Knowledge about the past isn’t only conveyed in books or articles written by historians, which try to reconstruct the facts of past events based on sources like documents. Novelists, who write what we call fiction, also deal with the past, though in a different way.
A historical novel is a work of fiction which is set in the past, not in the novelist’s own time period. Usually, actual historical persons and events are mixed with characters invented by the novelist. A famous recent example is Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell, who lived in England in the 1520s to 1540s—she has twice won Britain’s highest literary prize for this trilogy.
Sometimes, a historian chooses to write historical novels. Naturally, his/her knowledge of the past will be brought to bear on the novel, even though it is a work of fiction (imagination).
This is the case with Michael Anthony’s 33rd book—yes, number 33—The Lamplighter. Of course he is both historian and novelist, and in this latest novel, he describes events and people he’s already written about, but now in a work of fiction.
In two of his earlier non-fiction historical works, The Making of Port of Spain (Volume 1), and First in Trinidad, Anthony wrote about the remarkable series of events which took place in Port of Spain on March 5, 1895. These events, and the people involved in them, form the subject of the new novel.
First, the streets of the city were first lit up with electric lights on that evening, replacing the older pitch-oil lamps. Of course this caused a sensation. Second, a visiting English cricket team played an All-Trinidad side (which included black players) at the Queen’s Park Savannah, a sort of precursor to the Test matches of the 20th century. Third, a disastrous fire ravaged the city, destroying much of the downtown area.
Typical of historical novels, Anthony mixes historical and fictional characters. Among the main historical characters are English businessman Edgar Tripp, who was responsible for the electric street lights; the young black cricketer Lebrun Constantine, a popular sportsman who would father the even more famous Learie Constantine; and Pelham “Plum” Warner, a noted cricketer from a famous white Trinidadian family who brought the English team here.
The main fictional character is Wilfred, a young black man who has been adopted by Tripp and his late wife—Amelia Tripp, whose grave is next to the ruined church of St Chad’s on the road to Macqueripe. His girlfriend, Marie Corrie, who has the contract to light the pitch-oil lamps of the city every evening (hence the book’s title) was a real person, but her relationship with Wilfred is imaginary. She is not pleased with Tripp, who from her viewpoint is about to put her out of her job.
This is very much a novel about Port of Spain; the city is in a way the main character. It reflects Anthony’s unequalled knowledge of the city’s history and it’s full of detailed descriptions of the capital’s streets, buildings and institutions as they were in 1895.
King Street and Marine Square (now Independence Square), Brunswick Square (not yet renamed Woodford Square), and all the streets of downtown Port of Spain are there. So are the Ice House and the Union Club, Muir Marshall, Maillard’s store La Favorita, the sports shop Bonanza, the old Town Hall, the old George Street Market.
Chaguaramas, Macqueripe, Tucker Valley and the route, both by sea and by land, between Macqueripe and Port of Spain are also described in detail, because Tripp and Wilfred live in the Macqueripe Estate House. This used to be on the small plateau overlooking Macqueripe Bay—later there was a hotel there, then it served during World War II as the American officers’ club.
There’s a lot of cricket history too. The match between Slade Lucas’s English team and the All-Trinidad side was a major event. Plum Warner, according to the novel, was a fair-minded person who was determined that the local side should include the most talented players regardless of their colour, whereas the Queen’s Park Cricket Club would have preferred an all-white team. Thanks to Warner’s intervention, the very popular and talented Constantine, and another black player, were included.
The inclusion of the ‘‘lamplighter”, Marie Corrie, with her fears about her job when electricity came to the city, reminds the reader that (to quote a famous calypso) “the price of progress is always high’’. Modernity was coming to Port of Spain and Trinidad by 1895—railways, steamships, the telegraph, telephones, now electricity, soon cars, buses and planes—but with every technological advance, there are losers, as older occupations and ways of life are threatened or eliminated.
And the Great Fire of 1895, with which the novel ends, reminds us that city fires have played a huge role in the history of our capital city. This one, which destroyed much of the business area, made possible the rebuilding of downtown, masterminded by the Scottish architect and builder George Brown.
The Lamplighter provides an interesting and readable entry into the world of Port of Spain as it was 120 years ago.
• Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of history at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T and the Caribbean for many decades