by: Dylan Kerrigan
Before 21st century Port-of-Spain, there was early 19th century Port-of-Spain. It was a place of contrasts, division, and mixture. Much literature speaks of strict segregation between various social groups by colour, religion, class and more. Yet in the cracks of such accounts are examples of mixture among members of such groups.
Emancipation was declared official in 1834. However, following requests by the plantocracy for an apprenticeship period of four years to ease the planters’ implementation of a new labour supply, a more correct date for liberation from manumission is 1838.
By such time, the overcrowding situation in Port-of-Spain (at the end of slavery about 12,000 people lived in under one square mile with all the attendant health hazards) while not solved, had been altered somewhat.
With extension work, the upper classes were able to move away from the centre of Port-of-Spain toward the north-west of the town and remove themselves from the increasingly dense neighbourhoods about to receive a large number of “apprentices” coming to the city looking for work.
According to Carnival historian John Henry, “The city of Port of Spain numbered eleven streets in total after the extension in 1837. Everyone lived in close proximity. The city expansion [of 1838]took place just in time to open up other possibilities that allowed the white elite to move out of downtown Port of Spain.”
The emergent Creole middle class of the time has been described as comprising three distinct elements: Anglophile and/or Protestant coloured; Francophile and Catholic coloureds; and free black immigrants. Their position was an uneasy one both legally and socially.
They had freedom yet they could not vote or politically push their interests. Some were as wealthy and well-educated as whites, with wives who had an “insatiable passion for showy dresses and jewels,” but the vast majority were denied access into elite society.
By 1834 they outnumbered the elite four to one and were generally antagonistic toward them.
In solidarity with the local labouring population, one of the group’s political objectives was the abolition of slavery. According to some commentators, with this success the group’s political force was spent and they quickly “assimilated into English culture,” some rising in society through education and the civil service, filling the space left with the departure of some white merchants and artisans.
This combination and conflict of local solidarity and cultural assimilation to foreign values can be suggested as the development of a newly-emergent middle class consciousness in Trinidad that would mature over the coming decades. The less wealthy and educated members of this emergent middle class were not all able to move out of town immediately and remained in houses nearby or directly adjoining many of the barrack yards.
The “yards” were spaces built in the courtyards behind storefronts and houses on the streets of Port-of-Spain, and housed, in their prime, up to 30 people at any given time, although they were built for nine or 10.
The living quarters consisted of several rooms arranged in a barrack-like system around the perimeter of the yard. Several people, even whole families, shared one room. The cooking fires, rocks used for bleaching clothes, and restroom facilities were in the centre of the yard and shared by all residents.
As a meeting space, these shared facilities allowed for some shared responsibility as well as tension and outright conflict. Women often laundered clothes in the yard for money. At any given time the yards were filled with clotheslines and the smell of bleach. Cooking food items to sell on the street was another form of income, although minimal. It was a crowded and highly unsanitary system (the bathroom was often just a pit, that drained into the same groundwater people drank from).
This created a situation of constant interaction among individuals and groups of different economic class, religion and nationality. As one commentator points out of this encounter, “privacy or minding one’s own business was impossible.”
It is fair to say that many of the white elite moved outside and to the edge of the town limits. In town, however, the density of population, particularly among the lower class, meant many different people from different parts of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as many born in Trinidad, including some of the new middle class, had daily contact with one other, producing a situation of socio-cultural mixture and adaptation.
Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine