Tour Of The Caribbean - St. Joseph
( Originally Published 1925 )
SOME seven miles from Port of Spain is the village of St. Joseph—as picturesque a little townlet as is to be found in the West Indies. It stands at the foot of the northern heights, just where they step out into the plain, so that it has behind it, ridge above ridge, the guardian hills, while in front is a rueful flat, the Caroni swamp, stretching away to the sea.
St. Joseph stands on a small green hill of its own, placed at the mouth of a gorge from out of whose shadows bursts the St. Joseph river.
The two streets which compose the village climb up the mound from two points, meet at the top, linger about a village green, a slumbering convent and a church, and then tumble untidily down on the other side. The town itself is nearly buried among trees and lost among gardens.
Here is a white-walled, brown-shuttered villa in a jungle of green, with nothing but a fragile paling to keep the bushes from straying into the road. Here is a cottage covered up to its red roof by a yellow creeper, then come a grove of bananas, a lean ascetic cactus, a merry clump of whispering acacias, more white villas, a few thatched huts, a solitary palm. There are shops in one street, but if the sun be upon them the shopkeeper and his dog will be both asleep, and if they be in the shade, well, then a counter is a comfortable thing to loll across and talk.
Life is not taken seriously in St. Joseph ; there is ever present the conceit that its merchants are merely playing at shopkeeping, so that one would not be surprised to see Peter Pan and Wendy counting out oranges in one of the bright-coloured " stores."
It is always summer at St. Joseph, at this little " love-in-acottage " town. The villas, one might suppose, are occupied by happy couples who came here on their honeymoon and have never had the heart to go back to the world again.
Kingsley thought that if only there was a telegraph cable to the island "then would San Josef be about the most delectable spot he had ever seen for a cultivated and civilised man to live and work and think and die in."
The town may be small, yet the sense it gives of unbounded leisure is very vast; it may be lowly, yet the depths of its peacefulness are magnificent. It lies curled up on the top of its little hill like a purring cat in the sun. It may look up and stretch itself now and then on a gala day, but it will soon cuddle back into quietude again. This sleepy-head village, this happy-go-lucky town, this most lovable little garden city is no mere bucolic hamlet. It is called St. Joseph, but its right name and title is no less than San Jose de Oruna, the one-time capital of Trinidad.
It was founded by the Spaniards as long ago as the end of the sixteenth century. From this tiny hill the entire island was governed. From hence thundered forth commands at which the whole settlement trembled.
From hence came all the news of the world beyond the seas. It was a place that held its head very high, for upon the summit of the castle flew the proud banner of Spain. In the streets of the town, too, there once walked, clad in full armour and deep in thought, the romantic figure of Sir Walter Raleigh.
All the restless glory has long since passed away. San Jose de Oruna, the Versailles of Trinidad, has done with pomp and the burdens of authority. The twitter of birds and the rustle of leaves have replaced the trumpet blast, the tramp of armed men, the shuffle of obsequious feet. San Jose takes its old age very prettily and its retirement with idyllic grace. It is content to be the village of the love story, the place of the hushed garden, the city that was. It has no concern with the whirl of progress. Port of Spain is now the capital. There will be found plate-glass windows, electric tramways, rattling cars, yelling newsvendors, telephones and tourists. San Jose is satisfied to doze in the warmth. Its past is unsighed for and its future unconsidered. It takes its motto from Sancho Panza :
There is still sun on the wall.
The village green of St. Joseph is a small open space on the slope of the hill, where it is shaded by a cluster of glorious trees. It would be called a savannah if it were not so petty and so very child-like. In the centre of this diminutive common are three stone graves, surrounded by iron railings. One is uninscribed, but the other two bear the names of officers of the 14th Regiment of Foot, who died respectively in 18o2 and the year after. This calls to mind the fact that the English established a garrison at St. Joseph, and that the barracks, long since demolished, were by the side of this quaint, unambitious green.
There is a certain hideous memory associated with the military post of St. Joseph. In 1837 a number of the negro troops broke out into mutiny. They were led by a giant named Daaga, a savage of superhuman strength and the ferocity of a tiger. It was on the night of June 17 that the inhabitants of the town were awakened from sleep by a sound like the roar of wild beasts. It was the war cry of some two hundred and eighty desperate helots. As men barricaded their doors, and women hid in cellars, they could see through the cracks of the shutters the red glare of burning barracks, and could hear the rattle of musketry and the rushing by of many feet.
The trouble was soon over. Daaga was taken, but not until a host of his followers had been shot down by disciplined troops. Daaga and two others of the ringleaders were condemned to death. Their execution remains a dreadful nightmare in the long daydream of this gentle town. It was on a morning in August that they died. On the hillside, close to the children's common, three graves had been dug in the red earth. The narrow pits faced to the east so that the morning sun fell aslant into them On three sides of a hollow square stood the men of the 89th Regiment. On the fourth side were the graves.
The scene beyond the awful square was as enchanting as any in the world. The absolute silence was at last broken by the sound of men advancing to the music of the " Dead March." At the head of the procession three coffins were carried, then came the three mutineers in a line, with the giant Daaga in their midst, still scowling, still defiant, still spluttering curses. The three were clad from neck to foot in robes of white trimmed with a deep border of black. In marching they kept step instinctively with the muffled drums. The sun threw long and ghastly shadows of them on the gorgeous green across which the white figures moved. Behind the three came the firing party.
Then, in a silence that was full of horror, the sentence of death was read. The chaplain stammered a prayer. Over the face of each mutineer a cap was drawn, but Daaga pushed his up with an oath, and with the fury of a beast at bay. " Was he a child ? Did he fear death or the thrice accursed English ? No. He would die uncovered so that they could see to the last the hate in his eyes ! " Men held their breath as the marshal's sharp words of command rang forth, " Ready ! Present ! Fire ! " With the volley came the sound of three dull thuds on the earth, and then the rattle of the muskets was echoed back faintly from the smiling woods and the sunlit hills. Awed groups who stood expectant in the distant streets shuddered as though the echo had come from the nether world.