STILL STANDING: The Cascade home of Behemia
Mariquita Johnson. —Photos: DAVE PERSAD
Mariquita’s mysterious life
Last of Johnson clan died a recluse in 1983
Richard Charan email@example.com
FOR more than a century, that estate house at Comparo Village has been watching over the affairs of Manzanilla, and the development and decline of its plantation economy.
The great house was already there when the “road” from the then-tiny village of Sangre Grande was just a horse trail leading to the east coast, and indentured immigrants were still being shipped to Trinidad to work the fields.
It was the centre of operations during cocoa’s peak in the 1920s, when scores of people worked the 300-acre plantation, coming to a back door to be paid their pittance by owner George Johnson.
In that house Johnson raised three children with his Venezuelan migrant wife, fathered a fourth with a servant, and earned the reputation of a stone-hearted overlord with the power to use black magic and “turn beast”.
Old man Johnson, himself a former indentured immigrant whose wife survived him by two decades, would make the family fabulously wealthy by the time he died at age 71 in 1931, two years before a hurricane devastated Trinidad and around the time cocoa began its terminal decline from disease and low prices.
Other estates would go bankrupt and be abandoned, the demise accelerated by the build-up to World War II when the labourers chose to work for the Americans to establish a facility in Manzanilla (where 1,200 soldiers were prepared for jungle warfare in Burma and all but two would die), and build that air base at nearby Wallerfield.
But still the great house, built from the area’s finest cedar and mahogany, stood solid and straight, with Johnson’s sons George and Albert keeping the business going until they, too, died.
It meant that everything went to surviving sister, Behemia Mariquita Johnson, given a rare name from the Middle Ages, and a second name meaning “lady bug” in Spanish.
And it is Mariquita, for all the wrong reasons, who became part of enduring village lore – imagined into a witch-like caricature, cursed with childlessness, lurking behind shuttered windows, refusing to meet face-to-face with the hired help, travelling through the village in her Vauxhall Velox motorcar but acknowledging no one, paying wages to workers through a trap door in the verandah, carrying on no conversation with the “commoners”, staying up late into the night, alone in the attic to do-only-the-devil-knows what.
Mariquita died in 1983. She was in her 80s. Few acknowledged her passing since she had left the great house months before and never came back.
But there are still some people alive who knew the real Mariquita, and what they tell of her is sure to change the opinion of the people of Comparo.
Cleville Morris, whose father was the child born of that relationship between old man Johnson and the family maid, remembered his aunt being a recluse who kept few friends. Morris, who along with two siblings, may be the closest blood relatives of the Johnsons, recalled passing by that great house as a lad on his way home from school, to hear Mariquita yelling at children to stop throwing stones at her trees, but who would sometimes call him to the house to offer him fruits.
He also recalled working at her cocoa house selecting beans at 60 cents a day, and as a pump attendant at Marlay Gas Station where she would pull up in the Vauxhall being driven by “Mr Roy” and sometimes give him a tip with the warning “don’t steal boy, be honest”. Mariquita was already old then, and there is no one who can remember her when she was young.
In her 70s, Mariquita would marry the man who for years was her companion and driver — Roy Austin. The two would often be seen travelling out of the village, headed to Riverside Road, Cascade, Port of Spain, where, unknown to most Comparo villagers, the Johnsons also had a home. Austin died in the late 70s, leaving Mariquita alone again.
Estate caretaker Joseph Alexander, 79, said he came to live on the property in early 1981, hired by Elmo Westfield, who had leased some of Mariquita’s land with the intention of redeveloping the cocoa plantation.
Alexander, who still lives on the estate’s overseer’s house, remembered, “She would share her time between Cascade and here. But she could not walk too well so when the car brought her, I would lift her out and carry her to a rocking chair inside, where she would be able walk about the house. People would say she was a miserable person. Some people were afraid to even pass on the road outside. That could not be true. We had a good relationship. We were never close, but she was always good to me.”
But it is this Elmo Westfield, now 81 years old, who believes he knows why Mariquita appeared odd to so many. Westfield befriended her in the 70s, and the two became close friends. Quite simply, the woman was brilliant, he said. And the proof of it, is what she left behind.
Mariquita’s talent revealed