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Centipede and Kronstadt

Sunday, May 29 2005

First — about Centipede, the dome-shaped island covered with bush in Chaguaramas Bay between Gaspar Grande and the mainland of Trinidad. If the asking price for a tiny island at the mouth of Winn’s Bay is a million and a half TT dollars, how much more would Centipede, or Little Gasparee, fetch if it were on the open market? But it’s not. First known as Gasparillo (Spanish, so we’re told, for “Little Gasparee”), renamed “Scorpion Island” because it was thought to be infested with scorpions, then “Gopee” — a corruption of Guppy because it was once owned by a member of the Guppy family, maybe Plantagenet, who was a keen naturalist and founder-member of the Trinidad Field Naturalists’ Club. It’s thought he bought the island for scientific research but forgot to pay his land tax and so the island became forfeit to the Crown. His son, Lechmere, wasn’t able to get a grant of this two-acre island.


Sometime in the early 20th Century C C Stollmeyer may have bought, or, perhaps, leased the island, hoping to quarry the limestone but found, like its big sister Gasparee, the rock honeycombed with caves and crevices. He leased the tiny island north of Centipede to Gransaull who built a holiday home there. During World War II, when the Chaguaramas Peninsula was taken over by the Americans, the Government took possession of the island that older fishermen claim used to be known as “Centre Piece” because it is in mid-channel. Others say it’s called “Centipede” after the number of centipedes inhabiting the island. Today, Centipede is an unofficial bird sanctuary, home to pelicans and corbeaux and short-tailed swifts that nest in holes in the eastern face of the island.


Kronstadt and Carrera are known as the Diego Islands because they were originally part of the ward of Diego Martin. It may, indeed, it must surprise anyone passing to the west of Kronstadt to learn that in 1940 the island was declared a wild life sanctuary — we’ll come to that sad story in due course. Originally known as Begorrat from the time the Cabildo leased, or granted possession to one of its members, St Hilaire Begorrat, the island may have been used for a holiday resort. The soil is thin and poor, a few hardy trees struggle to survive, the rest of the 11 and 3/4 acres could only support a scrub forest of hardy plants with spines and thick, leathery leaves. Begorrat certainly had no hopes of making fortunes from Sea Island Cotton, Moreover, since there were no beaches, whaling was out of the question.


Fr de Verteuil hints that Begorrat was known to be an accomplished smuggler and a sympathiser with Venezuelan revolutionaries fighting for freedom from Spain. A double agent, Domingo Valenilla, sailing from Margaritas with letters for Santiago Mariño pleading with him to assist the Republicans, were actually addressed to Begorrat. About the mid-19th century, the name changed when another Cabildo member Cretau, obtained possession. The Cretau family, too, used the island as a holiday resort for themselves, and made some money on the side from mining the west face of the island for limestone to use as ballast to keep ships in trim after discharging their cargoes in Port-of-Spain. The Cretau family kept possession of its island until 1868 (or thereabouts) when the Colonial government acquired it to use as an adjunct to the convict prison on Carrera. The house, on the eastern side of the island, was the prison doctor’s residence and soon became known as “Doctor’s Island.” Deep water on the western side made it an ideal anchorage for ships taking on ballast.


Kronstadt is an island in the Baltic sea guarding the approaches to St Petersburg. No one seems to know why or when Begorrat/Cretau island became officially known as Kronstadt, it appears as such on maps dated 1910, even though the prison doctor was living there until 1915. Government retained the western part of Kronstadt to provide materials for road-building and about 1920 Messrs Mackenzie & Co opened a limestone quarry. The doctor’s house was abandoned; in the same year Government decided to move the leprosarium to Chacachacare where the Roman Catholic Church had a considerable acreage of land. On December 29, 1921, an eviction order gave notice that “ALL THE LANDS (exclusive of the property of the Roman Catholic Church) . . . have been appropriated for the purpose of establishing a Leper Settlement.”


However, the Roman Catholic Church was obliged to give up some land on Chacachacare — mainly the parish church and a holiday house for the clergy. In exchange, Governor Sir John Chancellor offered Archbishop Dowling the eastern part of Kronstadt as a retreat, rest and holiday home for the clergy, but it was only in 1923 that Government signed a 999-year deed leasing three acres of land and existing buildings on Kronstadt at the peppercorn rent of one shilling a year. Included in the lease was an agreement for Government to repair and paint the buildings before the official handover. The Public Works Department who were to do the repairs claimed they had no money; when forced to do some work, officials insisted that the jetty was ‘in usable condition’, but the jetty very soon collapsed altogether. Relations between Church and State were not improved in 1924, when the Archbishop was sent a demand for £11 for land taxes on Kronstadt.


Apparently something was done to repair the jetty, for Fr de Verteuil records that although the clergy made little use of the house on Kronstadt, the archbishop lent, or rented it out to families of the laity. It was Archbishop Dowling’s three-acres of Kronstadt that was designated a wildlife sanctuary, a haven for birds, scorpions and iguanas. Nevertheless, it appears mining continued on the western side of the island. It must have been a considerable relief to the archbishop when, in 1946, Government bought back the lease on Kronstadt, rebuilt the jetty, restored the house and cleared the worst of the encroaching bush to provide a residence for the Superintendent of Prisons. Subsequently, the house became the holiday home for the Governor, complete with resident caretaker who kept the house clean and the grounds and paths clear of thorny shrubs and weeds.


From 1960 to 1972 Governor-General Sir Solomon Hochoy and his family spent most Christmas and Easter holidays on Kronstadt. The last Governor-General (and first President of the Republic) Sir Ellis Clarke, also enjoyed holidays on Kronstadt — for the first two or three years in office. Let Fr de Verteuil tell what happened then: “One day, as he was enjoying his holiday here, a terrible explosion shook the house and chunks of limestone rained down from the heavens! Blasting in the quarry on the western side of the island continued to endanger the lives of those relaxing on the east and, considering discretion to be the better part of valour, Sir Ellis abandoned for good his holiday resort.” One gets the impression that whoever decided to declare Kronstadt a wildlife sanctuary made no provision for protecting wildlife on the island.


Dr Bal Ramdial, conservator of forests in the late 1960s and early 1970s, noted that “visits by game wardens and forest officers have not been frequent, principally because of the presence of a full-time caretaker and the quarrying activities on the island.” Once the Governor-General, fearful of another explosion endangering life and limb, abandoned the island, the buildings, jetty and boat house were left to the mercy of vandals and the weather. The “wildlife sanctuary” is home to “a few half-starved machete snakes”, lizards and some birds. Meanwhile, on the other (western) side of the island it is business as usual for Barytes and Minerals Ltd, who took over mining operations from Mackenzie & Co in 1953. Beginning with a 25-year lease to quarry limestone, Barytes and Minerals soon turned to processing materials for use in the oilfields. Wimpey quarried material on Kronstadt for the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway and Daito-Fujitsu, for rocks to construct a breakwater at Point Lisas.


However, all quarrying operations have now ceased. Barytes and Minerals imports barytes from places as far apart as China, Morocco, Brazil and India. The barytes rock is ground up and processed to use in drilling for oil. Ships tied up at the dock on Kronstadt deliver the raw material, barges take the processed fine powder to Galeota for the off-shore drilling rigs. Yet even this may come to an end: Fr de Verteuil notes that with growing industrialisation in China, Brazil, etc countries mining barytes are likely to process their own raw materials. So what lies ahead? Who knows . . . Next week Carrera, the Prison Isle.


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