HOW AVOCA CHANGED TO AVOCAT. THE MEETING OF THE WATERS AND THE CULTURES
Francis Morean @16th January 2019
(This is the fourteenth in a series of articles being published here by Francis Morean with the focus upon the history of Arima.)
It is very difficult to talk about the history and culture of Arima without also acknowledging the influence of some surrounding communities upon the development of Arima, and vice-versa. In many respects the communities in the Arima valley and along the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road are organically like part of the Arima community.
When calypsonian Scrunter sang his soca-parang “That Eh Working Here Tonight”, he was alluding to that reality in a way that our best genealogists would admire.
One area of Arima’s history and genealogy, which is sometimes forgotten, is the Irish presence although many Arimians unknowingly carry “Irish Blood”. In fact, most citizens may not even be aware of two publications by Anthony de Verteuil, which focus upon the contribution of the Irish to Trinidad and Tobago. I would address that topic in a separate post, however I plan to touch upon it in this post.
River bathing has been a long established Arimian tradition. I also plan to share an interesting post about that sometime soon.
Over the past few days however, the muses seem to have been reminding me that I need to keep a promise to share some information about the hermitage along the Blanchisseuse Road known as Avoca.
Photograph courtesy Sarah Calbio
This hermitage is now being increasingly called Avocat.
Photograph courtesy Lavorne Haynes
There is a breath-taking, beautiful waterfall a short walk from the few houses and it is a popular destination to hikers, tourists and lovers. Over the past few decades it has been called the Avocat Waterfall, when in fact, it had previously been known as the Avoca Waterfall and by other names.
Photograph courtesy Michael Jattan
I however wish to focus upon this change, which has become so widespread that the process may be irreversible unless there is some sort of concerted effort to revert to the original name. So sweeping has been the change that I do not thing that even the presence of prominent signage would make a difference at this stage.
I have however for quite some time felt that at least I should at least share some historical information about the name, if only for the sake of posterity.
The name Avoca harks back to the presence of Irish settlers in Trinidad, while the name Avocat is connected to the history of East Indian indentureship in Trinidad. It is also connected to name of a much more populous settlement in South Trinidad, which was populated mainly by East Indians who had served their period of indentureship, or time-expired indentureds as some persons described them.
In the change to the place being now called Avocat we are losing a lot of history. But it would take some details to explain it all.
We have to go back to Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century. British and Irish troops were at war. In 1803 the Irish rebellion had been snuffed out.
In the poem “The Meeting of the Waters”, the celebrated nineteenth century Irish Poet, songwriter and singer Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) immortalised the Vale of Avoca in the County of Wicklow in Ireland.
The poem was inspired by a visit to the romantic spot by Moore in 1807. It was published in 1808 and in it Moore celebrated the confluence of the Avonmore (or Big River in Irish) and the Avonbeg (in Irish, Small River) in an area under the castle Howard with the words:
There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.
Yet it was not that nature had shed o’er the scene
Her purest of crystal and brightest of green;
’Twas not her soft magic of streamlet or hill,
Oh! no – it was something more exquisite still.
’Twas that friends, the belov’d of my bosom, were near,
Who made every dear scene of enchantment more dear,
And who felt how the best charms of nature improve,
When we see them reflected in looks that we love.
Sweet vale of Avoca! how calm could I rest
In thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.
A not insignificant detail of the quelling of the Irish rebellion was the execution of Moore’s friend Robert Emmet. In fact, some commentators are of the view that the last stanza of the poem alluded to that. Moore was regarded as the National Bard of Ireland and when his poem was put to music, it quickly became one of the most famous Irish songs of that era.
John Barrell, Emeritus Professor of English at Queen Mary university of London published a very incisive piece in the London review of Books (Volume 39 No 15, 27th July 2017) in which he noted:
“Moore’s ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ was first published in 1808 and by the end of the century it had become one of the best known of his Irish Melodies, along with ‘The harp that once through Tara’s halls’, ‘The Minstrel Boy’ and especially ‘The last rose of summer’. These songs were performed in concerts, and in the polite parlours and drawing rooms where Moore thought they belonged. ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ no doubt owed much of its popularity to the traditional air ‘The Old Head of Dennis’, to which it was set by the Dublin composer John Stevenson.
It is a soothing song that stirs up a sense of love, warmth and friendship, while linking those virtues to an equally beautiful and idyllic place, which also has a sense of connection to the fresh memories of the Irish rebellion when the poem was written.
Daniel Maclises’s illustration for ‘Irish Melodies’ was the first in a number of artistic interpretations emerged of “The Meeting Of The Waters.”
Barrell also notes that “This history must have been present to Moore when, in a footnote to the first printing of the song, he wrote that ‘The Meeting of the Waters forms a part of that beautiful scenery which lies between Rathdrum and Arklow, in the county of Wicklow, and these lines were suggested by a visit to this romantic spot, in the summer of the year 1807.’ The prayer for peace in the last line was probably also in the mind of James Power, Moore’s London publisher, when he declared that Irish Melodies ‘will do more … towards producing that brotherhood of sentiment which it is so much our interest to cherish, than could ever be effected by the arguments of wise, but uninteresting, politicians’. Of the thousands of references to the song and its title phrase that I have collected in the course of my research, only one, an account of Holt’s autobiography, mentions the song in the context of the 1798 rebellion. The general silence on that point may be vital to how the song came to be understood as the century got older.”
Persons who wish to get more details about Barrell’s analysis are invited to subscribe to the journal. According to Barrell’s research, by 1823 the song had already become very popular and had become even more so by the time that Moore died in 1852.
The Meeting of the Waters’ in many ways had defined his career and had guaranteed the memory of him even after his passing. It was one of the most popular and most often performed songs in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, in Britain as well as in Ireland, in the USA, in Australia and elsewhere in the Empire.
By 1914, the song’s popularity had made the phrase one of the commonest place-names in the British Empire. Hundreds of places were known as the ‘meeting of the waters’. In Trinidad we went with Avoca.
It was no doubt, this song that inspired the naming of one of the more beautiful of the places along the Blanchisseuse Road. This is the hamlet of Avoca, which today is often called Avocat and which is the home of the Avocat Waterfall.”
Moore was a Romantic poet and was a friend of the great Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
In the poem “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” he swore his love for his wife Elizabeth “Bessy” Dyke who had been stricken with a skin disease.
Let thy loveliness fade as it will,
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdant still.
His words may also aptly fit the hamlet of Avoca or Avocat along the Blanchisseuse Road in Trinidad.
The English clergyman, historian and writer Charles Kingsley paid a visit to Trinidad in December of 1869 and had an opportunity to journey through the forests of the Northern Range between Caura and Blanchisseuse and he stayed in Avoca, which had just been settled and named by the then Warden of Blanchisseuse. On that journey Kingsley had been accompanied by a party which included his host, the then Governor Sir Arthur Gordon who had arrived in Trinidad in 1866.
In an era in which travel to Blanchisseuse was traditionally made by sea by those who could afford those means, Gordon and Kingsley chose the more challenging route of hiking a full day across the Northern Range from Paradise Estate. In his writings, Kingsley sometimes provided some elaborate details of the journey through Caura, La Fillette, and Yarra to Blanchisseuse and of their three days spent in the forests of “The Northern Mountains”.
Kingsley described his experiences in Blanchisseuse and then noted: “But where was the warden, who was by office, as well as by courtesy, to have received us? He too had not expected us, and was gone home after his day’s work to his new clearing inland: but a man had been sent on to him over the mountain; and over the mountain we must go, and on foot too, for the horses could do no more, and there was no stabling for them farther on. How far was the new clearing? Oh, perhaps a couple of miles–perhaps a league. And how high up? Oh, nothing–only a hundred feet or two. One knew what that meant; and, with a sigh, resigned oneself to a four or five miles’ mountain walk at the end of a long day, and started up the steep zigzag, through cacao groves, past the loveliest gardens–I recollect in one an agave in flower, nigh thirty feet high, its spike all primrose and golden yellow in the fading sunlight–then up into rastrajo; and then into high wood, and a world of ferns–tree ferns, climbing ferns, and all other ferns which ever delighted the eye in an English hothouse.”
They then traversed some burnt forest, until, “At last, pausing on the top of a hill, we could hear voices on the opposite side of the glen. Shouts and ‘cooeys’ soon brought us to the party which were awaiting us. We hurried joyfully down a steep hillside, across a shallow ford, and then up another hillside–this time with care, for the felled logs and brushwood lay all about a path full of stumps, and we needed a guide to show us our way in the moonlight up to the hospitable house above. And a right hospitable house it was. Its owner, a French gentleman of ancient Irish family–whose ancestors probably had gone to France as one of the valiant ‘Irish Brigade’; whose children may have emigrated thence to St. Domingo, and their children or grandchildren again to Trinidad– had prepared for us in the wilderness a right sumptuous feast: ‘nor did any soul lack aught of the equal banquet.’
There the group spent the night in the quietude of the forest. After a long day’s journey they must have had a very sound sleep in anticipation of the next day in the forest. But they were not too tired to rise early the next day. As Kingsley reported:
” When we turned out before sunrise next morning, I found myself in perhaps the most charming of all the charming ‘camps’ of these forests. Its owner, the warden, fearing the unhealthy air of the sea-coast, had bought some hundreds of acres up here in the hills, cleared them, and built, or rather was building, in the midst.
As the day broke they were able to obtain a proper view of their location. In another detailed commentary Kingsley reported : “But this camp had not yet arrived at so high a state of civilisation. All round it, almost up to the very doors, a tangle of logs, stumps, branches, dead ropes and nets of liane lay still in the process of clearing; and the ground was seemingly as waste, as it was difficult–often impossible–to cross. A second glance, however, showed that, amongst the stumps and logs, Indian corn was planted everywhere; and that a few months would give a crop which would richly repay the clearing, over and above the fact that the whole materials of the house had been cut on the spot, and cost nothing.
As for the situation of the little oasis in the wilderness, it bespoke good sense and good taste. The owner had stumbled, in his forest wanderings, on a spot where two mountain streams, after nearly meeting, parted again, and enclosed in a ring a hill some hundred feet high, before they finally joined each other below. That ring was his estate; which was formally christened on the occasion of our visit, Avoca–the meeting of the waters; a name, as all agreed, full of remembrances of the Old World and the land of his remote ancestors; and yet like enough to one of the graceful and sonorous Indian names of the island not to seem barbarous and out of place.”
And that dear friends is how Avoca got its name. I should mention as well that when Kingsley mentioned “sonorous Indian names of the island” he was referring to indigenous peoples and not to East Indians.
Avoca it was named and Avoca it remained for over a century. More than two decades ago I promised myself to go through our historical records to establish the identity of the Warden of Blanchisseuse at the time. I am not sure at the moment who the person may have been but if I memory serves me right it most likely was either Louis Philip Pierre or James Lynch O’Connor. (Louis Philip Pierre had served in some senior Civil Service position in Blanchisseuse around that time and it is only for that reason that I am second-guessing myself about him. However I do not wish to delay posting this article because of my uncertainty on this point.)
As Kingsley clearly noted however, the Warden was of Irish descent. In fact, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, a number of citizens of Irish descent were employed in the Civil Service. A number of them had served as Wardens. James Lynch O’Connor, whose relatives were the proprietors of La Chance, in what is today the north western end of Malabar.
In 1867 the well-known surveyor and wearer of many hats Sylvester Devenish had written the song La Blanchisseuse to commemorate the introduction of the people of Blanchisseuse to the newly appointed Warden. It was sung in French on the beach by O’ Connor to an assembly of mainly Patois speaking residents. The opening stanza was as follows :
Salut, enfin, riante Blanchisseuse
Puisqu’en ce jour le sort m’attache a toi;
Tout mon espoir est de te rendre heureuse
Si tu veux étre bien saine pour moi
Je te promets de metre tant de zéle
A réparer tes abrupt sentiers
Qu’avant six mois, la route sera belle
Pour arrive dans ces lontains quartiers.
The English translation is:
At last, O smiling Blanchisseuse, I come,
From this day forth my lot with you’ll be cast;
To make you happy – of my hope’s the sum,
If to yourself you wish to bind me fast.
To show the greatest zeal I promise you.
Your steep and narrow roads I will repair.
In six month’s time they will be good as new,
Both far and near you’ll journey everywhere.
It would seem then that O’ Connor was the Warden at the time of the visit of Governor Gordon and Kingsley to the village. O’ Connor was married to Marie Julie Devenish, the daughter of Sylvester Devenish. Undoubtedly, the character and influence of his father-in-law may have rubbed off on him in choosing the name Avoca.
In fact Anthony de Verteuil in his biography of Devenish noted:
“Sometimes camping for weeks in the forest, Syl traversed practically the whole island and was acquainted with every tiny track . He was known to the Spanish speaking inhabitants as El Duende de la Montana – the Spirit of the Mountains; and to the creoles as Papa Bois – the father of the woods.”
At the start of the career of Devenish as a surveyor in Trinidad in 1843 there were still many parts of the island which, fortunately, had not yet been populated and which had been only little explored by persons of European roots. Sylvester played a significant part in what I considered to be the second wave of the process of “naming the land” by Europeans.
To understand the role which Devenish would have played in the determination of Amerindian place names in Trinidad it is necessary to consider the state of the indigenous population as well as the state of Trinidad during his period of active duty as a surveyor which lasted from 1843 to 1878. In 1884, six years after Devenish had been removed from his post as Surveyor General, Louis de Verteuil had recorded the presence of indigenous peoples still living, on their own, in the Trinidad forests. He had noted, that:
“The few aborigines yet remaining in the colony are leading an isolated life in the forests, depending for their subsistence upon hunting and fishing – in short, retaining their ancestral habits. A few families of Indian descent are still, however to be met with in different parts of the island, all speaking the Spanish language, and having preserved habits –fond of smoking, dancing, and all kinds of amusements, but, above all, of the dolce far niente.”
It appears most likely that de Verteuil may have underestimated the population of indigenous peoples in Trinidad at the time.
Whatever the case, Devenish would have also interacted directly with some of these people. By 1884 the majority of indigenous peoples in Trinidad would have been speaking Spanish, as De Verteuil and other researchers have noted. They had however still retained their indigenous names for many of the forest trees and other plants. This has been established by Louis de Verteuil and also by J.H. Hart, the Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Garden from 1887. Many of these plant names are still in use to today and many of these names have also been incorporated into the place names in Trinidad, thanks to Sylvester Devenish.
Sylvester himself was of Irish roots and I surmise that he too may have had a strong influence in the selection of the name Avoca, notwithstanding his tendency to document the place names of the indigenous peoples.
There also exists other archival information about the hermitage being called Avoca.
In a letter to the Editor of a local newspaper in 1922 “from a Voiceless Community” concerning
“The Needs of Blanchisseuse” the resident complained:
“Then in the matter of roads, the position is very unsatisfactory, for although this is a very old settlement with a population bordering on 2,000, it is still connected with other villages and town by a bridle road. The A- Blanchisseuse Bridle Road is being kept in very fair order, but the same cannot be said of the Paria Main Road especially that part of it which is in the Toco Road district.
To ride or walk over this section of the road is really a purgational journey. Why some much needed diversions are not undertaken so as to avoid some steep hills like those of Morne Boui seem different to explain, except it be indifferences to the public convenience.
Some years ago, on the advice of the late Mr. Thornton Warner, a trace was surveyed and benched at a place called Avoca and the idea was to connect Blanchisseuse Village with Arima via the Paria Morne-Bleu Main Road, which is in course of construction. We hope the scheme is not dead as its originator. The road system of Blanchisseuse is certainly in urgent need of development.”
I can cite a number of similar reports which make mention of Avoca.
In terms of oral reports, the most reliable information I have received was from Hubert Debissette. He was 83 years old at the time. He grew up knowing the hermitage as Avoca and he stuck with that name.
In an interview with him in 2010 he recollected “Upper Prince was the first main road to Caura. You just keep walking and you go down the hill and you cross the road and you down to Avoca at the twenty-one mm. You cross the road again, that is the present road, and you go up Gasparee Hill. You go up the hill on the platform and you cross the road again and you come out by Mr. Ross in Morne La Croix.”
He shared some more of his memories of Avoca. One of his earliest memories of the area was from his boy days. “In 1936 there was a hurricane that affected Blanchisseuse. Galvanize was blown over the hills as far as Avoca. We had to tote the sheets back here.”
“I was a supervisor on the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road from 1956. The very first job I did before 1948 was learning trade. In those days young people did not have much choices in terms of work.
Seeyo Mitchell was the supervisor on the road and he offered me a job to weed the road and firm up the little banks in 1948. My pay was six dollars per day.
I cleaned the whole village and then they sent me on the Paria Main Road as far as Madamas River. I walked the entire road clearing the roadways of fallen trees after a hurricane and passed sometime around or before 1958.
Before 1958 there was another hurricane that had the sky looking red when you looked in the direction of Tobago.
We had a Madamas Road that crossed the Spring Bridge and went past Paria Bay and then we meeting Madamas in Cachipa. From the Matelot side was another crew. The crews would meet there.
We worked on La Laja Road and the road went over to Paria-Brasso Seco. We opened up the road to Madamas all by Clifford who had all the cows and by Sattoo Santos and by Assam. Assam was the only person way up inside.
In the old days had contractors called cantoniers. That system worked very well. Men had contracts to work three miles or two miles I believe. The cantoniers had to find gangs to work on the road. Men built culverts from stone and mud. When we began using concrete we used water from the roadsides to mix the cement. Now the roads hardly have any water. The land is getting dry.
A fella called Jean Pierre was the first person I knew living in Avoca. He was a very old man with white hairs in his ears. He was a Negro fella. Every September he used to bring a lot of mammoo whips for the headmasters. The headmasters I knew in Blanchisseuse were Mr. Barnes, then Mr. Jones, Martin, Peters and others.
Jean Pierre had a wife called Otelia living with him. They had no children. There were no Indians living in Avoca or Blanchisseuse at the time.
Avoca had a lot of huge laurier, olivier, balata and galba trees. There was big forest with a wooden bridge. The forest rangers stayed in Blanchisseuse. The present nurses quarters near to the Health Centre was the Forest Ranger Quarters.”
Other elders of Blanchisseuse have shared experiences of walking through Avoca in their youth to go to Caura via Limon.
So how did we end up with the place being called Avocat? I would explore that it another post.