IF you want an address, an exact location, that proves this nation’s contempt and disregard for its history, go ahead and visit what’s left of the waterwheel at Arnos Vale, near Tobago’s leeward coast.
Here was a site that both the descendants of the island’s European settlers and the enslaved Africans, who worked those plantations, had an interest in preserving.
The waterwheel was part of a 19th century sugar mill, and considered the best surviving example of the machinery from the time when sugar fuelled that evil trade out of Africa.
The mill ended up becoming the impressive centrepiece of the Arnos Vale Hotel operated by Bill and Sintra Bronte, who owned the surrounding 410 acre estate. The waterwheel was incorporated into a fine dining restaurant run by their son Phillip. Both hotel and restaurant have been shuttered, the location abandoned and the estate put up for sale.
The waterwheels, along with the restaurant, are now ruined. It appears someone set fire to it, says the Old Grange Police. It happened two weeks ago, shortly before the rains came and drenched the island. As of Saturday, no one had been held for the act. And there is fear that with no one to secure the location, the metal work will be carted off to be sold as scrap.
Word of the destruction came from Tobago-based Jennifer De Verteuil, and her documentary film maker husband Alex. Jennifer was part of the ultimately futile battle to save the Greyfriars Church in Port of Spain from being demolished earlier this year by a developer with luxury apartments on his mind.
Fortunately, Alex De Verteuil captured images of the Arnos Vale waterwheel as part of a planned documentary on Tobago’s industrial archaeological heritage. De Verteuil is working on the project in collaboration with Englishman Patrick Carnegy, an engineer and scholar who is married to Trinidad-schooled soprano opera singer Jill Gomez as well as local video producer Clifford Seedansingh.
it is Carnegy who has researched and written what must be the definitive piece on the history and intricate workings of the waterwheel.
In an article published in the magazine Model Engineer in 2007, he wrote: “the site’s most impressive feature is an exceptionally well-preserved overshot waterwheel some (32 feet in diameter by 32 inches wide). It’s set among towering bamboo which rises up like fountains from the creek which serves as a millstream. Alongside the waterwheel, and geared to it, is a cane crushing mill with its three vertical rollers. One the other side of the mill stands the cast iron framework of the galleried beam engine that could be coupled to drive the mill when there was insufficient water to power the overshot wheel. Next to the engine stands the shell of the boiler which once steamed it”.
Carnegy was also impressed by the work done by Phillip Bronte who operated the restaurant until Tobago’s tourism crash shuttered the place in 2013.
Carnegy wrote: “A restaurant with pavilions and covered wooden walkways was very cleverly constructed around and about the machinery a few years ago. Where some owners like to decorate their eateries with old tools and farm implements, you could say that in this instance the proud remains have decorated themselves with a restaurant”.
Carnegy wrote that traces had been found of 43 sugar factories on the island, 25 driven by waterwheels and 17 by windmills “but the only significant remnant of these is the one at Arnos Vale. All things considered, the engine, waterwheel and crushing mills are miraculously preserved. Ben Russell of the Science Museum in London believes this may well be the most complete set of sugar machinery of its period in existence anywhere”.
The waterwheel had been so well preserved, Carnegy had no problem figuring out its history. He wrote: “Dating and provenance of the waterwheel could not be clearer. Its rim carried multiple copies of a cast name plate inscribed “W. and A. McOnie & Co. Glasgow 1857”….On the hillside just above the wheel, and at the point where the aqueduct (only the foundations remain) feeding it would have begun, stands a small pumping engine bearing the label ‘W.H Bailey & Co., Albion Works, Salford Manchester – Lehmann’s Patent no (illegible), so it would seem that Glasgow did not have it all its own way…”.
The machinery, he said, would have been shipped in manageable sections.
“It would have been a major task to have transported them on primitive donkey carts from the coast to the Arnos Vale site. Highly skilled fitters would have been needed to assemble the machine and get them safely up and running. One reason why the machinery survived is because its foundations are soundly built. But they’re under ever present threat from the rampant vegetation of the tropical bush which even the proprietors of the Waterwheel restaurant cannot entirely control”. It turns out that Carnegy was right. And what has been lost cannot be replaced.
A TRAGIC LOSS
Told of the fire that destroyed the site, Carnegy said: “The devastation caused by the fire at the Arnos Vale Waterwheel is a tragic loss to Tobago’s heritage. Of the 40 sugar mills that once existed on the island, only the one at Arnos Vale was so miraculously preserved that visitors could see exactly how the cane was crushed and its liquor turned into the golden-brown ‘muscovado’ sugar that was once a major source of the island’s prosperity. The dramatic machinery, with its huge waterwheel and beam-engine, was a Glasgow-made masterpiece of Victorian engineering, set on a mill-stream among towering fountains of bamboo. It was one of the most beautiful places on the island. Since the closure some years ago of the restaurant so cleverly constructed around the Waterwheel, the site has been sadly neglected. Most of the machinery will probably have survived the fire. I only hope that its foundations will be rebuilt and the whole magical site restored. The Arnos Vale sugar-mill is one of the glories of Tobago and rich in echoes of its history. There is also nothing like it anywhere else in the Caribbean”.
WHAT WE ARE LOSING
Documentary film maker Alex De Verteuil said: “Approaches have been made to the Tobago House of Assembly to assist in the production of a video documentary on the abandoned sugar mills that could give a significant boost to the island’s tourism and also serve locally as an important teaching tool. De Verteuil and video producer Clifford Seedansingh in collaboration with Patrick Carnegy, have been seeking to raise funding for the project.
According to De Verteuil, if in early 19th Century England someone referred to you as being ‘as rich as a Tobago planter’ then you were seen as truly wealthy. “The cultivation of sugar cane on the island”, he said, “and the production of sugar and rum for export made many a fortune over the years. But towards the end of the century, following on the abolition of the slave trade and the development of the sugar beet industry, the island’s fortunes changed and with them the whole of the local economy which virtually collapsed.”
Evidence of that time is still to be found in the valleys and on the hilltops of Tobago where the ruins of abandoned great houses and the attendant sugar mills tell a tale of the incredible industry and ingenuity that went into establishing and propagating Tobago’s time of plenty. The proposed documentary will examine on camera and with the guidance of experts this period of the island’s history and will also look in detail at the enormously rich heritage represented in the remains of the machinery and brick-work that constituted the working face of the sugar industry of the time and remain there for us to marvel at today.