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NO OBSCURE OUTPOST PART 1 by Rawle Boland

posted 1 Jan 2014, 18:19 by Gerry Kangalee
The contribution of Bridget Brereton and others to our tapestry, Selwyn Cudjoe’s above all, is invaluable. I recall my elation with a nugget in her work, revealing that, during our Spanish occupation, the proposals of a local doctor, regarding an incurable fever, were that the victims should be put out to sea, or on the highest hill.

 

At the time, it was dawning on me that to deal with the recurring epidemic of political indiscipline here, Dr Williams was obliged to use diplomatic postings (putting the suspects out to sea, metaphorically) and appointments to the Senate (the upper chamber or metaphorical hill). Imagine my amazement to discover that the doctor all those years ago was also a Dr Williams!

 

It is not being unduly touchy, however, to dispute, albeit belatedly, her description of Trinidad as “an obscure little outpost of empire”, in an otherwise helpful review of “Trinidad Espaňola”, (Spanish Trinidad), by Francisco Padrōn (Express, January 16).

 

On this planet, Trinidad is unquestionably a small island. To describe it as an obscure outpost of empire, however, be this the Spanish, British, or more benign and hands-off American variety, is to disregard its strategic significance, about seven miles off the north-eastern tip of South America, and its bountiful resources.

 

The Spanish archives, largely ignored by blinkered English-speaking students, will undoubtedly confirm Trinidad’s importance. Indeed, this is predicated in an instructive untranslated study, “La Perdida de La Isla de Trinidad”, (The Loss of the Island of Trinidad), by Josefina Aparicio, who recalls that, on hearing of Trinidad’s capture by Britain, the Spanish king actually wept.

 

This was predictable, given Trinidad’s role as a base, not only to sustain Spain’s hunt for the mythical El Dorado, but its tenuous hold on South America, as its expansive layout unfolded. Its policy of discouraging the island’s development was evidently a ruse to retain control, by trying to hoodwink its voracious European rivals that snatching Trinidad wasn’t worth the effort.

 

With the writing eventually on the wall, however, Spain was persuaded to backtrack in 1783, by applying the Roman principle, “populare defendere est” (to populate is to defend). Settlers were suddenly welcomed to Trinidad, providing they were Catholic, to keep out the British, non-Catholics since Henry VIII’s bloated appetite for essential deputies and, even in his day, smiling Spanish isles.

 

Partly because of instability from famine in France, the early precursor of its 1789 revolution; the insecurity of its Caribbean territories; and the generous hand-outs, certainly, of Trinidad’s virgin lands, the French, their slaves and free blacks, from Grenada mainly and elsewhere in the Caribbean in particular, became, predominantly, the first Trinidadians, who were neither native American nor Spanish colonists. Although some chose to return to Grenada, Trinidad’s population rocketed, from about 2,000 to around18, 000.

 

Notwithstanding Spain’s efforts, Trinidad was taken by Britain in 1797. This was critical to its strategy for the region, dubbed “The Western Design”, to relieve Spain of most, if not all, of its colonies in the Americas.

 

The tactics were to grab islands at pivotal points of the Caribbean archipelago and use them as launching pads from which to sever Spain’s links with those colonies. Jamaica, first base eventually, St Lucia, coveted generally as “the Helen of the West Indies” and Trinidad, South America’s Gibraltar, would be as vital as the acquisition of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the Asian theatre.

 

In 1655, the British expedition commissioned to kick-start the design, failed to capture Hispaniola, whereupon an assault on Jamaica, seemingly the next best option, gained a foothold, to the delight of Cromwell. As recorded on a plaque in the Foreign Office in Whitehall in London, on hearing the news, he took the day off, a rare departure from his routine.

 

By 1660, Jamaica became Britain’s first conquered, as opposed to settled, Caribbean colony. Nonetheless, the Design was so crucial, that for failing to take Hispaniola, the expedition’s quarrelsome leaders, Venables, whose wife went along for the ride, and Penn, were unceremoniously despatched to the Tower, albeit briefly.

 

For reasons too convoluted to explore here, the pursuit of the plan elsewhere in the Caribbean was delayed by a catalogue of global events. Nonetheless, following the close of the Seven Years War in 1763, it was revitalised and accelerated with the initial outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars from 1793.

 

European competition for colonial territories regularly involved bartering at the end of fisticuffs. Resembling some weird game of draughts, in which the participants sought to mash up yet mamaguy opponents to keep on good terms, peace treaties often entailed the return of captured territory to their former occupiers.

 

After several swaps, St Lucia was invaded in 1796 by forces under Sir Ralph Abercromby and finally ceded in 1814 to Britain, together with Tobago, which had suffered even more upheavals previously. In 1797, Trinidad was huffed by the marauding Abercromby and, as was promptly made clear in the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, it would be returned to no one, nor would Ceylon, acquired by guile from the Dutch in 1796.

 

These moves were of strategic significance and bore no relation to the recurring madness, of George III. The trap to displace Spain, in the Americas certainly was set, but, as will be seen in Part 2, it was already under heavy jamming and would be undone.

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