Giant cedar trees lining one of the bays of the southwestern peninsula led to early Spanish sailors naming that bay Playa de Cedros, and the coast of this bay, simply Cedros — the Spanish name for cedars.
The bay was on the northern side of the peninsula between what Columbus called Los Gallos and what became known as Punta de Cedros.
However, Cedros remained nothing more than a coast for what may have been a century and a half afterwards, for the only evidence of the area becoming settled goes back to 1785 when the Spanish Cedula of Population for Trinidad began taking effect.
That was the occasion when Catholics in general and Caribbean French planters in particular began emigrating to Trinidad, for indeed the Cedula was aimed at this group. The settlement of Cedros must have become established by 1786.
But there was no rapid development. In fact when the British captured Trinidad from Spain in 1797 only three grants of land had yet been made in the district — one to Torre, one to Consedor, and one to Quorge.
It will be noted by these Spanish names that this region in the south was still predominantly Spanish. Maybe these three planters had come across from the area of the Amerindian Mission of Siparia, about 10 miles to the northeast. Just around that time Governor José María Chacón had settled some Venezuelan royalists in the area.
One does not know if or how the planters made use of the cedars but suffice it to say those giant trees line the coast no more. The Spaniards called the surrounding region “Quemada,” the word for “burnt,” and this points to the little-recorded incident of a fire which had swept a large part of the southwestern peninsula. One knows of a burnt ranch which gave its name to the district of Rancho Quemado, but one has no idea whether this fire accounted for the cedar trees. Quemada, as a region, retained its Spanish name until 1849, when Lord Harris introduced counties and wards, during which process many Spanish names disappeared.
By this time, 1849, Cedros was in full development. The area was taken up by a number of estates, the boundaries of which ran in straight lines from the coast to the interior. Those were original grants under the Cedula of Population, and which were made even after the capture of 1797. Lord Harris named the entire region of the Bay of Cedars, the Ward of Cedros. The old settlement that had developed at the coast — no doubt the settlement established by the workers of Torre, Consedor, and Quorge — became known as Bonasse, a French word that means "easy-going."
The estates referred to made Cedros one of the most productive areas of Trinidad. After the British took over in February 1797 the British captain of the Royal Engineers, Frederick Mallett, wrote of Cedros: “The land is fit for sugar and coffee only.” No doubt he said this because these were the crops he saw in abundance there when he did a survey shortly after the conquest, but as the years went by cocoa and later coconuts were tried, and these flourished too.
In the early British days, the sugar-cane fields which the Spaniards had planted at Cedros were persisted with, but the yield was not significant, except for the production of rum. In 1811 Cedros had a population of 436, and this comprised 20 whites, 41 Free Blacks, and 375 slaves. With seven distilleries it had produced 2,260 gallons of rum that year. At that point, though, bananas were being tried out extensively.
But it was coconut that was to become the more important crop. Although by 1870 Cedros was still very much under sugar, there were several cocoa estates. The planters of coffee did not so much agree with Captain Mallet for by then coffee, as a crop, was non-existent.
Yet, generally the round-island steamer which collected produce from all around the coast to bring to Port-of-Spain could not fail to stop at Cedros. For apart from the staples like sugar and cocoa, Cedros supplied all manner of produce such as plantain, corn, fruits, and a variety of ground provisions.
At the census of 1871 the Ward of Cedros had 3,500 people, the village, Bonasse, attracting the major part of this population. Despite two unhealthy marshes close to it — the Marsh of Blanquizales to the south and the Marsh of Icaque to the southwest, the village of Bonasse maintained a health record superior to most of the other districts, showing a low mortality rate in an era when malaria was causing havoc amongst the new-born. Only places like Maracas and Caura were able to show a better record.
Bonasse was already bustling with activity in 1881. In that census year the population was 2,920, and it was a village of 784 houses and 24 shops. There were four teachers, maybe the teachers of Mr Vincent’s school. There was a small police station with four policemen, and from reports there was a busy police court. But why should that be? Didn’t the name Bonasse mean easy-going?
So far as language was concerned it was still Spanish which held sway here, although it was mainly the French who had opened estates, and although Bonasse was itself a French word. People spoke Spanish in the streets during this period, and the eminent scholar and educationist, John Jacob Thomas, said he learned Spanish at Cedros while carrying out his duties as Clerk of the Peace.
But these and many other aspects of the old Cedros have vanished without trace. Of the physical Bonasse today, the estates which had cut across in symmetrically straight lines — estates such as Mon Plaisir, Sainte Marie, Union, St John, and Perseverance — are no longer producers of sugar and cocoa. Indeed, they are no longer producers of anything — they comprise the main village. Large coconut estates which covered Cedros towards the end of the 19th Century and well into the 20th are no longer vibrant and productive, and in fact, for all practical purposes, agriculture is dead.
What plays a big part in the Cedros of today is fishing. About three-quarters of the population are involved in the fishing industry in one way or another, and this is reflected by the constant activity of fishing boats in the Bay of Cedros. Seine-fishing, once common here, has disappeared, no doubt because of the number of persons it requires, whatever the catch. Taking the place of seine-fishing are filet and trap-fishing — effective forms of fishing which require the minimum of labour, and which can be done at all times, day or night. Shrimp fishing has also come into prominence.
Although fishing in Cedros is a thriving industry, the coast is so near to Venezuela — about eight miles — that the fishermen are often plagued with disputes about territorial waters. Also, there is no doubt at all that fishermen from both sides break the sea law with impunity. Another problem caused by the proximity of the two coasts is the very serious problem of drug-running, possibly the biggest problem in the area today.
However, these considerations aside, Bonasse, simply referred to as "Cedros" by most people, is a thriving little village, well laid out, many of its streets taking the names of former estates such as "Union Street," and "Sainte Marie Street," while others recall early proprietors such as "Hughes Street," and "Gardieu Street." At least three remind of British royalty: "George Street," "Edward Street" and "King Street."
There are much fewer people in Cedros now than at the turn of the 20th Century, when its estates —especially coconut — were still flourishing. Compared with the population of 2,920 in 1981, the population in 1960 was 1,538. The present population is about 2,000.
Copyright NALIS, 2007