houses and gardens climb up nearly to the top of it, clinging on to any helpful ledge by the side of the unkempt road. On the apex of the height is a pale church, looking seawards, and near it a school-house where the droning sing-song of negro children seems to offer a sleepy answer to the brisk ever-repeated question of the " Qu'est-ce qu'il dit ? " bird.
On this hilltop and entirely hidden by jungle is an old Spanish fort, the taking of which gave Trinidad to Britain. It capped the last height to be cleared, it marks the spot where the last surly man threw down his arms, it was the last fort to surrender. It represents the final hold that the failing fingers of Spain ever had upon the island of the Trinity. Here, in this little stone redoubt, came to an end a tenancy which had lasted just upon three hundred years.
The fort is hard to find, for the jungle has crept too zealously around it. It lies in the eternal shadow of green trees, while so overgrown is it with brambles that it might be a barbican of the Palace of the Sleeping Beauty. Like a secret rendezvous in a wood it is approached by a path known to few. This last strong-hold of Spain, this redoubt of the dead, is a sturdy little place of grey stone, well and solemnly built. Its walls are of astounding thickness ; its paved court, that once echoed with the clang of arms, is now a wild garden, a mere tangle of green, a court whose silence is broken only by the patter of rain and the song of birds.
It is interesting to think that this leaf-embowered fort was known to Picton, and must have been often and often visited by him. Picton landed with Abercromby when he took Trinidad. He was left behind as governor with woo men. This was the heroic Picton who was Wellington's right hand in the Peninsular war, who conducted the siege of Badajoz, who was wounded at Quatre Bras (but told no one of his hurt), and who, two days later, was killed at Waterloo by a bullet through the brain, while charging at the head of his men. His portrait, in the National Portrait Gallery, is that of a grey-haired man, strong and alert, clean-shaven, with determined lips and most wondrous piercing eyes. If any were to seek a face which might be taken as a type of the British soldier it can be found in this portrait of Picton.
Picton left his mark in Trinidad. Even the road that leads down from the bramble-covered fort is called Picton's Road. He was a great and virile administrator who, like many others of his metal, was worried out of office by petty interference from home. Indeed, in 18o3, he was arrested on a charge of cruelty perpetrated during his governorship. He was accused of torturing a miserable creature named Luise Calderon, in order to extort from her a confession respecting the robbing of her master. The trial of this woman had been conducted according to Spanish law, and the alcaide had begged the governor to allow him to have recourse to the "picket." Picton gave his permission. The " picket" consisted in making the prisoner stand on one leg on a flat-headed stake or picket driven into the ground for any time not exceeding one hour. Under this ordeal Luise confessed.
Picton was tried in England in i 8o6 and found guilty. A new trial was claimed, at the conclusion of which Picton was found to have acted without malice, but no judgment was delivered. In this bald way the incident ended. The people of Trinidad sub-scribed 40001. towards the popular governor's law expenses, but a fire having broken out in Port of Spain a short while after, Picton sent all the money back to help those who had suffered in the disaster. Such is the man with whom the little stone fort on the top of Laventille Hill must be for ever associated.