Pointe Baleine in 1910. The silk-cotton tree seen here still stands and once marked the location of a whaling station established in the 1820s.To most of us, Gaspar Grande or Gasparee Island is a quiet place occupied seasonally by holiday homeowners or renters. This minute limestone rock just off the northwestern peninsula is far richer in history and heritage than we can imagine.
Perhaps because of the lack of water, the Amerindian presence on the islet was non-existent or temporary. The place takes its name from Gaspar Percin de la Roque who was granted the entire island by Don Jose Maria Chacon, the last Spanish Governor, in 1783. The conditions were suitable for little other than cotton cultivation, but since this was then the dominant cash crop in the colony, almost the entire 330 acre extent was soon covered with sea-island cotton trees.
Quiet cotton plantation though it was, Gasparee was of strategic military importance to the Spanish colonial authorities since Spain was at war with Britain in the end of the 18th century. Slaves bound to the cotton plantations on Gasparee were pressed into work terracing sites for forts and batteries, as well as cutting a roadway to the top of the hill and dragging up the heavy artillery needed to reinforce the position.
A considerable number of cannon, mortars and shot were landed but the earthworks and walls were not completed in a timely fashion and lumber (mainly wooden barrels) formed a crude redoubt while the cannon lay in disarray while they were slowly put in place.
A small flotilla of Spanish warships under the cowardly Commander Apodaca were anchored between the island and Chaguaramas bay. It remains to be told in another column how in February 1797, the British Admiral, Sir Ralph Abercrombie, swept into the Gulf of Paria at the command of an overwhelming force and wrested Trinidad from the Spaniards, and how Apodaca set his ships ablaze without the slightest resistance.
Upon the assumption of British rule, Sir Thomas Hislop, governor, set about strengthening the colony’s fortifications which included the incomplete Spanish fort at the eastern end of Gasparee. My friend and fellow historian, Jalaludin Khan has exhaustively documented the remaining military relics of Gasparee, from the Spanish times straight up to World War II and is able to identify most of the earthworks which once made the island a stronghold.
Bombshell Bay is so known for the cache of mortar shells discovered there, which are large metal cannon shot, hollow inside, and filled with powder and smaller balls. Hislop’s fortifications on the foundations of the Spanish emplacements can still be seen, but it requires a keen sense of history to find anything else.
After the period of construction ended, it appears that cotton cultivation terminated at Gasparee and whaling became the main economic activity. From Gaspar Percin de la Roque, a Bermudan whaling captain, C A White, acquired in 1826, the piece of flat land later known as Pointe Baleine. Here he established a whaling station, complete with coppers for rendering the blubber into oil, and targeted the herds of migrating humpback whales which passed through the Bocas annually.
Whale oil was then traded globally much like petroleum oil is today, bringing in great returns to investors. Unlike the whaling operations of New England (made famous by Herman Melville), whaling in Trinidad did not employ large ships but were “shore” stations where lookouts were posted on the hilltops of the Bocas Islands to signal the men below when a herd or single whale was sighted.
Sturdy longboats, each manned by a dozen rowers and a harpooner would be speedily launched and the slain whale then laboriously towed inshore for processing. It is also recorded that a small amount of springy whalebone was also exported from Trinidad, being much in demand for ladies’ corsets in particular.
Being able to only snag eleven whales in his first year of operation, White was soon bankrupt, with his holdings being auctioned in 1828 to another whaler named Joell who had a station at Chacachacare. Joell carried on his trade here until 1833 when the operations at Pointe Baleine were taken over by the Tardieu clan of Monos Island, who for generations have been the intrepid fishermen and adventurers of the Bocas islands.
Jean Baptiste Tardieu, the patriarch and clan head, was in partnership with a firm of German merchants in Port-of-Spain, Gerold and Urich, who made arrangements for the sale of the casks of whale oil produced at the whaling stations. In the shade of an ancient silk-cotton tree which still stands, the whaling station of Pointe Baleine carried on into the 1850s.
Source: Angelo Bissessarsingh
Published: Sunday, April 10, 2016
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