Sunday, February 18, 2018

Spanish Trinidad

Thanks to the efforts of the present Ambassador of Spain to T&T, and his predecessor, a scholarly book on the history of Trinidad under Spanish rule has been published, first in its original Spanish, and more recently in an English translation.

The author is the late Francisco Morales Padrón, an eminent Spanish historian (1923-2010). Sadly, he didn't live to see the publication of his Trinidad Española, which appeared in 2011. But happily for us, the embassy made possible an English translation by my UWI colleague Armando García, which has now been published under the title Spanish Trinidad.

This book is a solidly researched study of Trinidad between the arrival of Columbus in 1498 and the formal cession to Britain in 1802. It's based mainly on the abundant original documents about the island held in the famous Archivo General de las Indias in Seville—Spain's colonial archives.

Even though Trinidad was an obscure little outpost of empire, the bureaucratic nature of Spanish colonialism ensured that there would be a constant flow of communications between the island and the government at home—and that most of this mass of paper would be eventually archived, making a detailed history of this kind possible.

It has to be said that Morales Padrón has written an old-fashioned sort of history—in the sense that it is mainly concerned with political and military events, and the actions of Spanish men in this part of the world. But this is hardly surprising. The author, born in 1923, was trained in the 1940s, and published his first book (a similar study of Jamaica under Spanish rule) in 1952, all of 60 years ago. So we can hardly expect that his work would reflect the interests and approaches of more recent historians.

Moreover, though much of the book does narrate political, international and military events, chapters 4 and 5 contain valuable data about social and economic developments in Trinidad in the 1600s and 1700s. From the Seville archives, the author has extracted much detailed information about population growth and distribution, about conditions in St Joseph and the "Indian" villages, and about trade, in these centuries.

The other sense in which we might say Morales Padrón is old-fashioned has to do with some of the terms he uses. For instance, he has no qualms about using "discovery" to describe Columbus's arrival. (Usefully, García supplies his own note here, admitting that "discovery" is a contentious term, but explaining that he preferred to stay true to the author's intent by providing a literal translation of "descubrimiento" rather than using a more modern word like "encounter".)

In much the same way, Morales Padrón follows his Spanish source documents in his descriptions of the indigenous Amerindian peoples, rather than relying on modern scholarship about them. Thus the account of the "Arena Massacre" of 1699, for instance, when some Amerindians rebelled and killed a few friars and officials, sticks close to the contemporary Spanish sources, and certainly doesn't see the rebels as resisting forced Christian conversion and oppression.

Old-fashioned this book may be, but it is immensely valuable because it is based on the original Spanish archival sources, which very few English-language scholars have ever attempted to exploit. This allows Morales Padrón to provide a detailed and solidly documented account of Trinidad's 300 years under Spanish rule.

Moreover, it provides a unique Spanish perspective on this history, the "loser's" perspective if you like, in contrast to the majority of narratives of the island's past which have been based mainly on British sources and told more from the British (the "winner's") viewpoint.

This Spanish perspective is reflected especially in the three chapters which deal with the last years of Spanish rule (1784-97). The last Spanish governor, JM Chacon, who has enjoyed a generally sympathetic treatment from most historians of Trinidad, is here given a hard time. After all, he was the governor who "lost" the island, who surrendered to the Brits without offering any real resistance.

Chapter 6 is titled "Chacón: A Questionable Governor", and while it acknowledges his achievements, especially between 1784 and 1793, it severely criticises him for failing to put the island's defences in order.

Chapter 7 provides a very detailed account of the events in 1796-97 which led directly to the capitulation in February 1797. While Morales Padrón admits that the sources on Chacon's actions during this time are quite contradictory, his overall conclusion seems to be that the governor could have done much more to defend the island—even if ultimate defeat was always likely. He accuses the governor of "unskillful and incomprehensible negligence" and savages his "cowardly flight and capitulation, without even attempting the defence of such a strategic bastion".

Indeed, the Spanish perspective on this episode in Trinidad's history comes out in a sense of hurt at the surrender of the island, reflected in chapters 7 and 8—215 years after the event! For most historians of Trinidad, 1797 marks the start of a new era; from the Spanish perspective of Morales Padrón, it was the end of the island's integration in the Kingdoms of the Indies, the sprawling holdings of Spain in the New World.

• Bridget Brereton is emerita

professor of history at UWI, St Augustine and has studied and

written about the history of T&T and the Caribbean for many decades.