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At Last by Charles Kingsley

CHAPTER IV: PORT OF SPAIN

The first thing notable, on landing in Port of Spain at the low quay which has been just reclaimed from the mud of the gulf, is the multitude of people who are doing nothing. It is not that they have taken an hour's holiday to see the packet come in. You will find them, or their brown duplicates, in the same places to-morrow and next day. They stand idle in the marketplace, not because they have not been hired, but because they do not want to be hired; being able to live like the Lazzaroni of Naples, on 'Midshipman's half-pay -- nothing a day, and find yourself.' You are told that there are 8000 human beings in Port of Spain alone without visible means of subsistence, and you congratulate Port of Spain on being such an Elysium that people can live there -- not without eating, for every child and most women you pass are eating something or other all day long -- but without working. The fact is, that though they will eat as much and more than a European, if they can get it, they can do well without food; and feed, as do the Lazzaroni, on mere heat and light. The best substitute for a dinner is a sleep under a south wall in the blazing sun; and there are plenty of south walls in Port of Spain. In the French islands, I am told, such Lazzaroni are caught up and set to Government work, as 'strong rogues and masterless men,' after the ancient English fashion. But is such a course fair? If a poor man neither steals, begs, nor rebels (and these people do not do the two latter), has he not as much right to be idle as a rich man? To say that neither has a right to be idle is, of course, sheer socialism, and a heresy not to be tolerated.

Next, the stranger will remark, here as at Grenada, that every one he passes looks strong, healthy, and well-fed. One meets few or none of those figures and faces, small, scrofulous, squinny, and haggard, which disgrace the so-called civilisation of a British city. Nowhere in Port of Spain will you see such human beings as in certain streets of London, Liverpool, or Glasgow. Every one, plainly, can live and thrive if they choose; and very pleasant it is to know that.

The road leads on past the Custom-house; and past, I am sorry to say, evil smells, which are too common still in Port of Spain, though fresh water is laid on from the mountains. I have no wish to complain, especially on first landing, of these kind and hospitable citizens. But as long as Port of Spain -- the suburbs especially -- smells as it does after sundown every evening, so long will an occasional outbreak of cholera or yellow fever hint that there are laws of cleanliness and decency which are both able and ready to avenge themselves. You cross the pretty 'Marine Square,' with its fountain and flowering trees, and beyond them on the right the Roman Catholic Cathedral, a stately building, with Palmistes standing as tall sentries round; soon you go up a straight street, with a glimpse of a large English church, which must have been still more handsome than now before its tall steeple was shaken down by an earthquake. The then authorities, I have been told, applied to the Colonial Office for money to rebuild it: but the request was refused; on the ground, it may be presumed, that whatever ills Downing Street might have inflicted on the West Indies, it had not, as yet, gone so far as to play the part of Poseidon Ennosigaeus.

Next comes a glimpse, too, of large -- even too large -- Government buildings, brick-built, pretentious, without beauty of form. But, however ugly in itself a building may be in Trinidad, it is certain, at least after a few years, to look beautiful, because embowered among noble flowering timber trees, like those that fill 'Brunswick Square,' and surround the great church on its south side.

Under cool porticoes and through tall doorways are seen dark 'stores,' filled with all manner of good things from Britain or from the United States. These older-fashioned houses, built, I presume, on the Spanish model, are not without a certain stateliness, from the depth and breadth of their chiaroscuro. Their doors and windows reach almost to the ceiling, and ought to be plain proofs, in the eyes of certain discoverers of the 'giant cities of Bashan,' that the old Spanish and French colonists were nine or ten feet high apiece. On the doorsteps sit Negresses in gaudy print dresses, with stiff turbans (which are, according to this year's fashion, of chocolate and yellow silk plaid, painted with thick yellow paint, and cost in all some four dollars), all aiding in the general work of doing nothing: save where here and there a hugely fat Negress, possibly with her 'head tied across' in a white turban (sign of mourning), sells, or tries to sell, abominable sweetmeats, strange fruits, and junks of sugar-cane, to be gnawed by the dawdlers in mid-street, while they carry on their heads everything and anything, from half a barrow-load of yams to a saucer or a beer-bottle. We never, however, saw, as Tom Cringle did, a Negro carrying a burden on his chin.

I fear that a stranger would feel a shock -- and that not a slight one -- at the first sight of the average negro women of Port of Spain, especially the younger. Their masculine figures, their ungainly gestures, their loud and sudden laughter, even when walking alone, and their general coarseness, shocks, and must shock. It must be remembered that this is a seaport town; and one in which the licence usual in such places on both sides of the Atlantic is aggravated by the superabundant animal vigour and the perfect independence of the younger women. It is a painful subject. I shall touch it in these pages as seldom and as lightly as I can. There is, I verily believe, a large class of Negresses in Port of Spain and in the country, both Catholic and Protestant, who try their best to be respectable, after their standard: but unfortunately, here, as elsewhere over the world, the scum rises naturally to the top, and intrudes itself on the eye. The men are civil fellows enough, if you will, as in duty bound, be civil to them. If you are not, ugly capacities will flash out fast enough, and too fast. If any one says of the Negro, as of the Russian, 'He is but a savage polished over: you have only to scratch him, and the barbarian shows underneath:' the only answer to be made is -- Then do not scratch him. It will be better for you, and for him.

When you have ceased looking -- even staring -- at the black women and their ways, you become aware of the strange variety of races which people the city. Here passes an old Coolie Hindoo, with nothing on but his lungee round his loins, and a scarf over his head; a white- bearded, delicate-featured old gentleman, with probably some caste- mark of red paint on his forehead; his thin limbs, and small hands and feet, contrasting strangely with the brawny Negroes round. There comes a bright-eyed young lady, probably his daughter-in-law, hung all over with bangles, in a white muslin petticoat, crimson cotton-velvet jacket, and green gauze veil, with her naked brown baby astride on her hip: a clever, smiling, delicate little woman, who is quite aware of the brightness of her own eyes. And who are these three boys in dark blue coatees and trousers, one of whom carries, hanging at one end of a long bamboo, a couple of sweet potatoes; at the other, possibly, a pebble to balance them? As they approach, their doleful visage betrays them. Chinese they are, without a doubt: but whether old or young, men or women, you cannot tell, till the initiated point out that the women have chignons and no hats, the men hats with their pigtails coiled up under them. Beyond this distinction, I know none visible. Certainly none in those sad visages -- 'Offas, non facies,' as old Ammianus Marcellinus has it.

But why do Chinese never smile? Why do they look as if some one had sat upon their noses as soon as they were born, and they had been weeping bitterly over the calamity ever since? They, too, must have their moments of relaxation: but when? Once, and once only, in Port of Spain, we saw a Chinese woman, nursing her baby, burst into an audible laugh: and we looked at each other, as much astonished as if our horses had begun to talk.

There again is a group of coloured men of all ranks, talking eagerly, business, or even politics; some of them as well dressed as if they were fresh from Europe; some of them, too, six feet high, and broad in proportion; as fine a race, physically, as one would wish to look upon; and with no want of shrewdness either, or determination, in their faces: a race who ought, if they will be wise and virtuous, to have before them a great future. Here come home from the convent school two coloured young ladies, probably pretty, possibly lovely, certainly gentle, modest, and well-dressed according to the fashions of Paris or New York; and here comes the unmistakable Englishman, tall, fair, close-shaven, arm-in-arm with another man, whose more delicate features, more sallow complexion, and little moustache mark him as some Frenchman or Spaniard of old family. Both are dressed as if they were going to walk up Pall Mall or the Rue de Rivoli; for 'go-to-meeting clothes' are somewhat too much de rigueur here; a shooting-jacket and wide-awake betrays the newly-landed Englishman. Both take off their hats with a grand air to a lady in a carriage; for they are very fine gentlemen indeed, and intend to remain such: and well that is for the civilisation of the island; for it is from such men as these, and from their families, that the good manners for which West Indians are, or ought to be, famous, have permeated down, slowly but surely, through all classes of society save the very lowest.

The straight and level street, swarming with dogs, vultures, chickens, and goats, passes now out of the old into the newer part of the city; and the type of the houses changes at once. Some are mere wooden sheds of one or two rooms, comfortable enough in that climate, where a sleeping-place is all that is needed -- if the occupiers would but keep them clean. Other houses, wooden too, belong to well-to-do folk. Over high walls you catch sight of jalousies and verandahs, inside which must be most delightful darkness and coolness. Indeed, one cannot fancy more pleasant nests than some of the little gaily-painted wooden houses, standing on stilts to let the air under the floors, and all embowered in trees and flowers, which line the roads in the suburbs; and which are inhabited, we are told, by people engaged in business.

But what would -- or at least ought to -- strike the newcomer's eye with most pleasurable surprise, and make him realise into what a new world he has been suddenly translated -- even more than the Negroes, and the black vultures sitting on roof-ridges, or stalking about in mid-street -- are the flowers which show over the walls on each side of the street. In that little garden, not thirty feet broad, what treasures there are! A tall palm -- whether Palmiste or Oil-palm -- has its smooth trunk hung all over with orchids, tied on with wire. Close to it stands a purple Dracaena, such as are put on English dinner-tables in pots: but this one is twenty feet high; and next to it is that strange tree the Clavija, of which the Creoles are justly fond. A single straight stem, fifteen feet high, carries huge oblong-leaves atop, and beneath them, growing out of the stem itself, delicate panicles of little white flowers, fragrant exceedingly. A double blue pea {74} and a purple Bignonia are scrambling over shrubs and walls. And what is this which hangs over into the road, some fifteen feet in height -- long, bare, curving sticks, carrying each at its end a flat blaze of scarlet? What but the Poinsettia, paltry scions of which, like the Dracaena, adorn our hothouses and dinner-tables. The street is on fire with it all the way up, now in mid-winter; while at the street end opens out a green park, fringed with noble trees all in full leaf; underneath them more pleasant little suburban villas; and behind all, again, a background of steep wooded mountain a thousand feet in height. That is the Savannah, the public park and race-ground; such as neither London nor Paris can boast.

One may be allowed to regret that the exuberant loyalty of the citizens of Port of Spain has somewhat defaced one end at least of their Savannah; for in expectation of a visit from the Duke of Edinburgh, they erected for his reception a pile of brick, of which the best that can be said is that it holds a really large and stately ballroom, and the best that can be hoped is that the authorities will hide it as quickly as possible with a ring of Palmistes, Casuarinas, Sandboxes, and every quick-growing tree. Meanwhile, as His Royal Highness did not come the citizens wisely thought that they might as well enjoy their new building themselves. So there, on set high days, the Governor and the Lady of the Governor hold their court. There, when the squadron comes in, officers in uniform dance at desperate sailors' pace with delicate Creoles; some of them, coloured as well as white, so beautiful in face and figure that one could almost pardon the jolly tars if they enacted a second Mutiny of the Bounty, and refused one and all to leave the island and the fair dames thereof. And all the while the warm night wind rushes in through the high open windows; and the fireflies flicker up and down, in and out, and you slip away on to the balcony to enjoy -- for after all it is very hot -- the purple star- spangled night; and see aloft the saw of the mountain ridges against the black-blue sky; and below -- what a contrast! -- the crowd of white eyeballs and white teeth -- Negroes, Coolies, Chinese -- all grinning and peeping upward against the railing, in the hope of seeing -- through the walls -- the 'buccra quality' enjoy themselves.

An even pleasanter sight we saw once in that large room, a sort of agricultural and horticultural show, which augured well for the future of the colony. The flowers were not remarkable, save for the taste shown in their arrangement, till one recollected that they were not brought from hothouses, but grown in mid-winter in the open air. The roses, of which West Indians are very fond, as they are of all 'home,' i.e. European, flowers, were not as good as those of Europe. The rose in Trinidad, though it flowers three times a year, yet, from the great heat and moisture, runs too much to wood. But the roots, especially the different varieties of yam, were very curious; and their size proved the wonderful food-producing powers of the land when properly cultivated. The poultry, too, were worthy of an English show. Indeed, the fowl seems to take to tropical America as the horse has to Australia, as to a second native-land; and Trinidad alone might send an endless supply to the fowl-market of the Northern States, even if that should not be quite true which some one said, that you might turn an old cock loose in the bush, and he, without further help, would lay more eggs, and bring up more chickens, than you could either eat or sell.

But the most interesting element of that exhibition was the coconut fibre products of Messrs. Uhrich and Gerold, of which more in another place. In them lies a source of further wealth to the colony, which may stand her in good stead when Port of Spain becomes, as it must become, one of the great emporiums of the West.

Since our visit the great ballroom has seen -- even now is seeing -- strange vicissitudes. For the new Royal College, having as yet no buildings of its own, now keeps school, it is said, therein -- alas for the inkstains on that beautiful floor! And by last advices, a 'troupe of artistes' from Martinique, there being no theatre in Port of Spain, have been doing their play-acting in it; and Terpsichore and Thalia (Melpomene, I fear, haunts not the stage of Martinique) have been hustling all the other Muses downstairs at sunset, and joining their jinglings to the chorus of tom-toms and chac-chacs which resounds across the Savannah, at least till 10 p.m., from all the suburbs.

The road -- and all the roads round Port of Spain, thanks to Sir Ralph Woodford, are as good as English roads -- runs between the Savannah and the mountain spurs, and past the Botanic Gardens, which are a credit, in more senses than one, to the Governors of the island. For in them, amid trees from every quarter of the globe, and gardens kept up in the English fashion, with fountains, too, so necessary in this tropical clime, stood a large 'Government House.' This house was some years ago destroyed; and the then Governor took refuge in a cottage just outside the garden. A sum of money was voted to rebuild the big house: but the Governors, to their honour, have preferred living in the cottage, adding to it from time to time what was necessary for mere comfort; and have given the old gardens to the city, as a public pleasure-ground, kept up at Government expense.

This Paradise -- for such it is -- is somewhat too far from the city; and one passes in it few people, save an occasional brown nurse. But when Port of Spain becomes, as it surely will, a great commercial city, and the slopes of Laventille, Belmont, and St. Ann's, just above the gardens, are studded, as they surely will be, with the villas of rich merchants, then will the generous gift of English Governors be appreciated and used; and the Botanic Gardens will become a Tropic Garden of the Tuileries, alive, at five o'clock every evening, with human flowers of every hue with human

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