ARIMA’S HISTORIC CONNECTION WITH THE DISCOVERY AND CULTIVATION OF THE DOUBLE CHACONIA
Francis Morean @9th June 2019
(This is the seventeenth in a series of articles being published here by Francis Morean with the focus upon the history of Arima.)
In my last piece in this series I touched briefly upon my efforts over the years to educate youngsters along the Arima Blanchisseuse Road about our National Flower, the Chaconia. I had promised to follow up with another historical piece concerning water resources in Arima and the old ice factory.
I was of the mistaken impression at the time that the Parliamentary process involved in the declaration of the Double Chaconia was completed. Based upon online posts this morning I am realizing that the official process has not yet been completed and that the second reading of The National Emblems of Trinidad and Tobago (Regulation) (Amendment) Bill, 2018 only took place in Parliament yesterday. The Bill which seeks to change the National Flower to the Double Chaconia was passed in the House. It was previously passed in the Senate on May 7, 2019.
This decision is one which does not find strong support from me for a variety of reasons, which I would not elaborate here. Needless to say, as an ethnobotanist, I would do my part to educate the public about the plant and I have decided to do a bit today.
In my last piece in this series I also touched upon the general lack of knowledge about the citizenry, even by people who walk or drive close to the many plants along the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road.
On the whole, there has long been some degree of confusion concerning the Chaconia. Even the origin of the name has been a point of debate.
Before going further, however, I wish to just repeat a point I made in a lecture in Charlotteville over 16 years ago. This point is very relevant to some of the clarifications I wish to make here.
“I have chosen Charlotteville for the launch of these lectures for a number of reasons. My intention is to carry this message to the length and breadth of Trinidad and Tobago and to almost every corner of the nation. Charlotteville, being one of these seemingly far flung corners of the nation fits appropriately into this plan. I have often emphasized that planners and policy makers often think in terms of Port-of- Spain and then their plans may spread outwards. The intention is to reverse this trend. Every area of the nation needs to be considered by our policy makers
Let me begin by correcting an error which most of you may have not picked up but which is extremely relevant to this evening’s discussions. The ad in the newspapers indicated that the topic would be “1000 years of Bush Medicine in Trinidad and Tobago.” Those of you who have read the flyers which we have distributed would have noticed that the topic is really “1000 years of Bush Medicine in Tobago and Trinidad.”
Now there are fundamental reasons why I emphasise this difference. In Charlotteville one may occasionally run into a gentleman who is a frequent visitor to this beautiful village and who villagers may know as “Snake Man.”
I had the pleasure of being the host to this gentleman over 10 years ago when I was managing a biological field station in Trinidad (Simla, in the Arima Valley). Prior to July of this year, my last encounter with him was 1994 when we parted ways at the Union Station in Washington DC. Quite recently I have been able to renew contact with him through a series of serendipitous events.
His name is Jerry Hardy and he has visited Tobago no less than thirty times over the last thirty years or so. In fact he chose Charlotteville for his honeymoon several years ago.
He has been engaged in the preparation of a comprehensive bibliography of the Flora (plants) and Fauna (animals) of Tobago. Part of this exercise involves perusing historical and biological/ scientific data that touches on the natural history of Tobago. Over a decade ago “Snake Man” indicated to me that one of the greatest challenges he faced in this project was that most of the natural history documents that he had been able to access have not been as useful to him as he would like because Trinidad and Tobago have generally been lumped together as a single entity in these publications.
This makes it difficult to establish whether the documents may be referring to Trinidad alone, Tobago alone or to both islands. As a young researcher and writer this observation was pivotal in guiding me to be more specific in my publications. I was able to avoid the pitfalls, which befall many researchers and if I may say in this political season …many politicians may also do well to avoid. If anything, Jerry Hardy’s observation helped me to appreciate that though we are one nation we are separate islands. . We are not just separate islands but we are islands which have had distinctly different historical and cultural developments.”
Now, let us please return to the Chaconia story and follow me as I seek to apply those principles .
One school of thought is that the plant was named after Don Jose Maria Chacon. There are arguments both in favour and against that notion. I do not intend to debate them here. I however just wish to quickly clarify 2 common errors that students are being forced to repeat. Students are often taught that Don Jose Maria Chacon was the last Spanish Governor of Trinidad and Tobago. Chacon of course was the last Spanish Governor of Trinidad. But Tobago was not part of Chacon’s jurisdiction. So the falsehood is obvious. But yet it is being taught. If I was still in primary or secondary school I can just imagine my dilemma in being forced to learn such nonsense.
Another falsehood I am seeing a lot online these days is that it was only in 1962 that people began to call the plant Chaconia and that it was only then that people began to link the plant to Chacon. Again, this can be easily dismissed. I would share just one reference here in doing so. It is from “At Last A Christmas in the West Indies” by Charles Kingsley. The following words were published by him in 1874.
“On we went, upward ever, past Cacao and Bois Immortelle orchards, and comfortable settlers’ hamlets; and now and then through a strip of virgin forest, in which we began to see, for the first time, though not for the last, that ‘resplendent Calycophyllum’ as Dr. Krueger calls it, Chaconia as it is commonly called here, after poor Alonzo de Chacon, the last Spanish governor of this island. It is indeed the jewel of these woods. A low straggling tree carries, on long pendent branches, leaves like a Spanish chestnut, a foot and more in length; and at the ends of the branches, long corymbs of yellow flowers. But it is not the flowers themselves which make the glory of the tree. As the flower opens, one calyx-lobe, by a rich vagary of nature, grows into a leaf three inches long, of a splendid scarlet; and the whole end of each branch, for two feet or more in length, blazes among the green foliage till you can see it and wonder at it a quarter of a mile away.”
So, that case is closed with that single submission. I now wish to turn my attention to the more fundamental matter of the Double Chaconia. I would love at some time to review Hansard concerning the seemingly short Parliamentary discussions about the bill. It seems to me that some important points are falling through the cracks. I have briefly communicated some of these points to the attention of one Member of Parliament who is also a Minister and I have been assured that they would be addressed.
Given however that the Double Chaconia was first documented by botanists based upon a discovery that was made in what has been part of the Arima constituency, and given that the current Member of Parliament for Arima is also the Minister of Education, I am hopefully that this post would reach him and that he personally ensures that these falsehoods and errors are not propagated by officialdom.
There is a fairly common narrative about the Double Chaconia that has received quite a lot of media attention over the years. I intend to briefly revisit that narrative here through the perspectives of a number of other narratives, as well as through the accounts provided by some of the persons who were instrumental in the survival of the plant and in its cultivation at UWI, St. Augustine. I wish to invite readers to explore this post with an open mind. In another place and time I hope to soon provide a much more detailed publication on some of the matters upon which I plan to touch here today. Today I am sharing some snapshots along the journeys I have taken in my efforts to find out more about the Double Chaconia.
In the often published narrative, the starting point was the discovery of a Chaconia plant along the Arima Blanchisseuse Road in 1957 by “Mrs Grace Mulloon (nee Atteck) accompanied by Mr. David Auyong” who had “spotted an outstandingly brilliants scarlet inflorescence at the top of a group of Chaconias.” They attempted to cultivate cuttings and then they sought the assistance of Dr. Royston Nichols, who at the time had been using propagation techniques, which were then being developed and used at ICTA, in the propagation of cocoa from cuttings. Dr. Nichols had used those very techniques in the successful cultivation of the Double Chaconia.
By early 1958, there were 3 plants established at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (now part of The University of the West Indies at St. Augustine). I do not plan to repeat the other well established details. I wish to look at the history of the plants from a more grassroots perspective.
There are a number of very significant questions that need to be asked about the discovery and cultivation of the Double Chaconia. For a plant of such striking beauty, one must wonder if it was the only plant like that, which was growing in the area. Somewhere along the line I recall having read that when the initial plant was discovered, a number of searches were conducted in the adjoining forests by lecturers and students of ICTA. Unfortunately, they found no other plant. At this point I cannot recall where I read that. There is however the strong possibility that such a strategy would have been implemented.
By 1959 the parent plant had died. According to correspondence I received over a decade ago from a member of the Atteck family, “The plant was on the left side of the road (on the way to Blanchisseuse). When they went back to get the cuttings, they found the plant had been uprooted by a road gang who were doing road works there. The original plant had been destroyed! In this case, good luck and timing was everything.”
The late Professor Julian Kenny narrated a somewhat different narrative and even contradicted himself in his contribution in Parliament to the Protection of New Plant Varieties Bill in March 1997.
I was first exposed to the Double Chaconia in a small publication called Caribbean Flora by Dr. C.D. Adams, which I had received as a prize at High School. I later encountered the plant on the St. Augustine Campus of the UWI. In fact 2 of the plants grew along the route that I used to and from campus. There were a few others on the campus compound.
My interest in the history of the Double Chaconia was however piqued by an elderly gentleman called Mr. Cyril from the Arima Bypass.
* * * * *
Torrecilla Gardens lies on the outskirts of Arima. Spliced between the Arima Bypass Road and the Arima River, it had developed into a respectable residential community. For many years however the area, had been a part of a thriving cocoa estate known as Torrecilla Estate, until factors such as the decline of the cocoa industry led to its demise, as was the case with many other estates around Arima that have now become residential suburbs.
Some of its lands had been donated by the last of the previous owners of the estate – the cotton-geneticist Dr Masson – to the Roman Catholic Church and a convent (which was later converted into a retreat, the Emmaus Centre) had subsequently been established close to the river that runs at the western end of the estate. Many had found solace there at the convent.
It was to Torrecilla that I too had retreated after a brief period of domicile in the heart of Arima in the late 1980s during my transition from Asa Wright Nature centre and La Laja. It was at La Laja that I had started writing about the Chaconia in a tribute to the Strike Squad on the evening of Red Friday 1989.
My residence at Torrecilla formed part of a sprawling compound which was bordered by relict cocoa, immortelle and mahogany trees. Here and there could also be found an assortment of scattered forest trees such as hog plum, cypre and lacraie. This little enclave provided a haven for a variety of forest birds and for a few months during my stay there, even an endangered pawi (Trinidad Piping Guan) made its home there.
The Arima River was not too far away, and along its more precarious rocky margins, a few Chaconia plants had survived the passage of time. Their scarlet blossoms would annually remind us of their presence and of the fact that they thrived even in this harsh environment.
Life however had been less kind to Mr. Cyril, a caretaker of sorts, who resided on another part of the compound on which I lived. I lived in the main building to the front of the compound. He lived in a sort of makeshift structure down on the left of a grassy driveway to the back of the main building.
Christened Cyril Borneo soon after his birth, he was just sixty three years old when I interviewed him one Friday morning in late October 1991. I had loaned him a copy of a small publication I had prepared about the Chaconia. It was part of my effort to cheer up his disconsolate mood. Emphysema had dealt him a difficult blow. He had been coughing continually all morning, so I had also served him a cup of steaming geritout tea. They both seemed to have helped him, for, as he skimmed through the text and came to a photograph of the Double Chaconia, he became very animated.
“You see that.” he said, pointing excitedly at the photograph, “That is the Double Chaconia. The Mother plant of that was found on the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road. It was found!!!” he said emphatically, “on the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road between the 12 (twelve) mile and the 15 (fifteen) mile post, after you pass the Paria Junction. Paria Junction is the point where the road branches to the valley of Brasso Seco/Paria. The mother plant used to grow close to the point where water drips through the slate rocks and people does stop to drink the water. The water there does be cold like ice. The plant was growing on the left hand side. The plant did not survive very long after they found it. There was a small landslide and then a bigger landslide. In those days that area always had landslides. Tractor had to clear the landslide.”
Mr. Cyril’s observations were fairly consistent with the general documented information which was available about the discovery of the Double Chaconia. I decided however to prodd him for more information.
“You should talk to Yombé,” he advised. “Yombé Diaz lives by the playground on the 15 (fifteen) mile post. He does rub. He should know the exact spot. He used to work on the copra boat and go to Port of Spain, but he never came to Arima. Elicio family was like that. His children live close to my family on the Bypass.”
It turned out that “Mr Cyril” had gotten some of his information about Elicia terribly wrong, but that itself turned out to be quite interesting and significant as I sought to find out more about the Double Chaconia.
* * * * * *
Powerful elements of serendipity have often been experienced when I have been conducting botanical research and especially when I have been making trips into the forest. Friday October 25th, 1991 was such a day. I tarried little before going in search of Yombé. I had about Yombé, the medicine man, many times before but I had never gone to see him. That Friday however, there was something I heard in the voice of Mr. Cyril, which inspired e and fired me up to go right away, even if I had to walk all the way to Morne La Croix.
The “Bypass Road” which connects the Eastern Main Road to the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road, straddles the eastern portion or boundary of Torrecilla Gardens. It was constructed by the American troops during World War Two, as an access route to the quarries in the valley which supplied gravel for other activities such as the establishment of the American Military Base, which was called Waller Field. Motorized access to Torrecilla Gardens is via the “Bypass Road”.
Leaving Torrecilla Gardens I walked along the “Bypass Road” and as I did so, I flagged down several of the vehicles that were going northwards. I reached as far as “The Mile and ah Half” before any driver stopped for me.
The grayish green Land Rover was driven by a diminutive old man who looked “half-Chinese and half-Spanish”. He did not bother to ask me how far I was going. Neither did I ask him.
Prior to living at Torrecilla I had lived and worked in three different parts of the valley for a few eventful years.
During my employ at and at nearby Springhill and during my residence at La Laja I had on countless occasions walked both ways along the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road and I had come to know the road like a dear friend or lover. I had been prepared to walk all the way to Morne La Croix if necessary. It did not matter to me how far this old man was going. There was no need to ask him. What mattered to me was that he was going in the right direction that would have taken me closer to my destination. As it turned out he was “going to Paria Village” as I soon discovered when we started chatting. I was quite graceful for the lift.
* * * * * *
The driver of the vehicle that gave me a lift that day was called Ralph Aqui. He was born in Arima in 1916.
I discovered that the then seventy-five year Ralph Aqui had a cocoa estate at Paria. He was originally from Arima but like many Arimians over the years he divided his time between the comforts of his Arima residence and the greater enjoyment of the outdoors, the solitude and the more rudimentary facilities on the estate. I told him about the reason for my trip and he shared with me the little that he knew about the Double Chaconia.
It was an interesting tale about a Chinese connection that possibly played a role in the discovery of the Double Chaconia. I do not remember all the details. His father Timothy Aqui was however born in Grand Couva to Chinese parents and at age four – as was the custom among Chinese in Trinidad in that era- he was sent back to China.
At age sixteen he had returned to Trinidad where he later rose to the position of Mayor of Arima (after FEM Hosein had been unexpected affected by a stroke in 1931) and was also a wealthy landowner with a number of estates near the village of Paria which totalled one hundred and twenty five acres. Timothy was a good friend of the Hochoy family of Blanchisseuse as well as the Chin-Aleongs and Chy Pows who were Chinese planters with lands at Madamas. His father may also have been a friend of the Attecks.
From the age of nine Ralph had been accompanying his father to his estates in Paria. He had an intimate knowledge about the history of the Arima Valley, the discovery of the Double Chaconia and of the various Chinese families between Arima and Blanchisseuse. Regrettably, in 2002 I lost most of the notes from that initial discussion with Mr Aqui.
Although I had interviewed him a few ties thereafter, he passed away before I could again get him to again discuss the various connections in detail with me. Those connections among Chinese families in Trinidad formed part of a larger Chinese connection in Trinidad. Ralph’s sister Irene was married to David Auyong.
At the time of the discovery of the Double Chaconia Auyong was still a single man; however over the years Ralph had learnt quite a bit about the event and the subsequent efforts to propagate the plant from his brother-in-law. Ralph credited Auyoung with being responsible for taking the plant down “to the agriculture in St Augustine.” He was quite certain in his view that “David Auyoung found the Double Chaconia plant. He had relatives in Blanchisseuse and they were traveling on the road.”
* * * * * *
Several years later I met an Arima elder called Epiphania. In our conversation she described a plant, which she knew in the yard of her childhood residence at Paria. She was born around …….A few years ago I shared a long piece about the amazing circumstances under how she first mentioned it to me. A few years later she repeated the assertion when I carried a flowering specimen of the Double Chaconia to show her.
* * * * * *
For the sake of posterity, I would like to share some more details fro members of the Atteck family: “Phil was on a drive when Grace discovered the double chaconia. Also in the car was Clive Atteck, Sybil Atteck, and a family friend, David Au Young. As they were driving along, Grace saw the flash of red in the forest and asked Clive to stop the car.
They climbed the little mound at the side of the road and saw a tree about twelve to fifteen feet high in full bloom with huge red flowers a good meter long. It was a very impressive sight. Grace recognized that the petals were chaconia flower petals. The girls cut off two branches. This could have been 1957. Phil is not sure of the date.
At that time, Phil was friendly with Roy Nichols at I.C.T.A. and he showed the flower to Roy who recognized that this was a mutation of the single chaconia. Grace, Clive, and David Au Young went back to the original tree and took cuttings which Roy used to experiment with in order to propagate this plant. Out of ten cuttings, only one survived. This is now planted in the garden of the University of the West Indies.
With this, Roy determined exactly what soil and other conditions were required to propagate this plant. Grace subsequently married Vernon (Harvest) Mulloon. Grace and Harvest settled in Five Rivers, Arouca where they were able to grow the double chaconia successfully.”
* * * * * *
As a point of interest, I should point out that Rita Atteck, one of the Attech siblings married to Dr. Romeo Huggins, the brother of Thelma Huggins, who became Lady Thelma Hochoy, the wife of Sir Solomon Hochoy, our first and only local Governor, and the nation’s first Governor General. As a boy Solomon Hochoy attended school in Arima. Back in 1957 the Attecks and David Au Young were on their way to visit the Hochoys in Blanchisseuse. There were a number of other interesting connections but I would not detail them here.
* * * * * *
Ralph Aqui and I had thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company as the old man skillfully maneuvered the sharp corners along the narrow roadway. The stories he shared with me were like a breath of fresh air and they seemed to make our journey seem shorter. I thoroughly enjoyed the cool mountain breeze and the changing landscapes even as I was learning more and more about the history of the valley as we made our way.
In fact the journey along the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road offers some of the most scenic vistas in Trinidad. The journey from the Royal Chartered Borough of Arima, with its rich Amerindian past, to the ever-expanding coastal village of Blanchisseuse, where the nouveau riche were now establishing their seaside country villas, captures various elements of our natural vegetation and wildlife as intrepid explorers have long discovered.
Snippets of pristine rain forest still remain in area where the sometimes almost perpendicular inclines of the Northern Range have kept the enterprising conuquero at bay. Guacharos or diablotin, the birds of eternal darkness, still nest in riparian grottos as their preceding generations had done for centuries. The traveler who has the time to pause long enough along this scenic pathway would also obtain some fantastic snapshots of the rich and multicultural social tapestry that occurs in the Arima Valley.
Here and there, an old conuquero or conuquera had survived in whose blood coursed the experiences of the Orinoco and the Caroni; Tucupita and Tucuche; Irapa and Aripo. These men and their womenfolk were walking, living legends.
They were libraries that had long been neglected to such an extent that the pages of their minds had begun to become mouldy, brittle and covered with cobwebs. In some cases their speech had begun to slur with the passage of time and the loss of molars and incisors. Their movements too, had been slowed by arthritic pains, by sprains, by the debilitating effect of malaria contracted in their childhood and by other diseases.
It was to Yombé that many of them and their children would have gone for bush medicines, for oraciones or incantations of “Spanish prayers” and for massages for their afflictions. For decades Yombé had provided care for their needs. Pioneers of the village such as Shombay, Cooonchoo Mendoza, John Lazara, Leo Plaza, Cataleene, Ballengting Noreiga, Alexan Payah, Ringching, Manito Tores, Hechunday and Eliza James all made their way to his door and dooryard garden in search of traditional remedies. It did not require much further enquiry to find him.
Yombé lived in the heart of the village of Vera de la Cruz or Morne La Croix. His humble home stood some distance back from the fairly well-paved roadway. With the aid of the dried, slender, cut stem of an anare palm, he approached his doorway to welcome me.
To the back of his home I could see an abandoned garden which had now been overgrown by secondary growth or lastrojo as he called it. Plants of wild tobacco or mata gallina were everywhere and the droppings below the trees indicated that not only did his fowls feed upon them, but that they also roosted on the trees.
Ralph Aqui had dropped me off at Paria Junction and I had chosen to continue walking again until such time as another driver stopped for me. As I walked I had collected a blooming branch of Chaconia in preparation for my discussion with Yombé.
Having been invited to enter his home, Yombé offered me a seat on a simple, low bench that was smoothened by years of use, and covered by a piece of cloth that had seen better days. He then boyishly asked me if I was sick and if I had come “for medicine”. Before I could answer he told me that he does not do much cracking again because he was “getting down in age”. It took a short while before I could explain to him that I was fine and that I had come on an altogether different mission.
I would not provide many details details of our meeting here. Suffice to say that Yombé was one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met in my like.
For what seemed like a few minutes he spoke no English at all and I immediately remembered my maternal grandmother. Louisa “Miss Vio” Morean was an ebony woman, but she spoke Castillian fluently on account of having spent her early teenage years in Venezuela. Her youngest child, Jemisca or Miss Ann as she is affectionately known, is my mother, and “Miss Vio” had made strenuous efforts during Jemisca’s childhood to ensure that Jemisca too, would learn to speak Castillian, much to the latter’s chagrin. “Miss Vio’s” efforts with Jemisca met with moderate success but a few decades later, she found herself admonishing Jemisca’s children that the day would come when they would wish that they could speak Spanish.
As I listened to Yombé, boyishly and excitingly rattling off his knowledge and experiences in Castillian, I wished indeed that I had spent more time sitting at my grandmother’s feet.
Whenever I found myself in the presence of knowledgeable, old cocoa payols who still spoke a lot of Castillian, I felt the sense of regret. On meeting Yombé, this experience was stronger than ever for I instinctively knew that I was in the presence of a far from ordinary man. I wished that my mother could have been there with me to help translate the words of Yombé, but even if I had invited her, she would not have come.
* * * * * *
As I sat speaking to Yombé, the valley became enveloped in mist and I reflected that the true history of Trinidad and Tobago would never be properly written because the knowledge of men like Yombé has often gone to the grave with them or because the oral traditions have become distorted or mystified by the mist-filled passage of time.
Yombé was a gifted story teller who, unlike many of his peers, had retained a memory that was sometimes as sharp as a cocoa knife. With it, he would reach into the recesses of his brain to regale me with his many life experiences. He was also as gracious and as graceful as he was in his youth when he also picked cocoa. If he was uncertain about anything, he would jovially say: “Ah cyah even remember nah boy. When yuh come back, ah go tell yuh. So long de brains din have to think ‘bout dat.”
One thing he remembered well however was the Double Chaconia. “Dat plant gorn,” he said. “Dat gorn long time. El tiempo passado. Mucho tiempo. When ah was a young man, ah knew dat plant. It grew in de forest not too far from here. Muchas! Flol!”
In the beginning I had to remind Yombé ever so often that I did not speak Spanish, as I quickly attempted to scribble to the best of my ability, the words he uttered in Castillian again and again. Yombé related that as a young man, he used to hunt a lot of wild hogs and other game, and, that on his hunting expeditions, he sometimes encountered a guacamayo plant that was brighter than the others.
“Talk about flowers. Cabo ah rabo!” he exclaimed.
Furthermore he indicated “It used to grow up the road. In them days the road was not like this. No cars could not pass here. Only mulo. Mulo ee burro.”
I surmised that Yombé had known the Double Chaconia along a mule track in the forest while he was still a teenager and even before the road from Arima to Blanchisseuse was opened to light vehicular traffic on 18th May 1931 by the then Governor Sir Claud Hollis and the then Mayor of Arima F.E.M. Hosein.
Yombé promised me that if I could find a car, he would take me to show me where the plant grew.
From speaking to Yombé, it became evident to me that the Double Chaconia had been around for quite some time before its discovery by Grace Mulloon. It was only several years later, however that I actually began to explore that possibility.
Alas, fuller details about his experiences may probably never be known, for Yombé passed away before I was able to arrange a car for him to take us to the exact place where he claimed the Double Chaconia grew.
Today I believe there would be the celebration of the Ganga Dhara at the Marianne River along the Blanchisseuse Road. Back in 2005 I first attended that river festival.
On my way back to Arima that afternoon, I decided on a hunch to stop of at the village of Morne La Croix to interview some elders there. To my surprise that evening I discovered that there was a plant of the Double Chaconia growing in some lastro in a garden in the village. Based upon the conversations with a number of elders in the village, I came to the conclusion that the plant there was not derived from the cuttings which were cultivated at ICTA.
I slept in Morne La Croix that night. Before going to bed however, my last conversation was with Simeon Gomez and his wife Gloria.
Simeon indicated that “The tree in the yard of Miss Ross was planted about at least 40 years ago.” I quickly calculated that the tree would have been there since at least 1965. In 1962, according to the popular account, only 8 plants of the Double Chaconia were known to science. It was very unlikely that the plant growing here in the village could have come from the initial propagation efforts at the University. Simeon quickly gave more details, “Deceased Charles Ross told me about a plant from the 12 mile. You don’t find that nowhere else in the country. Boy it pretty! Ross told me that it was from there he got his plant.”
The “mother plant” had in fact been growing there many years before its discovery by Grace Mulloon and company. That was only natural. Literally. Simeon’s father Cornelius Cyprian Ruiz was born in Caura in 1899. As a young man in his early twenties he worked on the construction of the Arima- Blanchisseuse Road.
In 1941 he relocated to Lopinot when the government took over the village to construct the ill-fated Caura dam. Simeon recounted that: “My father used to come from Caura to work on the road while they were digging it with crowbar and pick axe. Brother if you reach two minutes late you not working that day work.
He used to leave Caura three, four in the morning with flambeau they called it in those days.” He told me about the nice wakameye that grew up there. The water dam was not there in those days, but there was a Rest House close to the spot where the plant grew. The nice wakameye grew less than half mile from the Rest House.
The Rest House is no longer there. Also gone is the one which stood at Las Lapas Junction and the one at Morne La Croix which was replaced by the Community Centre during the 1960s.
Many government employees would have stopped at these Rest Houses on their sojourns from Blanchisseuse to Paria and Arima and vice versa. Many may have seen this beautifully wakameye. Is it possible that other folks who had seen the plant had tried to grow it from pieces long before the efforts of Atteck and Nichols? Were there any other old folks around who may know something about this natural mutation? All these thoughts and questions raced through my mind.
The roadways from Paria to Morne La Croix traverses many old and abandoned cocoa estates and meets the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road at two points, both of which are about a little more than a mile or two from the area that the original Double Chaconia plant grew. Was it possible that the plant in the garden of Epiphania’s father in Paria back in the mid nineteen twenties may have made a circuitous journey from Morne La Croix?
As I retired to my room that night I began to mentally scour the forested areas between Lopinot and Madamas which I had trod in the past. I was almost convinced that somewhere in those forests or somewhere in an old conuquero’s garden more Double Chaconia could be found. I surmised that like the plant in the garden of the late Mr. Ross, I must have passed them straight. I began to make mental preparations for a trip to Manchuria and Paria.
Up here in these mountains, farmers would sometimes used stakes of guacamayo to mark the position of young plants, and the humid conditions would stimulate the growth of the guacamayo cuttings. Was it not possible that some country dwellers could, like Grace Atteck, have seen the Double Chaconia and, enthralled by its beauty, taken it to their home and planted it in the same spirit as they would have collected wild orchids and kept them in their gardens?
I spent the next morning talking to more elders in the village about the plant of the Double Chaconia that was growing in the village. At the end of it all I was convinced that the plant had been growing there since at least the late 1950s.
From time to time thereafter I have continued to reflect upon the questions that had engaged me in Morne La Croix on that Sunday night and Monday morning.. I have received no further convincing evidence since then although I have heard claims from a few other woodsmen from the village, who claimed that they knew it. Of those, only one person is still alive. And apart from him there are just 3 elders I can still identify, who may be able to provide me with what I can consider to be reliable information, free from prompting, and hopefully free from the influence of information disseminated by media houses and social media. I do not know when I may be able to interview them.
One of the things I however hope for is that the local authorities can collaborate and utilise all the available records to try to pinpoint the locality where the Double Chaconia was first collected by Grace Atteck and David Auyoung. They can then widen the road in the area and plant some Double Chaconia there and install interpretative signs and a visitor centre close to the location.
Both Mr. Cyril and Yombe had informed me that the location where the mother plant had been located was very close to one of the places in the area that the old residents called “Daily Bread.” The area was so called because in those days, residents in the area were almost assured of regular income (their daily bread) from the Public Works Department because of the frequency of landslides in the area. This simple proposal can contribute today to providing some daily bread for those who are involved in tourism ventures along the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road. This bread can be provided by domestic community-driven tourism as well as by visitors from abroad.
Finally, without going into too many technical details, I wish to point out for the sake of clarity, that both varieties of the Chaconia are indigenous or native species to Trinidad. The Double Chaconia is however unique to Trinidad. It is what is described by Botanists as an endemic species. It is because of its beauty and this aspect of being endemic to Trinidad that a number of prominent citizens have lobbied for over 25 years to have it selected as our National Flower.
I need to emphasize as well that none of these varieties are native to Tobago. Although however, the Double Chaconia is endemic to Trinidad, I am aware that the plants have been introduced to Tobago by a few horticulturalists. That does not change the fact that it is endemic to Trinidad.
There are no international rules governing the processes by which a nation select its National Flower or goes about choosing the common names of its plants.
Thus, whereas the common wild type of the Chaconia was called the “Trinidad Pride Tree” or the “Trinidad Pride”, I see no reason why citizens cannot call it the “Pride of Trinidad and Tobago” or the Trinbago Pride or any such name.
And on that note, I would like to close by sharing some little-known insights into the name Trinidad Pride and the initial selection of the Chaconia as the National Flower in 1962.
A National Flower had to be selected and the Committee which had only three weeks to complete its report to the Minister of Home Affairs. There were seventeen members of that Committee, none of whom were botanists. It is also unlikely whether any members of the Committee were from Tobago, although Mr. T.C. Cambridge, the Chairman of the Committee had lived and worked in Tobago for several years. The job of selecting a National Flower and a National Bird was delegated to a core of seven members which included Sybil Atteck.
It is not clear to me who may have originally proposed the Chaconia as the national flower as the minutes of the meetings of the committee, if they in fact still exist, have not been available to me. It is reported however that the committee received thousands of letters with suggestions from citizens. One person however who reportedly played an important part in the eventual selection of the Chaconia as our national flower was Mr. Andrew Thomas Carr.
Mr. Carr was a noted folklorist and ethnographer and also at the time a high-ranking member of the Trinidad Field Naturalists’ Club and a member of the Zoological Society. He was also an Officer of the People’s National Movement and had already been instrumental in 1956 in the selection of the balisier, as the symbol of that political organization. He had been a long standing member of the Trinidad Field Naturalists’ Club and had been a closer friend of the Botanist W.E. Broadway. Broadway had taken great delight in the Chaconia and had intimated to Andrew Carr that if Trinidad ever needed to select a National Flower, the Chaconia would have been his choice.
In fact it was most likely Broadway himself who coined the name “Trinidad Pride” for the Chaconia. Writing in 1922, Mr. E.M. de Freitas a visitor at the time to Trinidad had noted “Apart from the recently applied name “Trinidad Pride Tree” it is known in the country districts as Chaconia, Crimson Plume and Wild Poinsettia. For the information of those persons, visitors or residents, who do not know this picturesque tree near Port of Spain, I may say that specimens of it grow wild behind the Post Office, St. Ann’s; also on the eastern side of the Look-out in the Gardens there is one now flowering, just to the north of the road before you ascend the road leading up the hill.”
From the tone of articles written around that time by Broadway, it appears obvious that the name “Trinidad Pride Tree” had been coined subsequent to his arrival here from England. As far as I am aware, the name “Trinidad Pride” has been first identified in the National Herbarium collection from a specimen collected a few miles east of Arima in 1916.
At that time the other major plant taxonomist in Trinidad was J.A. Hart, the former boss and antagonist of Broadway. Although Hart was a prolific writer and his tenure as the head Botanist in Trinidad probably saw the most official publications arising out of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the majority of his works are unfortunately absent from our libraries or bookshelves today.
This may therefore leave room for some conjecture about the origin of the common name “Trinidad Pride”. It is noteworthy however that the herbarium collection made by Hart in May 1889 does not bear a common name. Neither do the collections made in November 1864 and July 1888 which were subsequently arranged by Hart at the Herbarium.
Broadway wrote regular columns in local newspapers in the decade or so before his sudden death in 1935.
Like Andrews Carr, the Attecks were well acquainted with Broadway and had accompanied him on several field trips.
As Independence day drew nearer and nearer. Both Andrew Carr and Miss Atteck would have been beaming with Trinidad pride and would have supported the choice of the Chaconia.
Now, 57 years after the discovery of the Double Chaconia by her sister Grace in 1957, we are in the final stages of its declaration as our National Flower.
PS: A few words seem to have disappeared from the text. I would fix them later.