THERE is this man living in the village of Brazil, in Trinidad’s interior, who is a direct link to the country’s colourful but often cruel plantation history.
Albert “Gomes” Sookra was born ten years after the end of Indian Indentureship, in a barrack house built on a cocoa plantation, where his parents and eight siblings lived and worked.
The Las Hermanas (sisters) Estate, where the family made a life, dates to the time of African enslavement and is located a few corners from San Raphael, where the Spanish Capuchin Mission of Arena was established in 1688 to convert to Catholicism the Amerindians who first owned this island, but who would be subjugated, decimated and an attempt made to write them out of the record.
It is on this estate that Sookra, whose maternal grandmother was a Carib, would spend his early life picking, dancing and drying the cocoa destined for markets in the US and Europe, the crop so lucrative at the time that it made plantation owners richer than any labourer could ever dream (cocoa money built the famed Magnificient Seven’s Whitehall and Roomer).
Sookra remembers the 400-acre plantation off Tumpuna Road employing hundreds of people, including migrants from the smaller islands and Venezuela, with three cocoa houses, two sweat boxes and a hospital to treat those injured on the job.
Sookra eventually moved off the estate in pursuit of something better. But he was never far.
He built a home across the road from the cocoa trees, finding a wife (Mary) and bringing up his three children on the income he made working on the Department of Agriculture’s project in Waller Field, testing the milk and helping deliver the calves of the Holstein-Zebu cross-breed of cattle.
But it is that grand estate house, the centre point of the cocoa plantation and of the village that Sookra wants you to know about.
The house still stands. It was already there when Sookra was born in 1927. The roof in some places caved in, pigeons have done damage to the ceiling and floors, and a fire has consumed some of the wood in the veranda that wraps around the front of the building.
Sookra remembers when it was the “most lovely” place in the village. The house, built on massive concrete pillars, always had a fresh coat of white paint, the surrounding yard planted with pangola grass for the cattle and horses, including the favourite of the estate owner that Sookra knew to own the place, Englishwoman Mary Gordon, who rode a white horse through the estate.
A meandering segment of the Tumpuna River, which connects with the Caroni several kilometres to the northwest, flows through the plantation and provided a year-round supply of water. Back then, the compound was impeccably maintained, the floors of the homes so highly polished that you could see your reflection, with quarters for the servants and a butler, and nearby store houses for the produce and equipment.
The cocoa industry (which peaked in the 1920s, went into irreversible decline as a result of a worldwide glut, rise in sugar price, and local disease, and many plantation owners would be financially ruined, along with some cocoa-based villages that languish to this day.
The estate would be sold to George and Margaret Bovell, who own nearby Malabar Farms in Carapo, the couple well known for their thoroughbred horses, successful meat business, and the grandson who became an Olympic medallist.
Margaret, familiarly known as “Peggy”, died on Boxing Day last year at age 91.
The plantation remained profitable from the citrus that replaced the cocoa, with the house being occupied by the overseer and his family.
Cousins Elliot Rebiero, 67, and Elma Samuel, 66, who moved to the village as children, recalled a place of opulence, the garden with countless varieties of flowering plants and a building set aside for the anthuriums.
The house would have the first television in the area, with an invitation to the village to come over on a Friday evening to watch the American western dramas Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
In the 70s, the citrus export industry would also go into a long decline as a result of disease, high wage costs and old trees, and the estate would turn to dairy farming. It would eventually be sold to a labour union with intentions of developing the land for housing and agriculture. It has since been sold again.
The last time someone lived there was about 20 years ago.
Sookra’s life has come full circle. He is back on the estate, having been hired by the new owner as caretaker. He knows every trail and boundary line. He plants a portion of the land. There is still a lot of cocoa trees and banana. Recently, the brush cutters cleared a wall of trees, revealing the plantation once again.
The new owner was interested in restoring the place, but it may be too far gone for the building, Sookra said.
Whether it will happen will depend as much on money as it will about preserving the past. Sookra would love to see the place return to its glory days.
The land on which the estate house still stands was originally acquired by the Lange family, one of the French clans that came here during the Cedula of Population from 1783 which gave lands to Catholic slave owning settlers. According to historian/author Angelo Bissessarsingh, the family had lands in south Trinidad including shares in sugar plantations. In 1828, a daughter of the family, Mother Mary Lange, was a nun in Baltimore running a school for black children, and a pioneer in abolitionist and civil rights. The most infamous of the family however was Eugene Lange (1824-1899) who was known as Le Diable (the Devil). He lived at Oropouche and owned Otaheite Estate and Bellevue Estate. He was many things, bon vivant and philanderer and was challenged to a duel by Louis Le Roy, a Corsican whose sister Marie, Eugene had deflowered and then dumped. Lange was staunchly Catholic and once sprayed the Anglican minister of the village with horse urine from a syringe. He was married to a modest woman named Rosella (1832-1906). Captain GE Lange was a member of the Royal Air Force in World War I. The Langes married into several notable families and were best remembered as the owners of Lange Park which was developed as an upscale residential neighbourhood in Chaguanas in the 1980s and Lange 80, which is a major importer of automotive spares, and the dealer for Powermaster and Track batteries.
NOTE – The Express found out about this house from the Facebook postings of Ancil Anthony Lynch and Nivienne Abraham who were fascinated by the place and wanted to know more of its history.