SEVEN years ago, Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Princes Town made national news for all the wrong reasons.
Parishioners turned up for a fund-raiser one afternoon to find that the church bell, which had been sitting in the front yard while the building was being renovated, was gone.
It would have taken at least four godless people to cart away the 400-kilogramme brass bell which was stamped with the foundry marking “James Duff” and a 19th century date of manufacture in the United Kingodm.
The trail of the thieves led to the nearby, and often-suspected, “old train line” in Princes Town. But the act of sacrilege was never punished and the bell was likely melted down for its copper content and sold to a scrap dealer for export.
A piece of Trinidad’s colonial-era history could have ended up as a TV component in China.
The church is back in the news, but this time it’s all good.
Last week, an amazing discovery was made on the church’s property at Cacique Street, a half-kilometre south of the town triangle.
It happened when authorities decided to demolish the old presbytery, which is close to 100 years old, since a new building had been constructed for use by the priest and administration.
Those who saw the presbytery being torn down considered it a sad end to another of the town’s iconic buildings, which, like others across the country, are being replaced instead of restored.
However, the demolition exposed, for the first time in a century, the bare earth beneath the structure. And that’s when curator of the Moruga Museum, Eric Lewis, showed up with his trowel and began poking around in the dirt.
Lewis, from his research, knew that there were very interesting things buried under that house and the surrounding asphalt and concrete parking lot.
Lewis, who is head of the Catholic-based St Vincent Ferrer Society, crawled under the rotten floor boards of the building, even as the demolition gang was working above, and dug a pit about 30 centimetres deep.
What emerged was evidence of Princes Town’s history, dating back to when it all belonged to the Amerindians, the first people here before the island’s European rediscovery, African enslavement and Indian indentureship.
In fact, here so long that evidence of their presence has been dated to 7,000 years ago.
Among the archaeological treasures found by Lewis were shards of pottery formed by the hands of the first people and the bones and teeth of the quenk and agouti they ate.
Also found on the hilltop site was what appeared to be bits of human remains (a vertebra here, a bit of jaw there) and hundreds of conch, clam and oyster shells, which researchers know was a dietary staple of the Amerindians of that time.
Mixed in among the artefacts was evidence of the European conquerors—salt glazed plates and jars, clay pipes, square nails, broken bits of glass that came from bottles hundreds of years old, and charcoal—evidence of long-ago fires.
What Lewis unearthed was evidence of the original Mission of Savannah Grande, which dates back more than 300 years.
Historian/writer Angelo Bissessarsingh, who researched how the Mission (the original name of Princes Town) came to be, wrote that on October 15, 1697, three Capuchin monks set out from St Joseph by boat and landed on the banks of the Guaracara River, near where Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery operations now exists.
They found an assembly of 150 chiefs who were told of the plan to convert the Amerindians to Christianity in the name of the King of Spain.
The following day, an elevated site was selected inland where a hut was built and dedicated to the Annunciation of Nazareth. This was the site of Holy Cross RC Church and cemetery, and around which the Amerindians would wither and die within a few generations.
English priest, professor and author Charles Kingsley wrote, following his visit to Trinidad in 1869: “By the end of the seventeenth century there were but fifteen pueblos, or Indian towns, in the island; and the smallpox had made fearful ravages among them. Though they were not forced to work as slaves, a heavy capitation tax, amounting, over most of the island, to two dollars a head, was laid on them almost to the end of the last century. There seems to have been no reason in the nature of things why they should not have kept up their numbers; for the island was still, nineteen-twentieths of it, rich primeval forest. It may have been that they could not endure the confined life in the pueblos, or villages, to which they were restricted by law. But, from some cause or other, they died out, and that before far inferior numbers of invaders. In 1783, when the numbers of the whites were only 126, of the free coloured 295, and of the slaves 310, the Indians numbered only 2032.”
Another English author, Henry Nelson Coleridge, wrote, following a visit in 1825: “Every one who goes to Trinidad should make a point of visiting the Indian missions of Arima and Savana Grande. They are wholly unlike anything which I had ever seen before, and differ as much from the negro yard on the one hand as they do from a European-built town on the other. The village of Savana Grande consisted chiefly of two rows of houses in parallel lines with a spacious street or promenade between them, over which there was so little travelling that the green grass was growing luxuriantly upon it. Each house is insulated by an interval of ten or fifteen feet on either side, they are large and lofty, and being beautifully constructed of spars of Bamboo, and thatched with palm branches, they are always ventilated in the most agreeable manner. A projection of the roof in front is supported by posts, and forms a shady gallery, under which the Indians will sit for hours together in motionless silence. They seem to be the identical race of people whose forefather Columbus discovered, and the Spaniards worked to death in Hispaniola. They are short in stature (none that I saw exceeding five feet and six inches), yellow in complexion, their eyes dark, their hair long, lank, and glossy as a raven’s wing; they have a remarkable space between the nostrils and the upper lip, and a breadth and massiveness between the shoulders that would do credit to the Farnese Hercules. Their hands and feet, however, are small-boned and delicately shaped. Nothing seems to affect them like other men; neither joy nor sorrow, anger nor curiosity, take any hold of them. Both mind and body are drenched in the deepest apathy; the children lie quietly on their mothers’ bosoms; silence is in their dwellings and idlest in all their ways.
“The number of Indians at Savana Grande is: Men 43, Women 56, Boys 64, Girls, 66.”
By the 1840s, the Mission (renamed Princes Town in 1880) was all but gone, the Amerindians having died out. And, according to Bisssessarisngh, the old church building, constructed in 1870, was replaced in 1998, with the original Mission settlement lost under the asphalt and concrete and modern construction.
The items found over the past two weeks, with the help of student volunteers of San Fernando West Secondary School, will go on public display at the church this weekend. The find is priceless, but it’s unlikely the bell thieves will be interested.
NOTE: Anyone wishing to help
Eric Lewis recover and catalogue the
artefacts can contact him at