Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mystery of the Galfa graves

...who were these people?

The Cavalan graves at Galfa Point, Cedros.


Defenders of the islands' history, do not relent. This renascence underway in Trinidad and Tobago has been worth your time and effort. We may still be losing some of it, but your growing rank has brought an awareness of our past beyond anything that existed before.

Here's an example of what you have achieved, and it's one we all hope will be repeated. In the most unlikely of partnerships, a land developer and a politician have joined forces with historians and researchers to protect and preserve what surely would have been forever lost, months ago, under a mountain of dirt at a location so remote that no one would ever have known it was there.

The History

But before that, you may first want to know something about Galfa (Galpha) Point and its beach-front-accessed from a road that peels away from Bonasse Village, Cedros, at a junction not far from the Police Station and Customs and Immigration Department that not many knew about, until desperate Venezuelans began arriving by the hundreds in search of food and toiletries Few road trippers go in the direction of south coast Galfa, and even fewer locals bother about the place. But this is an area (at Green Hill) which was of strategic interest to the Americas during World War 2, with a lookout post and gun emplacements to protect against the German U-Boats prowling the Caribbean intent on sinking Allied merchant and war ships. Green Hill would later be chosen by the Manning administration to erect one of its coastal defence radar units that no one thinks really works, given the country's gun, drug and undocumented immigrant problems.

This is an area with thousands of years of human habitation, home to the island's first people who venerated the nearby mud volcanoes (later the Hindus would do the same with their annual volcano pooja), and a contact point for the natives canoeing across from the Orinoco Delta region of the mainland. From the late 1700s, the Europeans would develop cotton and sugarcane plantations through the toil of enslaved Africans, later sustained with Indian Indentured labourers.

But the Estates were mostly abandoned by the 1960s, with the buildings, boilers and infrastructure smothered by high woods, and guarded by some hummingbird-sized mosquitoes and the coastline's reputation for smuggling all things illegal.

The Purchase

And that's how it remained, the place unexplored except by area hunters who would sometimes stumble upon some inexplicable ruin. That is, until land started fetching the price of gold in Trinidad and Tobago and the estate at Galfa called L'Enveiusse went up for sale.

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The location of the graves on Trinidad's south western peninsular

It was advertised as one of the last places where you could buy 1.6 kilometres of beach, on 440 acres of land and create your very own horse farm or shrimp farm, with enough runaway space for your plane to touch down, of you were so minded. The multimillion dollar purchase was made some years back. And the buyer, a wealthy Cedros resident, chose to create the very first south coast residential community.

The excavators moved in and clear cut the estate to lay roads, drainage and building lots. But here is where the story digresses from the usual Trinidadian way of doing things.

The land owner ensured that the single building which emerged from the bush like a Mayan ruin, was not torn down. Most importantly, he preserved the grave-sites and tombstones found near that building, which were a bulldozer-blade away from being lost. And this is where you modern-day history sleuths come in, because there is a mystery to be solved here.

One grave marker reads: JEAN CAVALAN, NE II.V 1750, DECE JE, LEIX 1818, AGE 68 ANS, REQUI IN PACE. The other tombstone reads: MICHEL CAVALAN DECE DECEMBRE, 1818 ASHO…DUMATA RIP.

The lost history

Historian/author Angelo Bissessarsingh, whose role in unearthing our history has been immeasurable and immense, has researched the area where the graves are located.

They are he said, that of two early French planters in the now vanished sugar district of Quemada on an island where entire places vanish from memories and maps as if they never existed. Although some land grants were probably made in the Cedros area during Spanish times, said Bissessarsingh, its isolation militated against agronomic development.

What remains of the WWII gun emplacement at Green Hill, Cedros

In 1783 however, a Frenchman by the name of Roume de St. Laurent, seeing the obvious possibilities in a land as rich as Trinidad, collaborated with Governor Don Jose Maria Chacon to convince King Ferdinand of Spain to introduce a Cedula of Population. Said Bissessarsingh: “Under the provisions of the Cedula, Catholic settlers would be invited to settle in the island and cultivate lands which would be allocated based on the number of slaves each white settler brought with half the grant being given to coloured planters.

This particularly appealed to inhabitants of the French West Indian colonies in Grenada, Haiti (St. Domingue) and Martinique where the seeds of revolution spelled doom for white dominance.

A number of grants were given in the Cedros area to French settlers , the average grant being 77 acres”. Quemada can no longer be found on any modern map, said Bissessarsingh, the author of Walking with the Ancestors: The Historic Cemeteries of Trinidad. Bisessarsingh said: “It is possible that the social isolation of Quemada planters insulated them from the obvious fact that as early as 1830, it was apparent that the human atrocity known as slavery would soon come to an end in the British Empire. While in other parts of the island, planters were sweating in fear of the inevitable day that their oppressed labour forces would be freed, Quemada seems to have remained indifferent.

The tombstone bearing the name Michel Cavalan. Photo:Dexter Philip

Devastated by the emancipation of the slaves in 1834, Quemada's aging proprietors either dwindled away on their abandoned estates or else emigrated in search of better prospects, leaving in their wake a tangle of broken dreams, rusty sugar boilers and forlorn tombstones to be engulfed by the bush”. “Even as early as the 1880s, a bare five decades after Emancipation, hunters would come across the remnants of these plantations in what seemingly was high woods.

There is no record of any of these plantations lasting long enough to employ indentured labour from India which began in 1845 and picked up in earnest from 1850. So complacent had been the proprietors, so firm in their belief that their canes would be watered forever by the sweat and blood of slaves, they had failed to adapt”.

The conservation effort

The politician behind the conservation effort is chairman of the Siparia Regional Corporation Leo Doodnath. He said that someone who had purchased one of the 233 lots on what is now L'envieusse Gardens, told him about the grave. So he went looking for it. Said Doodnath: It is our intention to secure the site. I have already spoken with the owner of the development who will give us a portion of the land.

He is proud to be part of it. I have relayed this information to the National Trust who is researching the site”. He said “I am hoping that somewhere down the road, we can restore the graves to what it looked like, and do some working on the concrete slabs and engravings. Of course, we have to consult the professionals. But our first order of business was to conserve what we found. If it works out, the gravesite will become a major part of the area's tourism plan.

Who are the Cavalans?

There appears to be no Cavalans in Trinidad and Tobago. That surname died along with these buried people.

However, in the slave registers of the former British Colonial dependencies, there are several references to at least four slave owning Cavelands of Trinidad. The digitised documents name Jean and Michel Cavelan as having a plantation from the Quarter of Hicacos (as Icacos, Cedrosáwas then called. The documents, whichárecords the name, age height and marking of the slaves they owned, date to the early 1800s and name Jean and Michel as owning a cotton plantation called "Garden".

There is also an onlineádatabase on people/organisations who received compensation from the British for the loss of their slaves at emancipation. Named in 1839 was one Jeanette Caveland of Trinidad who received compensation in the sum of ú44 for one slave. Thereafter, the name passes out of the historical record.

GRAVES: These are the graves on the L'envieusse Estate, Cedros, in an image captured several months ago by Siparia Regional Corporation chairman Leo Doodnath

Thereáis the possibility thatáCavalan is a corruption of the surname “Cavelan”, which is well known to Grenadians who consider Julien Fedon, born to a French father and freed African slave, to be something of a folk hero.

Fedon was himself married in 1787 to mulatto Rose Marie Cavelan, the daughter of Frenchman Michel Cavelan. The Fedons would purchase the Belvedere Estate from which Fedon launched a revolt in March 1785, with the aim of abolishing slavery, overthrowing the British rule and granting the former slaves citizenship to France.

The rebellion would ultimately fail, but Fedon was never captured and never found. Historians believe he and a party fled the island by canoe heading to Trinidad.

Whether the canoe sunk, whether Fedon drowned or made it, no one knows….yet.

The writer can be contacted at richard.charan@trinidadexpress.com