Don Jose Maria Chacon: Respecting The Lizard

Recently I was reminded of Don José María Chacón, the last Spanish Governor of Trinidad and Tobago. The trigger for this memory was the severe flooding that has been causing misery in Trinidad. It took me back to Chacón and his manhandling of one watercourse when he began in 1787, the gargantuan feat of changing the course of the St. Ann's River in Port of Spain. The accounts also tell us that Chacón took money out of his own private purse to complete that project! That really impressed me when I first learned of it since we've come to expect that with some public officials the cash flow will go in the opposite direction.

Don José María Chacón 

From the little that I was taught in school about the last Spanish Governor of Trinidad and Tobago, I've had no reason to dislike Chacón. I think the man genuinely loved Trinidad and did his best to impose his idea of order on the place. Under the best of circumstances, that could have been problematic especially if as a non-native he had been driven by an unbridled missionary impulse. But there's enough in the history books to suggest that Chacón did go native and that his intentions were sincerely for the betterment of the lives of the inhabitants of the island.

If you've never read The History of Trinidad under the Spanish Government by Pierre Gustave Louis Borde, I promise you that you will not regret getting your hands on this two-volume work. It was republished by Paria Publishing in 1982 and I continue to count it among my favourite history texts. Borde supplies lots of details about Chacón that present the man and the administrator and the spirit which infused his tenure as Governor of Trinidad. I mentioned earlier that he had taken money out of his own pocket to help finance the redirecting of the St. Ann's river. From Borde's account, it seems that his civic mindedness was contagious:
"p.238 - Finally it was the business community of the town which was disinterested enough to impose a tax of 2 1/2 percent on all importations to provide funds for the construction of a prison, a theatre and other public buildings. Each one considered it an honour to do something for the good of the country, and these noble sentiments produced a perfect accord between the administration and those who were administered. The colony was so attached to their Governor that, fearing they might one day see him replaced by someone else, a universal petition was sent to the metropolitan government in Spain at the beginning of 1788 (13th April). It was signed by all members of the Cabildo, the commandants of the quarters, the Alcaldes, and many others, requesting, in the name of the entire community of Trinidad, that the term of office of Don José María Chacón should be prolonged by five years."

p. 235 - In Port of Spain, the merchants were numerous. The place was bursting with French haberdashery, which the launches from the Spanish Main came in great numbers to buy. The exports from the colony consisted of sugar, coffee, cotton, cocoa and indigo. All the industries and professions and trades prospered, and the well-being of the colony was general. One can say without exaggeration, that the period of the first eight years of the government of Don José María Chacón was the Golden Age of Trinidad."

The History of Trinidad under the Spanish Government by Pierre Gustave Louis Borde, Part Two
As Chacón kept coming to mind, I began to wonder about the meaning of the word Chacón and after searching Google, I discovered to my amusement that it means "gecko"- what some of us might have referred to as a teck-a-teck.
"The Chacón surname comes from the word Chacón, meaning "gecko", as such it was most likely originally a nickname which went on to become a hereditary surname."
Reading this, I had to smile. The eminent Don José María Chacón, The Chevalier de Calatrava, Sanchez de Sotomayor, Rodriguez de Rivera, Infante de Lara y Castro, under the weight of the high expectations of the Spanish empire for their colony of Trinidad, had been teetering all this time on the back of a tiny reptile! This illustrious man, who also carried the official titles of Captain General and Governor of the Island, Sub-Inspector of the Troops in his garrison, Judge Conservator and Royal Vice Patron of Mails and Postages, could also have been known as "The Lizard".

I began to really think about "lizards" after that revelation. Everyone has a lizard. Some people hide theirs and others wear them proudly on their sleeves. The personalities of some lizards are so distinctive that people acknowledge them and they become the inspirations for the nicknames which are given to their owners. There is a lizard under every grand idea, every grand scheme and it can be the strongest or the weakest link in its fulfillment. Present at every event is a lizard, and it's appearance can either empty a room or prove to be the life of the party.

On matters of sovereignty though, Chacón's lizard had the final roar. In 1797 he advised his namesake to surrender the island of Trinidad to a British fleet under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby, all this without a squeak. We must also remember that this was also accomplished without any human blood being spilled. Empires hate the sovereignty of other states but Chacón was not about to take a stand to defend Spanish sovereignty on the backs of the inhabitants of the colony.
"p. 283 - Thus, by eight o'clock in the evening, all the Spanish forces found themselves completely encircled, General Abercromby having taken up these positions was now certain that his opponents could not escape him, and he therefore sent an officer to the Governor under a flag of truce, to deliver the following message:

p. 284 - Tell the Governor [Chacón] that I regret to see that he has no hope whatever of obtaining what he desires. The superiority of the forces under my command has made me master of this town, and has enabled me to encircle both the land and sea forces in such a manner that, by taking possession of the heights they have been cut off from all communication and all help; that with such unequal forces as he has at his disposal there is no possibility of making any resistance. Rather than spilling blood uselessly, I request that he should appoint a place where we can confer together and where I can offer him the most honourable capitulation which it is possible to give to good and faithful soldiers who otherwise would be uselessly sacrificed. ...

After two long days of anxiety, Governor Chacon finally succeeded in getting what he wanted all the time, that is , the capitulation of the island without any fighting. He called together a council of war consisting of the Lieutenant Governor and the Officers commanding the various corps, so that they could discuss the proposal of the English general. All of them, taking into consideration the desperate position of their affairs, necessarily decided to agree to capitulation. After that, an interview took place between the two heads, at which it was agreed to

p. 285 - suspend all armed action immediately and a conference was arranged for eight o'clock the next morning the 18th, to discuss the terms of capitulation. At the appointed hour the next day, General Abercromby, Admiral Harvey and Governor Chacon met in one of the houses in the town, and the following fifteen articles of Capitulation were recorded and signed by them..."

Source: The History of Trinidad under the Spanish Government by Pierre Gustave Louis Borde, Part Two
It is my belief that Chacón's lizard loved humanity [or feared the French] even more than Spanish sovereignty or the British empire. He turned his back on Spain and signed us over to the British. Some of us would not have been here today if he had made another choice, just like things would have gone very differently if the armed forces between 10:30 and 11:00 on the night of Friday 27 July, 1990, had actually obeyed A.N.R. Robinson's spirited command: "Attack with full force!"

Perhaps our armed forces' reluctant lizard was a direct descendant of Chacón's?

With such weighty subjects, it is my curse [or my lizard] to be constantly distracted.

"Patria est communis omnium parens" - Our native land is the common parent of us all. Keep it beautiful, make it even more so.

Blessed is all of creation
Blessed be my beautiful people
Blessed be the day of our awakening
Blessed is my country
Blessed are her patient hills.

Mweh ka allay!


louis said...

You should have been around when I was a student in Trinidad so that your "lizard" could persuade those who wrote our curriculum that we did indeed have a local history, that enough documentation of it existed to write books about it. While we did receive an excellent education in other disciplines, local history was almost completely ignored. Perhaps if it hadn't been our national identity and the development of Trinidad might have taken a better route.

I wish though you hadn't referred to teck a teck , which we also called "twenty-four hours", a loathsome creature that was reputed to stick to your skin for twenty-four hours if it jumped on you. I was pretty horrified when my junior high age kids and their friends thought the "Gecko" brand of t-shirts with their large emblem of a teck a teck was "cool".

Guanaguanare said...

Ha Ha, Louis! Thanks for this comment! You and I have had the same revulsion. I've always liked the house gecko but as a child, I hated the yard teck-a-teck with a passion. Unfortunately for me and my tenuous grip on sanity, the more my friends understood how much I feared it, the more they went out of their way to capture the things to then chase me screaming for my life around the place. My terror knew no bounds and all this because an adult neighbour one day, with a serious and knowing expression had wickedly described to me as a young and impressionable child, how the teck-a-teck could jump high and wide with deadly accuracy from wherever it was perched to land on my body to then stick to my skin for twenty-four hours. Such was the stuff of which my nightmares were made. Do you remember how the skin under the necks of some of those lizards would stick out and they would bob their heads while locking eyes with you? I used to think that that was a threat meant especially for me. Just writing about it makes me shudder. Adults should really not spoil things for children by telling them scary lies.

After all that about the poor harmless lizard, yes, Louis, I was shocked when I began reading about our history on my own and realising that we had been told virtually nothing. You grew up thinking that your country's history was not as "deep" and complex as that of others. You might have assumed that we were a tabula rasa still waiting endlessly for history to be made. Yes, you'd hear about the First Nations and the Spanish and the British and the slaves and the indentured workers and so on, but it seemed to be a mechanical and sterile diorama and even when the characters moved, you could almost hear the echoes of their footsteps as they moved through the void. I, at least, did not get a sense of connectedness with the place, of them making a real and lasting impression on the spaces through which they were moving. It was only later when I saw, for example, the petroglyph at Caurita and could more easily envision the presence of the First Peoples, or I finally understood why a particular street carried a particular name. Borde noted that Chacón Street in POS continued to carry that name after the British had renamed most of the rest because General Abercromby allowed it as a gesture of respect for Chacón. And also that Chacón Street actually followed part of the old course of the St. Ann's River!! Maybe someone reading this might get the ideas to read these history texts that bring our past to life and to create scripts that could be used by tour guides when taking locals back along the corridors of time. Wouldn't it be something if the Government could declare an annual National History Week and as one of the activities, subsidise well-researched and delivered tours of the major historical sites throughout the country so that citizens can get unto buses with their children and listen to the stories of how we've come to be what and where we are today.

Always so good talking to you, Louis. By the way, I still cannot stop thinking about that amazing post of yours "Man Overboard" If I were the editor of the cruise line's newspaper or website, I would be begging you to allow me to republish it there.

Guanaguanare said...

I made an interesting discovery lately thanks to WikiLeaks' Cablegate. It seems that the decision not to attack with full force as was commanded by A.N.R. Robinson was influenced by the advice of on-site US intelligence officers.

"Dookeran was laudatory about one particular aspect of the USG/GOTT bilateral relationship. Referring to the Jamaat-al- muslimeen failed coup attempt of 1990, Dookeran lamented the fact that the assistance provided to the GOTT at that time by the FBI's hostage negotiating team has never been properly acknowledged. When the Ambassador recalled then president Arthur N.R. Robinson's order to "attack with full force", Dookeran said that the advice of on-site US intelligence officers to the GOTT not to follow the president's order was obviously wise." SOURCE

Something else to think about.