The grave of George Johnson

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The secrets of the Cedar Hill grave

...belongs to patriarch of long-dead, rich, plantation-owning family...

By Richard Charan richard.charan@trinidadexpress.com

Part II
THERE are two cemeteries three kilometres apart in a forgotten part of Upper Manzanilla that outsiders would find it difficult to locate.
The burial grounds date from a time when the area’s lucrative cocoa industry lured migrants looking for work and who ended up staying, to live and die on the east coast of Trinidad.
The plots are smothered most of the year by a tangle of vines that county council workers make an extra effort to defeat each November, to reveal the grave markers in time for relatives to visit their ancestors on All Saints Day.
The graves are simple, many unmarked, some with crosses, others with only a name and date of death. Rising above them all is a mausoleum enclosing the burial chamber of a man, the only such elaborate tomb at either the Cedar Hill Road, or North Manzanilla Road public cemeteries.
Beat back the bush, pull open the steel doors, and you find a cool tiled interior, empty except for graffiti, and a cross bearing the inscription Sacred To The Memory Of Our Dear Father, Geo Johnson, died 23rd April 1931. Aged 71 Years. But this tomb is visited by no family.
According to those who have researched it, this is the grave of former Indian indentured labourer George Johnson, also known as George Boodhoo, who a century ago would become the most important man in the village of Comparo, with his 300 acres of cocoa planted on the Santa Rita Estate, and a great house built into the hillside near the site of the present-day Manzanilla Secondary School.
Johnson, said to have once been a Hindu pundit and mystic, chose to purchase property instead of the return trip to India, buying forest land at an acre a pound, and settling in an area that had a mix of white creole planters, coloured proprietors and other former indentured immigrants.
Johnson would sire three children with his wife, who had some Amerindian blood and was believed to have come from Venezuela. The children were sons George Emerson Johnson and Albert Alfred “Popo” Johnson, and daughter Behemia “Maraquita” Johnson.
The siblings also had a half-brother, Errol Charles, who was born of a relationship between George Johnson and the family maid, Emily Alexander, in that house which still stands alongside the adjacent overseer’s house, and a building where the horses and stableman lived.
That these buildings survived a century is testament to the quality of the wood and workmanship. However, all that remains of the cocoa-drying houses are the concrete posts, and the rotted beams of the barracks that housed the workers which can still be found in the abandoned plantation surrounding the houses. But during the height of “King Cocoa”, hundreds would have worked to plant, tend, harvest, transport, dance, dry, and bag the beans before they were taken by cart to the bay for loading on to the coastal steamer at a time when Trinidad was the world’s third-largest producer.
Lording over it all was plantation owner Johnson, so rich that his nickname was “Money”, who had the first horse and buggy and, later, the first car in the village.
From the stories passed down by the elders, Johnson was considered by some as cold and unsympathetic, with one former Cunapo Village resident (now in his 50s) recollecting a story told by his grandfather, a devout Christian, who lost his cocoa crop to the Witch Broom disease, and who went in the late 1920s to the great house of old man Johnson seeking employment. Johnson took one look at the man, turned him away, and told him to never set foot on his property, because he had no employment for such people.
Lennox Roberts, 88, a lifetime resident of Manzanilla North Road, recalled working the plantations (“when big man working for less than two bobs a day”) near the Johnson estate and of his encounter with Ma Johnson (short for madam). He remembered as a child being encouraged to steal pawpaw on the Johnson estate and caught by workers who took him to the “Big House” with its wallpaper-covered cedar walls, paintings, and “expensive-looking” furniture, and into a room no outsider saw.
“They carried me to Ma Johnson. How I was scared and cried and cried. I thought it was the end. I never came close to this place before. She hit me some belt, and the next day she came to my school (Comparo Government, which no longer exists) and told the head master, Mr Granderson.
“I get two set of licks,” said Roberts.
Roberts, who apprenticed as a mechanic in the then-tiny village of Sangre Grande as a 15-year-old, also recalled marvelling at the cars the Johnsons would own over the years, the last one being a British-manufactured Vauxhall Velox LIP.
But for reasons lost to time, none of the Johnson children had children of their own, growing old in that old house built in an uncommon style, without the broad wrap-around verandah of the time, adding to the mystery and the tales told about those moving about behind the hedgerow and wooden louvres.
Behemia Johnson would end up being the last Johnson to die, on August 12, 1983. She, too, for several years lived as a virtual recluse in that home, keeping company with only a few. The people of Manzanilla knew her by that name, Maraquita. You couldn’t cut some grass for your goat across the road from the house, for she would appear and run you off, they said.
Try stealing a fruit, and there she would be. And as she travelled to and from that home in that Vauxhall, driven by Roy Austin (whom she would marry in her later years) Behemia had no time for the people of Manzanilla, they said. But Behemia had a secret life far different from what existed in Comparo, which very few knew–that of a “high society” lady in Port of Spain.
And 31 years after her death, there still survives evidence of an amazing talent she learned as a child. And it also turns out that there is a blood relation who has spent years researching the lives of the Johnsons–Cleville Morris, whose father, Errol Charles, was the offspring of old man Johnson and the family maid.
What Morris has found out is both incredible and dispiriting.
Next week: The legacy of Behemia “Maraquita” Johnson and the Cleville Morris connection.

NOTE - If you want to learn more about the country's Colonial-era graveyards and the amazing history they contain, you should read the book by historian/researcher/writer titled "Walking with the Ancestors – The Historical Cemeteries of Trinidad".
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