Saturday, February 24, 2018

A house in the sea

Grand residence, built in 1920s, once graced Farallon Rock


NOW: Farallon Rock as it is today. —Photos: RICHARD CHARAN

Mark Fraser


The house built upon Farallon Rock, off San Fernando in a photograph believed to have been taken in 1968 - image courtesy Ram Maraj

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A concrete staircase that once led to the upper floor.

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This image shows the foundation falling away, exposing the original rock. PHOTO by RICHARD CHARAN

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A tamarind tree now grows on Farallon Rock

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What remains of the jetty

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In 1869, noted English novelist, historian, priest and university professor Charles Kingsley travelled across the Atlantic to Trinidad. He came ashore at the quay in Port of Spain (land then being reclaimed) to find a town of 8,000 souls, and “a multitude of people who are doing nothing”.

He would later write about his travels across the island, and other places, in a book titled At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies.

In the book, Kingsley described taking a steamer (a steam-powered ship ) from Port of Spain to San Fernando, “a gay and growing little town, which was, when we took the island in 1795, only a group of huts”.

It was while in the waters off San Fernando that Kingsley took note, and later wrote “I saw, some quarter of a mile out at sea, a single stack of rock, which is said to have been joined to the mainland in the memory of the fathers of this generation; and on shore, composed, I am told, of the same rock, that hill of San Fernando, which forms a beacon by sea and land for many a mile around”.

Kingsley's description of the stack is one of the first records of the existence of what would later come to be known as Farallon Rock (from the Spanish farallon, meaning “cliff” or “pillar”).

Except that the description given by Kingsley would be lost to all who know the Gulf of Paria. That's because for as far back as anyone can remember, there has been no rocky islet off San Fernando. What one sees instead is the unlikely form of a building standing more than a kilometre out to sea, upon which grows a single tree, and behind which is the outline of Venezuela.

Unknown to many is that this foundation was built on the rock, and the base of an impressive home, two storeys above water, in which the area's most affluent frolicked. How the rock came to be claimed as privately owned is uncertain, but building on it would have taken considerable time, and big money. More impressive was the effort involved in taking the construction material out to the site and working with the tides to raise a concrete foundation— which is all that is left.

Historian and author Michael Anthony said he always wondered about the origin of the building, and during the research for his book Anaparima –The History of San Fernando and the Naparimas, he came up with the name Hobson.

It turns out Anthony was correct. The last family in San Fernando to use Farallon Rock as their private paradise was the Mokunds, up until the 70s.

The family acquired the property from the Synes, a family made rich by the entrepreneurship of patriarch Asgaralli Syne, who history records as being the first to start a private bus service (from Siparia to San Fernando, and later to St James) in 1910, a mode of mass transit that would ultimately help lead to the end of passenger train service in Trinidad in the 60s (Syne Village Siparia is named after the family).

The Synes bought the property from another set of prominent San Fernandians—the Gittens family—who were spending their weekends out at sea from as early as the 1940s. The Gittens family owned a dental practice along Pointe-a-Pierre Road (now the site of a newly-built, but abandoned CLICO office), and were also involved in the often despised business of quarrying on the Fernando Hill, which only ended in 1976.

However, it was the Hobson family who had the fortune to undertake the build. The house was likely built in the 1920s by Leonard Manning Hobson, a prominent attorney, who would later become the Mayor of San Fernando (and whose hilltop home at Circular Road, San Fernando, would be acquired by the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union, and used by the famed CLR James for several years).

Kennedy “Kong” Sooklalsingh, 80, who operated the Gittens quarry, recalled boating out to the house to spend the weekend at Farallon. “I would go out with there with my wife and children and Rosemary Gittens, who owned the quarry. We were there in ten minutes. There was electricity from a generator, a caretaker, and a lot of fishing. It was a memorable time”.

Victor Edoo, 70, who was a frequent guest of the Mokunds, said the house sitting in the sea was never considered unusual “since it was there before anyone of us was even born”.

Edoo recalled that his sister and her husband honeymooned at the house, that would also, during the course if its existence, host Easter parties that would rival today's all-inclusives (there were eight bedrooms on the top floor and an open ground floor used as a dance hall).

Anthony, who spent some of his early years in San Fernando, also recalled people swimming out to the rock as a dare (at least one was known to have drowned in the attempt), and the house being used as a turning point for the annual January 1 San Fernando regatta.

But without a permanent resident, the house became a fisherman's hangout, and was vandalised and dismantled over the decades.

Combined with the action of the waves, the foundation has fallen away, exposing in places the original rock that Kingsley described, when he saw it 144 years ago.

Note: Readers with information on the history of Farallon Rock are encouraged to make contact and share what they know.