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GOVERNORS OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO 1866-1891

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  • SIR ARTHUR H. GORDON
  • SIR JAMES ROBERT LONGDEN
  • SIR HENRY TURNER IRVING
  • SIR SANFORD FREELING
  • SIR WILLIAM ROBINSON

SIR ARTHUR H. GORDON: 1866-1870
Perhaps, apart from Lord Harris, the most successful and hard-working governor of Trinidad was Arthur Hamilton Gordon. What marked Gordon’s administration was that he opened up the crown lands, thereby enabling the dispossessed to get somewhere to call their own. A good example of this was what happened in the Montserrat Hills in 1867. Gordon, through his policies on run-away slaves encouraged many ordinary families of Africans to come out of their hideaway homes in the high woods, and he had, through the Warden of Montserrat, Robert Mitchell, caused a fine town to be laid out for them in order that they should live in dignity and contentment. Governor Gordon’s friend, the famous English writer, Charles Kingsley, who visited Trinidad in 1869 to spend Christmas with him was taken to Montserrat to see the project, and in the book “At Last, A Christmas in the West Indies,” Kingsley says”: A group of enormous palmistes stands on a plateau, flat, and yet lofty and healthy. The soil is exceedingly fertile. There are wells and brooks of pure water all around. The land slopes down for hundreds of feet in wooded gorges full of cedar and other admirable timber, with palmistes towering above them everywhere, `Far away lie the lowlands and every breeze of heaven swoops over the crest of the hill.

In speaking about the pretty little settlement, with streets symmetrically arranged, Kingsley says: The southwest corner is almost entirely inhabited by Africans - Mandingoes, Foulahs, Homas, Yorubas, Ashantees, Congos, and speaking of the Yorubas, who were particularly inclined to run away from humiliation, he adds: They inhabit houses of cedar or other substantial material. Their gardens are, for the most part, well stocked and well kept. They raise crops of yams, cassava, Indian corn, etc. It is from this last crop Indian corn (or simply corn) that the settlement got its name, “Mayo,” which in the Yoruba language, means corn. At the time, its neighbour, Tortuga, named for its abundance of tortugas or land turtles, was sparsely inhabited. Things of charm and physical objects like tall palmiste palms easily win the heart, for they could be seen, but the fair-mindedness and compassion of Gordon in favour of those constantly made victims by the authorities cannot easily be assessed. Gordon’s administration is also remembered for the introduction of the electric telegraph in 1870. Although he spent a relatively short term in Trinidad, arriving in November 1866 and leaving around June 1870, not even completing four years, few of the other colonial governors can match his contribution.

SIR JAMES ROBERT LONGDEN: 1870-1874
Curiously enough, although James Longden was not the most important governor to have administered Trinidad there is probably more of him that recalls his administration than there is of any other colonial governor. Two which come to mind are Government House in Port-of-Spain, which Longden designed or had a hand in the designing of, but of which he certainly laid the Foundation Stone, and the other is the village of Longdenville, a former convict depot.

About Government House, Gordon’s Cottage had been destroyed by fire, and Longden was in no mood to live in a make-shift home although previous governors had been saying government could not spend the money to construct a proper governor’s residence. Longden felt he could spend it all right! On Thursday 24th July, 1873, he laid the Foundation Stone for the governor’s house. However, Longden was not lucky enough to live in it. Just as it was about to be completed he had to make way for a new governor - a man whose administration had to do with the early days of rail and with the naming of a new “town.”

SIR HENRY TURNER IRVING: 1874-1880
Sir Henry Turner Irving has the distinction of being the first governor to occupy the new and magnificent Government House - President House today - and Irving must have laughed at Longden who had felt so confident that he was going to live in the house that he designed it in the shape of an “L” for Longden. Irving was a serious yet a simple governor, and one of his hobbies was riding to San Fernando where he was often seen at the restaurant of Mrs Elvira Glassen, a maker of delicious pastries, at Number 1 High Street. But was it for the pastries he went to San Fernando? Or was it for the long rides? Or was it not to look at Mrs Glassen? So it was said.

The high point of the Irving administration came in the latter part of his term of office. There were two unforgettable experiences. The first one came on Thursday, August 31, 1876, when Arima was celebrating Santa Rosa Day. That was the day the railway was established and Irving must have been in that first train to leave Port-of-Spain for Arima - a bright day for passengers and for cocoa planters. The second high point came in January 1880 when two princes, grandsons of Queen Victoria, paid a visit as midshipmen. Irving took them to the mud volcano, Devil’s Woodyard, and to get there they had to pass through the village of Mission. Reverend Knight stood outside of his church and begged them please to dismount and plant a poui tree each, to mark the historic visit. They obliged, and from that day the village of Mission became Princes Town. Irving’s term as governor expired that very year, 1880, and he went, leaving the way clear for the most controversial governor of the period.

SIR SANFORD FREELING: 1880-1883
When Sir Sanford Freeling came here in 1880 one of the biggest concerns of the authorities was what was deemed the outrageous behaviour of the canboulay bands during Carnival. The police chief, Lionel Fraser, had just been sacked and in came Captain Arthur Wybrow Baker declaring he was going to do away with canboulay. Canboulay, which comes from the French cannes brullées (burning cane) was a violent aggressive dance, developed by the ex-slaves to depict the burning cane-fields which they had had to deal with during slavery. These dances featured flambeaux (lighted torches) and drums, and clubs. The police tried to suppress them and it always led to fights on the Carnival days. The canboulay devotees were determined to “come out and play,” for Carnival 1881, and that occasion was going to be the test for Captain Baker. But when Carnival 1881 came the trial of strength was almost even. The canboulay masqueraders beat the police mercilessly and the police beat them mercilessly too. But the next morning the canboulay masqueraders went to Government House to complain to Sir Stanford Freeling.

Although Freeling was new he had seen how the police could be highhanded and cruel, and he was at once sympathetic to the masqueraders. He went down to their chief meeting place, the George Street market, and there he addressed a vast crowd: “My Friends,” he said, “the police had no intention of stopping your masquerade. It was the lighted torches they were afraid of. Because the lighted torches could burn down the town. If you promise me that you would go out and play your masquerade and that you will not burn down the town I will confine the police to barracks and you can go and enjoy yourself to your heart’s content.” They did, but Captain Baker did not take kindly to Fraser’s action and protested to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Secretary of State was appalled at what the governor had done, but wanted to investigate this thoroughly, and so the case wound on slowly. Came Carnival 1882 and 1883, and the enquiry was not yet over. For those Carnivals Port-of-Spain was as quiet as a churchyard because the canboulay folk were determined to support the governor. Yet it confirmed what the authorities called “collusion,” because to have the governor supported by a wild, aggressive, noisy group was in itself a scandal. Anyway the authorities, in looking deeply into the case saw that the only people to benefit by what had transpired were those who challenged colonial authority, and rather than leave Freeling at his post they recalled him to England in 1883. He never came back.

Freeling was also known for a document sent to him by a descendant of Spanish governor Don José Maria Chacón, and in this document Chacón had asked General Abercromby, and the request was approved, that the authorities would be kind to his descendants and not let them fall into penury, Chacón had pleaded for this in the spirit of the Agreement on the Capitulation of 1797. One of the needy members of this relative had gone to Freeling on this matter, more than 80 years later, and Freeling had prepared a document asking that this person be given some help with land and finance, and other considerations. His request was not successful.

Sir Sanford Freeling, who came here in 1880, could be said to have changed the Carnival, for in 1884 Baker issued police instructions, that because of that early morning of 1881 when police and masqueraders alike were beaten without pity, no one would be allowed on the street on Carnival Monday before the hour of six a.m. Thus, because six a.m. was the opening of day, it was called jour ouvert. But more than that the Canboulay riots changed the direction of Carnival. From that time onwards revelers stopped coming out to fight. Carnival then took the course of becoming the pageantry it is today.

SIR WILLIAM ROBINSON: 1885-1891
Again the Colonial Office seems to have been taken by surprise by the sudden recall of a governor for they sent to Trinidad the ailing Sir Frederick Barlee, who died within three months. It was then that the authorities chose a governor who was sporting and full of life and who got two distinctions to make him stand out from Trinidad governors. Firstly, Sir William arrived in Trinidad just a few years before the Union of Trinidad and Tobago was effected, and when this came into force from the 1st January, 1889, he became the first governor of Trinidad and Tobago.

Then, there was the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, which had come in 1887. On the occasion Baptist Pastor Robert Andrews left his home at Fifth Company to go to San Fernando to see the celebrations. When he came home that night he wrote to Queen Victoria saying how impressed he was at the show of warmth and love despite the fact that the men who she put in Trinidad to run her business were absolutely useless. And then he asked her: “Do you think you could see your way to allow us to choose our own representatives?” Queen Victoria was taken aback by the question and she sent a dispatch to the man who represented her here, Sir William Robinson, requesting him to set up a royal commission on the franchise to find out if the people of Trinidad really wanted to choose their own representatives. She commanded him to make sure the commissioners went to Fifth Company, to find out what it was that Pastor Robert Andrews really wanted. Therefore Robinson was the first Trinidad governor to have anything to do with a Commission on Franchise. This commission was set up in 1888.

The world, along with Trinidad, was becoming a very different place and Trinidad was not going to be left behind. In the United States Marconi was experimenting with wireless communication, Bell was experimenting with telephone - in fact Sir William Robinson had to be the first Trinidad governor to speak on the telephone, for there was something of a service here in 1883, and then Adelbert Gray, of the “Tropical American Telephone Company Limited” really established it, having an exchange by 1885. Running water also came to the fore: by the time Sir William left Trinidad, Edward Tanner, Director of Public Works, had already begun supplying water in pipes. Change was very exciting, but since “a new broome sweeps clean” then life was going to be even more exciting with the new governor.