MYSTERIOUS: James Jagroop holding the sword, still in its wooden scabbard, shortly after he found it while fishing off the seawall at Mosquito Creek in February 2011.
A sword from the sea
Fisherman snags relic from mid-19th century India
Richard Charan email@example.com
THE battered seawall along Mosquito Creek, which links La Romaine to South Oropouche, is a relatively safe and accessible spot for those fishing as recreation. No one has yet been struck by a vehicle speeding along the South Trunk Road, and it’s too shallow to drown, if sober. So on weekends, many line the coast of the Gulf of Paria, hoping to snag catfish, and, if really lucky, snapper.
And that’s what James Jagroop was doing two years ago, when he landed a catch mysterious and intriguing. He had been there for hours without a bite. One final time he threw his fishing line maybe 20 metres off the seawall then began reeling in, ready to call it a day. Only to realise he had snagged something heavy.
What he thought was a fish big enough for his planned broth turned out to be a sword, still in its wooden scabbard, encrusted with barnacles. So Jagroop did what any treasure finder would — he looked around for marauders, packed up his gear, and headed home to secure his prize.
Those who have heard of the discovery marvel over how the sword came to be there, and for how long it may have remained undisturbed on the seabed before a hook no larger than a pin snagged the hilt of the most unlikely of catches.
However, there are some familiar with Trinidad’s history who, while astounded by the sheer improbability of the find, know that it’s quite possible for a sword to be lying around, given how many vessels have been navigating the Gulf of Paria for hundreds of years, so far back that it is beyond the imagination of many today.
So consider this. Almost 200 years before the water taxi service linking San Fernando to Port of Spain, people were being ferried about.
Trinidad had a Round the Island service (established in 1818 by Governor Sir Ralph Woodford), with steam-powered vessels making ports of call that included Port of Spain, Couva, Claxton Bay, Pointe-a-Pierre, San Fernando, La Brea, Point Fortin, Cedros, Erin, Moruga, Mayaro, Toco, and Matelot, in addition to stops in between, to service the estates of the big planters, where people and produce would be dropped off and picked up. And long before the oil and gas freighters, there were the ships anchoring off the major ports to be loaded with sugar, cocoa, coffee, and tobacco, for transport to Europe.
It turns out, according to historian Angelo Bissessarsingh, that the area near which the sword was found was a hive of commercial activity in the 19th century, with both sugar and cocoa plantations in production.
St Mary’s Village (located as you turn towards Fyzabad off the South Trunk Road, South Oropouche) was then an important settlement and served as the administrative centre for the ward of Oropouche. Back then, the area had a courthouse and police station (a new one is currently being constructed), but its influence began waning when the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) extended its service to Siparia in 1931. The nearby embacadere, or shipping place, located at the mouth of the Godineau River, was a major growth factor for St Mary’s, since the river was navigable for many miles. The actual name of the river is the South Oropouche but is known as the Godineau River as a result of Jean-Paul Godineau, the French owner of the nearby St John’s Estate through which the river ran.
In the 1840s, Godineau opened a navigable channel to the sea (the river mouth is near the Shore of Peace cremation site), allowing vessels to travel upriver. Prior to this, the dense mangrove (which has since closed several channels) made sailing the lower part of the river almost impossible. On the other end of the creek was the Bellevue estate, which historians record as one of the first to receive Indian immigrants to work the fields (Indentureship lasted between 1845-1917).
Bissessarsingh believes that the blade, which Jagroop used to chop down a tree in his front yard to check how sharp it was, is an early to mid-19th century sabre carried by officers of the British Raj, a period in India’s history when it was governed by its British conquerors (1858-1947). The quality is not high, note the experts, as commissioned officers would have carried a sword with brass pommels (the counterweight at the end of the hilt), and of higher ornamental value.
Jagroop’s sword would have been carried by a sergeant or lieutenant of the non-commissioned ranks, or a native soldier.
The truth of how it came to be there is lost to history, but there are some plausible explanations that will blow your mind. Bissessarsingh suggested that the sword may have been lost during to loading or unloading of passengers and goods at the Godineau River, Embacadere.
Or try this. The Bellevue Estate (where several barrack houses still exist) would have received a few ex-sepoys — Indian soldiers serving under British command in India during colonial rule. History records that between 1857-59, the sepoys of British India revolted and the mutiny put down after several sieges and battles. The result was the transfer of the administration of India from the East India Company to the British Crown.
Some of these ex-sepoys would have fled India as a result of their involvement, bringing these swords to be passed down as heirlooms.
Jagroop has since lost the wooden scabbard. However, he has cared for the sword well. And while curious about its history, has no plans to offer it to a museum. It’s the ultimate fisherman’s tale, he says.
Author John Henry Collens, in his book A Guide to Trinidad, describes his trip from Port of Spain to San Fernando in 1888, on his way to La Brea and places further south. Having arrived in San Fernando, he wrote, “Passengers having been landed and others received on board, round go the paddles, and you are soon ploughing the waves again in a south-westerly direction. Leaving behind the hospital, distinguishable through the trees on the brow of the rocks, you pass the Cipero River, a short distance up with its Embacadere, an important shipping place before the days of railways, and even now of great utility to the Colonial Company, who have purchased it. A second shipping place, Alley’s Creek, separates Mr Lamont’s Palmiste estate from La Flaiscmce (Mr G Turnbull). A third inlet, Mosquito Creek, is the northern entrance to the Oropouche Lagoon, a grand spot for aquatic and other birds. The southern outlet of the Lagoon is Godineau’s River, which is in a great measure a canal, originally cut by a French gentleman, M Godineau. After Bellevue estate (Messrs Tennant) is St Mary’s Village, off which the steamer will stop to pick up or drop off passengers. From this village a road branches off from the main Oropouche road, running southward to the famous Siparia Mission”.