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Wednesday 22 May 2019
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The Five (or Six) Islands

Once there were five islands called Las Cotorras by the Spanish and Les Perroquets by the French (and possibly the Parakeets, were any English speakers living in Trinidad in those high and far-off times). "Island" is too grand a title for these tiny islets. Fr de Verteuil notes that the largest, Caledonia, is only 2.5 hectares (6 acres) rising to 50 metres (164 feet) above sea level. The sixth and smallest, Craig, is joined to Caledonia by a man-made sea wall or causeway.

Known as The Five Islands, although there were, and are, clearly six (without counting Nelson) they were also known as the Quarantine Islands — which we’ll come to in due course.

In Spanish colonial times the six islets belonged to the Crown. It seems likely that some were used as points of entry, because the waters around them were deep enough for ocean-going ships to dock for their passengers to disembark and unload cargo. From there both passengers and cargo were transported to the mainland in lighters (small, shallow draft or flat-bottomed boats that could thread their way through the mangroves to Port-of-Spain, which was little more than a fishing village in those days, or even up the Caroni and Maracas Rivers to the capital, St Joseph).

We begin with Rock, the fifth largest, since the smallest, Craig, was, on the whole, treated as part and parcel of the largest, Caledonia. "Rock" wrote Gertrude Carmichael in her History of Trinidad, "was granted to T F Johnston, who sold it to a Dr Mercer who gave it to Thomas Laughlin." It seems Rock was a holiday island, Dr Mercer might have bought it to put up a convalescent home for his patients, who might have felt imprisoned on so small an island. When Thomas Laughlin gave up the grant, Rock became a Quarantine Station for First Class passengers only.

Unlike air travel today, no one was allowed to disembark from ships until the authorities, in the shape of a Government Medical Officer, had satisfied himself that everyone was healthy, that no one was suffering from an infectious or contagious disease. Only then were passengers — and crew — allowed ashore. The sick had to stay on one or other of the "Five" Islands until he, or she, recovered — or died.

Pelican seems to have been a holiday resort; writing in 1888 Collens describes it as "a mere islet but still large enough to have a comfortable house and good bathing place." There are no prizes for guessing how Pelican got its name, the white splashes of guano on the island show that it is still a favourite roosting place for those birds. Pelican was first granted to C Hobson and later, in 1866, to G Revell. In the 1860s the Five Islands were known as "the Brighton of the Trinidad"; the houses were used by families and friends of those with a grant to the particular island, and for rental to well-to-do, middle class families. Pelican and Craig remained holiday homes and hideaways for senior civil servants, their families and well-heeled friends up to the time of Independence in 1962.

On his voyage from Ireland to Trinidad, where he was to take up a post in Government Service, Louis Lenagan met and fell in love with Cecelia Lynch, who was born in Trinidad to an Irish father and English mother. Louis and Cecelia married shortly after they arrived in Trinidad. Louis was a member of the Cabildo, he was in charge of the wharf, checking scales, etc. and, like many before him — and since — he went into the hardware business. It should surprise no one to learn that as a member of the Cabildo, he was granted the islet that still bears his name: Lenagan.

He, too, built a comfortable house where his family and friends could relax away from the bustle and heat of Port-of-Spain. Louis’ son inherited Lenagan but his grandson did not; the island reverted to Government who used it as a quarantine station. Later, it became an isolation hospital, a place to nurse — mainly East Indian — immigrants back to health or . . .

As we passed Lenagan on our tour of the Western Isles, Enrico Matthews photographed the autoclave and boiler (see photograph) where infected linen was sterilised, and passed by the cremation platform where bodies were incinerated, and the ashes swept into the sea. The hospital building itself has collapsed, yet those who land on Lenagan to explore the island today can still see the rusting hospital beds, mute testimony to those who endured the long voyage, only to die within sight of Trinidad.

Caledonia is not only the largest, it is also the most romantic of all the Five Islands. Lt Herbert Mackworth RN, Marshall of Trinidad, got a grant for both Caledonia and Craig islands. Carmichael tells us he called it "Marlin Spike Hall", everyone else called it "Mackworth’s Island." It was Mackworth who named the small island "Craig". Holidaymakers rowing to and from Monos or Gasparee often made Caledonia a stopover on that long, tiring haul. When Mackworth left Trinidad he sold his grant of both islands to Caldwell who built what, from Cazabon’s painting, seems a substantial house on Craig, he renamed the larger island "Caledonia" and built a house there for himself and his family.

The house on Caledonia was so comfortable that when the Governor Lord Harris, married local beauty, 19-year-old Sarah Cummins (daughter of Archdeacon Cummins), on April 16, 1850, in Trinity Cathedral they spent their honeymoon on Caledonia.

When Cazabon painted the island, and "little sister" Craig that same year, he gave his painting the title "Stuart’s Island". Did someone called Stuart have the grant at that time? Who knows? At any rate, it was once again known as Caledonia when, in 1890, the house having fallen into disrepair, it was rebuilt on the original foundations.

Lord and Lady Harris weren’t the only couple to honeymoon on Caledonia. The island became a favourite place to spend holidays — or a honeymoon — provided you were a very senior civil servant. As we saw with Louis Lenagan, long ocean voyages lead to romance. With Indian Immigration, Fr de Verteuil notes that "if any of them wished to be married according to Christian rites? the marriage took place on the neighbouring Caledonia Island." For a marriage to be valid, the island had to be officially designated a place for performing the ceremony (in those days, though perhaps not now that visitors come to Tobago to be married on beaches around the island?). At all events, a marriage ceremony took place there in the 1930s, and young couples were still honeymooning on Caledonia, and other islands.

The most famous, and most mysterious of all weddings on Caledonia took place on November 13, 1957, when Dr Eric Eustace Williams married the highly intellectual, yet practical Dr Mayleen Mook Sang — the first fully qualified woman dentist in the British West Indies. She met Eric Williams at the home of mutual friends. There was a brief courtship, he proposed, she accepted, but Dr Williams was already deeply involved in politics, he feared marriage to Mayleen would damage his political standing. The solution to his dilemma was a secret marriage.

A very senior Government Minister, let in to the secret, picked up the bride, from her home in Frederick Street. She was dressed in fashionable calf-length "Capri" pants and top for a day relaxing "down the islands." Bride and groom took a boat to Caledonia where they were married by the Presbyterian Minister A N McKean.

Fr de Verteuil reports "Mayleen returned to her home the same evening and never lived in a marital home with Dr Williams. He used to visit her very often, sometimes accompanied by his daughter, Erica."

All seemed well with this — to say the least — unconventional secret marriage until Mayleen felt she was being neglected, that her secret husband put politics before marriage, that instead of visiting her he was holed up in his study writing political speeches.

The last straw came when she heard, presumably via the usual Trinidad grapevine, that her husband was seen paying attention to a local beauty at a public function. Mayleen sent a copy of her marriage certificate to a local newspaper to prove to all in general, and the young woman in particular, that Dr Williams was her husband. Readers were absolutely astounded when they opened their papers the next day; then, some time later, they were scandalised to learn the page with the original record of that secret marriage had been torn out of the marriage register. The unfortunate registrar subsequently committed suicide.

It’s said Dr Williams never reproached his wife for making his marriage public; he didn’t divorce her, but never visited her again. For her part, having made that dramatic revelation, she refused to talk about her wedding, nor had she a single word to say against him.

The Five Islands have been places of pleasure — and pain. Today the remains of jetties and steps, foundations of holiday houses and quarantine stations are mute testimony to the past. They were, they could be again, a tourist, a holiday-makers’ paradise, a honeymooners’ hideaway. Yet Government clings to these abandoned islets, as it clings to — and wrecks — what’s left of Chacachacare.

We’ll visit the worst example of Government’s scandalous indifference to the past next week.


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