Palmyra’s grand old house
Built in 1920s, dwelling a village landmark
Richard Charan Multimedia Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
EATON Centre is a mall in Toronto, Canada, so ridiculously big that it’s impossible to shop the entire place without becoming exhausted or going broke. It is the city’s top tourist destination, with a million or so people walking through each week.
And that’s what Trinidadian Swaran Sigoolam Maharaj was doing back in the 70s when he came upon the most unlikely thing on sale.
On display in a small bookstore in a country as different from tropical Trinidad as one could possibly get was a postcard with the photograph of Maharaj’s childhood home at Palmyra Village, near San Fernando.
Apparently, someone had stopped along the Naparima/Mayaro Road and captured a photo of the family’s house, and made it into a view card.
Maharaj, who was studying at a university in Canada at the time, recalls feeling pride that the house, constructed in the 1920s, would be considered so worthy. So he brought the postcard home and gave it to the staff at the National Museum in Port of Spain, to ensure there would be a permanent record in the event the home was demolished.
Almost 40 years later, the home still stands solid, having survived a period where the old and wooden was considered ugly and inferior, and the modern meant building out of brick and steel, with a second storey and two porches.
There is a reason why this old house has been so meticulously maintained, and with so few alterations that it is deserving of being listed by the National Trust as a heritage property of interest, according to the Citizens for Conservation Trinidad and Tobago. (See sidebar)
There is also a deeply personal story in this house in Palmyra. It is in those four bedrooms that Sigoolam Maharaj (1900-1974) and wife Rookmin Amarsingh (1902-1979) raised ten children while building a real estate and business empire.
This history is now being researched by genealogist Shamshu Deen, using the vivid memory of one of the family’s oldest surviving members Ragbir Maharaj (to whom the house was bequeathed) and Ragbir’s son, Swaran, who discovered that postcard in Canada all those years ago, and considers it important that the family, now dispersed across the world, fully appreciates where it all began.
Ragbir, 85, the son of Sigoolam, knows the house well, since he was born around the time it was built, and raised his family there with wife Deokie, whom he wed in 1954. He said, “I was told the house was already built in 1928, the year I was born. And told that while a baby creeping along the floor and there was a lighted lamp that I pulled down and almost burnt the house down”.
By the time of Ragbir’s birth, his parents (they married when Rookmin was 11 years old) already had five children, and would have four more by 1939. The family by then was one of the most affluent in the district with Sigoolam (son of indentured labourers Deonarine Gosine and Pholgarie Maharaj) buying and selling land, amassing vast tracts of cocoa and coffee, mortgaging some to buy more, with properties in Moruga , Penal and San Fernando.
A shrewd businessman, Sigoolam also operated the Paramount bus service (long before PTSC) that covered the Penal to Barrackpore and Princes Town to San Fernando routes in the 40s and 50s. And when that became unprofitable, he bought a fleet of Fords and Chevrolets and opened a taxi service.
The properties in Princes Town, for which the family is best known, were purchased around 1945, and there was a time when almost every building from the police station to the marketplace at Cacique Street, was owned by one of the Sigoolam sons (Ragbir, Harrinanan, Sinanan, Sooknanan, Harrinarine).
Despite the family fortune, the boys got their education, said Ragbir. The family was Hindu but five of the boys attended the (Presbyterian) Naparima College in San Fernando, with one, Sukbir Maharaj (1925-2005), spending his career there as a teacher, and Suedath Maharaj (1931-1996) becoming a medical doctor.
And as with many families, recalled Ragbir, there was one sibling whose life would be full of promise but end in tragedy—the brilliant Harrichan Maharaj (born 1930) who went to England to study law but who ended up gambling away his inheritance on greyhound dog racing. The patriarch called him back home and gave him a chance to redeem himself but in the end, Harrichan could not overcome the addiction, and returned without a degree, to an unfulfilled life, dying in a temple next door to the family home in 1996. So now it’s left up to Ragbir and two surviving siblings, Samdai (born 1922), and Bissoondai, a retired social worker (born 1933), to tell the story of the Sigoolam clan, before the memories fade. There will be a book and it will be the official record. But it is that old house that will be the tangible evidence of the family’s past, should members need a reminder. Ragbir said he had honoured his father’s wish that the home be kept. And Ragbir now had the promise of his son, businessman Satnarine Maharaj (who lives in the modern structure that is attached to the back of the old house) that long after he was gone, the place would be preserved, as the Sigoolam family’s legacy.
THIS VILLAGE CALLED PALMYRA
Historian Angelo Bissessarsingh has been researching the origin of the village. Borassus (Palmyra Palm) is a genus of six species of fan palms, native to tropical regions of Africa, Asia and New Guinea. They are tall palms, capable of growing up to 30 m high (98 ft). Bissessarsingh said a number of these were the striking feature of a sugar estate between San Fernando and Princes Town whose early history is yet unknown. Bissessarsingh said “This estate named after the trees-Palmyra- seems to have come into existence in the 1810s in a time when much of the rolling lands of the Naparimas was being converted to sugarcane by the toil of thousands of slaves. Palmyra may have originally been part of a land grant made to the French coloured Phillippe family but by 1840 it had passed to an Englishman named Taylor who was Commandant of the Quarter of North Naparima, an old Spanish administrative division”. According to Bissessarisngh’s findings, the estate was abandoned for some time after Taylor’s death following a fall from a horse (a ruined tombstone near the Palmyra SDMS School may be the remains of an elegant monument erected to his memory) and remained so until the 1880s when it was acquired by William Date (1852-1907) son of a white Grenadian woman and an English father”. Margaret Date (1829-1888) was one of the grand old ladies of the Naparima sugar belt and was known for her cocktail parties at the large, rambling wooden estate house of her son which once stood near the present junction in Palmyra. Date turned the abandoned sugar fields into a productive plantation but also diversified into cattle and created a stock-farm which produced excellent beef and dairy animals. A keen marksman, Date allocated a piece of land as a range for the Naparima Rifle Association. His cows won several awards in the annual agricultural exhibitions at the Prince’s Building grounds in POS. After his death, the plantation passed to his sons William Jr (1888-1953) and Hugh (1890-1960) who managed it in conjunction with their brother in law, Laurie Trestrail (1891-1949) who was married to their sister Ivy (1885-1955) . Laurie was a well-known and jovial manager of a large San Fernando hardware store. The estate began to fail and soon passed out of the family which lost it sometime after WWII ended in 1945. The Dates were staunch churchgoers and pillars of the St. Clement’s Anglican Church.
THE OLD HOUSE
President of the Citizens for Conservation group Rudylyn De Fours Roberts examined photographs of the house and noted that the fretwork in lacy patterns above the windows and doors and the fretwork used to filter sunlight from the verandah and showed the influence of 19th century Scottish architect George Brown, who designed many of the buildings following the Great Fire of Port of Spain in 1891, and whose “gingerbread” houses are considered some of the most beautiful in Trinidad.
She said the Sigoolam home was a good example of vernacular architecture, where no professional architect was employed, but instead master craftsmen were commissioned. It turns out that De Fours Roberts was correct.
The Sigoolam family says that much of the woodworking was done by carpenters Fitzroy McLean, of Palmyra (who died in May 2009) and John Nibbs, of Keate Street, San Fernando (who died in 2003). And the very best wood was used, coming from the family’s estate at La Lune, Moruga, which it still owns to this day.
The carpenters, born in St Vincent, carved each piece of fretwork by hand, and the makers’ mark is still evident despite countless coats of paint.