Early Port-of-Spain

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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

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