History, heritage and green spaces
It’s a new year, not a bad time to think about issues relating to our national heritage and historical patrimony.
There are encouraging signs that the government, the media and the public are all paying more attention these days to the preservation of what still survives of our built and natural environment. My unscientific survey of the print media over the last couple of years tells me that far more articles and letters on the subject have appeared than was the case before.
Recently, too, for the first time 13 historic buildings have been declared to be listed sites, which are officially protected from being altered, damaged or destroyed, under the National Trust Act.
Of course, our heritage doesn’t consist only of buildings; natural sites of special beauty, or biological diversity, or historic significance, are also part of it. For instance, the 39 remaining acres of the Tacarigua/Orange Grove Savannah -a well-used, open green space which was, before c.1950, a far larger natural savannah.
Selwyn Cudjoe, the well known scholar who was born and grew up in Tacarigua, has published an interesting booklet called Preserving the Tacarigua Savannah Respecting Our Heritage, clearly intended as a contribution to the campaign to prevent the construction of a large sporting complex, car park and related structures on part of the Savannah.
I don’t know enough about the issues to state categorically that the loss to the community, which would be brought about by this construction, would clearly outweigh its potential benefits. My gut feeling is certainly in favour of preserving what remains of this attractive and historic open space, one of the few left along the East-West Corridor.
And this feeling has been strengthened by learning more of the Savannah’s history from Cudjoe’s booklet. His concern is understandable: Tacarigua has been home to several generations of his family. Unusual for African-Trinidadians, he can trace his descent back to the era of slavery and apprenticeship.
His great-grandfather, Jonathan Cudjoe, was born in Tacarigua in 1833, the last year of formal slavery. (He was one of the so-called “Free Children”: the Emancipation Act stated that children who were under the age of six on August 1, 1834, would not be forced into the apprenticeship scheme imposed on everyone else.) His great-grandmother, Amelia, was born in the same village in 1837, one year before the end of the apprenticeship, so she was still a toddler when “full freedom” came.
Cudjoe carefully establishes how old the natural savannah in the Arouca and Tacarigua region is. He reproduces a letter from Governor Lord Harris in 1846, in which he mentions the savannah in the context of his plans to sell house lots to ex-slaves in Arouca.
Cudjoe also reproduces the “PLAN of a portion of the NATURAL SAVANNAH OF AROUCA”, as prepared by the Surveyor-General, Martin Sorzano, in the same year. (Sorzano Street in Arima is named for him.) It shows how large this savannah was originally; housing and commercial development over the last 60 years has reduced it to its present 39 acres.
In an interesting section, Cudjoe notes how the Tunapuna savannah, or recreation ground, has disappeared over the same period. This is the ground next to which the family home of CLR James was situated. In a famous passage in his Beyond a Boundary, James describes his boyhood experience of watching cricket on the ground while standing on a chair and looking out from his bedroom window.
This was over one hundred years ago, and the experience helped to form the man James would become. The destruction of his childhood environment, writes Cudjoe, “demands that we take another look at what we are doing with our national heritage”, and especially with the Savannah at Tacarigua, two miles away.
In the book’s last section, Cudjoe tells us about WH Burnley, the wealthy owner of Orange Grove sugar estate, among other properties. He was the largest slave owner in Trinidad and received an enormous sum in the 1830s as compensation for the “loss” of his enslaved workers.
His great house, built in the 1820s and painted by Michel Jean Cazabon, survived into Cudjoe’s boyhood in the 1940s, and the sugar estate, under a different name, still dominated social and economic life in Tacarigua in the 1940s and 1950s.
Up to the period of World War Two (1939-1945), the Savannah on which Burnley’s mansion stood was “a magnificent expanse of land , second only to the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain”, Cudjoe writes. It was gradually reduced as houses and commercial buildings were erected in the post-war period and continuing to the present.
“Concrete and clay usually fall into disrepair”, Cudjoe writes; “natural savannahs last forever”. His intimate family and personal connection with the area, stretching back generations, and his knowledge as a scholar of its rich past, have convinced him that “History would not be kind to those who are responsible for foisting such destruction (of the remaining green space) on thousands of people who use the Savannah and those generations who will expect to use it after we are gone”.