Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Great House of Johnson Hill


A rear view of the Johnson family house at Comparo, Manzanilla. PHOTO: Dexter Philip

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ONCE A FEARLESS STICKFIGHTER: Joseph Alexander, who now lives in what was once the overseer’s house on the cocoa plantation of George Johnson at Comparo, Manzanilla.



The abandoned overseer's house and cocoa storage building now occupied by Joseph Alexander and his family.

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Members of Joseph Alexander's family who have made a life in the abandoned once occupied by the overseer of the Johnson cocoa estate.

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A scale used to weigh the cocoa

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Separate quarters for the horse, and cocoa estate workers

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The hilltop house at Johnson Hill hidden behind the trees.

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Part 1:

THE East Trinidad villages between Manzanilla and Mayaro had as many douens, lagahoos and soucouyants as there were undead people.

At least that’s the story told by the elders, which filled the mind of Joseph Alexander as a child growing up in Plum Mitan in the 1930s and 40s.

There were so many “jumbies” floating around at night, they told him, that people welcomed the full moon night light in those days before electricity, a lesser chance of being sucked, possessed or led astray.

Many were also scared of making the road trip to Sangre Grande, not daring to even look as they hustled past the beautiful but foreboding estate house at Johnson Hill in the village of Comparo, Manzanilla, since it was the reputed source of supernatural events, and mysterious occupants hidden by the hedgerow, who could “turn beast”, literally.

Alexander never believed a word of it. He said he did his own paranormal research, cycling from cinema at 1 a.m. and passing the house without so much as a garlic clove in his pocket, hoping to see the ghost horse. Or checking his girl late at night near the old quarry in forested Biche, close where the evil Mano Benjamin would later commit his crimes, and where plenty lagahoos were said to inhabit.

“Not once did I see a candle fly bigger than a candle fly. Not a single thing. And I think I going to die never seeing a thing,” Alexander said rather dejectedly during an interview with the Express last week.

Unsurprisingly, Alexander would grow up to become a fearless stickfighter (with the Sangre Grande gayelle), going by the name Silver Fox and travelling the country putting licks on others, with two broken fingers and one “buss head” among his war injuries.

So when, 33 years ago, Alexander was offered the job of being the caretaker by the owner of that same spooky estate on which the great house and its many empty buildings were located, he took it despite friends’ warning that he would be hounded out the place by unseen things.

Alexander, 79, is still there, having raised a family in one of those buildings once occupied by the overseer, managing what was almost 300 acres of cocoa on the Santa Maria Estate.

What Alexander does not know is that the place he has come to live in for the past 30 years has a history tumbling back more than 200 years.

The plantations on the area date to the time of the Cedula of Population in the final years of the 18th century, when then Spanish-owned Trinidad granted free land to French royalists coming from other islands, who developed their holdings through African enslavement and later Indian indentureship.

The Manzanilla known today by most is that extensive coconut plantation hugging the coast between Point Radix (near Ortoire Village) and Manzanilla Point, where the road turns inland near where the coconuts first took root along the coast when they washed ashore, from an 18th century schooner wreck offshore.

However, historian/writer Angelo Bissessarsingh said that the cocoa boom, which began in 1870 (high prices and land ownership reform permitting small farmers to prosper), led to the emergence of a part of Manzanilla which few now remember.

This was the cocoa district which stretched from Sangre Grande, a town that practically did not exist before 1898, until the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) extended a line to the sleepy hamlet of Cunapo in order to tap into the growing number of cocoa planters in the district.

Before that, said Bissessarsingh, Manzanilla had to rely on the coastal steamer calling once a week to receive produce, and to deliver goods, passengers and mail.

The cocoa district of Manzanilla was a mixture of white creole planters like the Ganteaume, O’Connor and Knaggs families, but moreso coloured proprietors and numerous former Indentured Indians who had used their five pounds in lieu of a return passage to India (and the end of their indentureship period) to buy forest lands at one pound per acre, which was cleared and planted in cocoa.

The estate on which “Silver Fox” Alexander hopes to die belonged to George Johnson (also known as George Boodoo) and Ma Johnson, who commissioned the buildings that still stand today, including the great house, at what came to be called Johnson Hill.

The heyday of the Johnson house would have been up to 1920 when the price of cocoa collapsed internationally and many estates were strapped for cash. Those which were mortgaged went bankrupt and those who retained their holdings (as did the Johnsons) were forced to downsize dramatically, to the point where they were barely operating.

Another blow came in 1941 when the Bases Agreement was signed and construction of massive Fort Read at Cumuto and the Wallerfield Aerodrome began in preparation for World War II. The Americans were paying $20 a week in a time when that was a good monthly wage for an estate labourer.

What little remained of the cocoa workforce flocked to work for the Yankee dollar, proving to be the death knell of the estates in Manzanilla.

However, the Johnsons’ estate would limp on, until the last surviving member of the clan died in the 1980s, without a direct heir.

Who were the Johnsons? What has become of their estate worth tens of millions of dollars? How did they come to be regarded as highly peculiar? And what became of the things they accumulated over the course of their lives? That is another story.


The House - President of the Citizens for Conservation group Rudylyn De Fours Roberts suggests that the Johnson house dates to around the 1900s . Of the two staircases at the back of the house, one was likely the rear entrance to the house and the other entrance to the overseer's office, where there is a half stable door. The top half would be opened and the workers would come to this door on pay day for their money. The kitchens would have been outside as would the privy. The style suggests a British legacy, with an enclosed verandah at the front. The French and Spanish usually had large open verandahs, she noted. The jalousies (wooden louvres) allowed the occupant to see outside when the windows were closed without the loss of privacy. These jalousie also assisted with air flow into the rooms at night, when the windows were closed. The house is wooden on masonry piers of poured lime mortar or rendered brick/stone. On the piers sits a timber wall plate and the house is framed up from there. The original lapped boards (forming the walls) still exist as can be seen from the width of each board. The timber floor is suspended above the ground to allow air circulation under the house in order to keep the wooden floor structure and floor boards dry. This discourages termites and wood boring insects. The small entrance Porte-cochere (at the front of the house) is for pedestrians only and not large enough for a carriage, said De Four-Roberts, and the columns appear to be turned wood and quite elegant in its prime. Timber fretwork trim add decoration and elegance. The high gable roof is ventilated by dormer and gable end windows to allow air flow, keeping the roof timbers dry and the attic cool. A cool attic helped to keep the rooms beneath cool as well. This would have been a very cool comfortable house, she said, since wood has great insulation properties.