Among the Dragon’s Mouths: Down the Islands, Trinidad

The tiny islands scattered off Trinidad’s north-west peninsula, separated by the sea channels called the Bocas del Dragon, are beautiful and sometimes eerie outposts of history. Gasparee, Monos, Chacachacare, and the others have long been known as holiday retreats, writes Sharon Millar, but their bays and hills also conceal a wealth of stories

Ruins of the former leprosarium on Chacachacare. Photograph by William BarrowGasparee Island’s limestone topography includes a well-known cave system. Photograph by Marianne HoseinThe eerie ruins of Chacachacare. Photograph by Nicholas BhajanLooking across Huevos Island, with Monos and Trinidad in the background. Photograph by Stephen BroadbridgeSunset on a Gasparee jetty, with a view of Monos. Photograph by Stephen BroadbridgeA sunset view along Trinidad’s north-west peninsula, with the Five Islands in the distance. Photograph by Stephen BroadbridgeTrinidad’s north-western peninsula

If you drive west out of Port of Spain and head to the tip of north-west Trinidad, soon you will run parallel to the sea. This drive will take you through the fishing village of Carenage and the fish vendors doing a brisk trade in fresh catch at the side of the road. Before long, on your left, a small cluster of islands appears, close enough to be interesting, but far away enough that you cannot get a fix on what lies on these small humps of land.

The drive will continue past the Trinidad Yachting Association, with its moored yachts and lightly clanking masts, past the Chaguaramas National Park’s newly installed boardwalk, and finally to the marinas stacked with pirogues and powerboats. At this point, you will be within the realm of the world collectively referred to by Trinidadians as “down the islands” — the string of islands that lie between Trinidad and Venezuela’s Paria Peninsula.

Many people would say that the true “down the islands” is life on Gasparee and Monos, the two islands closest to the mainland. They lie along the First Boca, that famed first exit to the Atlantic Ocean on Trinidad’s North Coast. Their proximity to the mainland is reflected in the density of island houses, which dot the bays and bluffs of Gasparee and Monos. On public holidays, people make their way in droves to the water. Those without island houses or cottages camp in Scotland Bay, or on rocky promontories on the southern end of Gasparee, to pitch a tent, fish, and “make a cook.”

But going “down the islands” means much more than a vacation destination. It also refers to a way of life with a long history of whaling, cotton farming, and fishing. Sadly, there is no longer a large resident population on these small islands. The Tardieu clan is an exception to this rule, and a growing number of them have stayed true to their “down the islands” heritage, living and working on Monos up to today.

 

Limestone Gasparee is the easiest of the islands to access from the mainland. Dry and dramatic (with less than forty inches of annual rainfall), Gasparee is full of tales and legends of whaling and fishing that have been passed down orally over the centuries. Nowadays it may be best known for its spectacular caves, found near the island’s western end, Point Baleine, where the caves open to dramatic stalagmites and stalactites and a small pool. As children, we often visited the caves unsupervised (it is now necessary to go with a guide), spending many an hour jumping from a high rock into the pool below, and catching the water dripping from the giant stalagmites.

Emerging at the Point Baleine exit, it’s hard to imagine that this spot was once an active whaling station. Whaling was, for a brief time in the mid nineteenth century, an active operation on the Bocas islands, started by the Joelle family who brought their Bermudian whaling experience to Trinidad, but the key players were the Tardieus. The three recognised whaling stations were at Point Baleine, Copper Hole (on Monos), and La Pecheury (on Chacachacare).

Its rocky limestone also makes Gasparee a perfect home for the infamous Bocas centipede, frequently encountered on the island. Anyone who has come upon one of the creatures (and I have!) knows they’re not for the faint of heart. They can be heard clattering their way through the undergrowth before they appear, with lengths of up to an alarming twelve inches, and a painful venomous bite. “The fangs on a real giant can be almost an inch long,” writes historian Anthony de Verteuil in his Western Islands of Trinidad, and the wound is delivered by way of “slashing scimitar pincers which are really fangs . . . conceivably the venom is capable of killing a small child.”

From the western tip of Gasparee, and along the northern sheltered side, there are excellent views of the First Boca. With its legendary large rock, Madame Teteron’s Tooth, the First Boca is a place of lore and also still a rich vein of fishing. It is still possible to catch (but not often!) its famed giant groupers. From Gasparee, Monos swims into view to the west of the First Boca. A gentle hilled island, with a history of cotton farming and fishing, Monos has sheltered coves and small beaches that make it ideal for swimming. In March and April, when the Gulf of Paria is full of red sardines, pods of dolphins will often follow your boat home, frolicking off the front bow. It is also not impossible to see the occasional pilot whale or even a false killer whale. Electricity from the mainland only goes as far as Monos, and this boundary is also marked, quite dramatically, by the wide and often-choppy Second Boca. From this juncture, the terrain becomes even more stunning, wild, and untouched. Then the Third Boca, separating Huevos from Chacachacare, suddenly pulls Venezuela into sight.

Chacachacare is the site of an abandoned leper colony, which closed its doors in 1984. Seen today, the island has the air of an abandoned village, and it’s hard to imagine that it was once a (mostly) self-sufficient community with roads, hospitals, a jail, sporting grounds, homes, a cinema, and at least one church (all run on electricity generators). Then the discovery of an antibiotic cure for Hansen’s disease made the colony unnecessary, after which, from what was left behind, it would seem that everyone departed the island on the first boat, in a hurry.

Despite the remaining ruins being aggressively overtaken by vegetation, exploring Chacachacare unearths eerie remnants such as patients’ records, decades-old medicine bottles, furniture, and overgrown roads. It is both a fascinating and a disturbing place. Said to be haunted, the island has been the focus of at least one paranormal investigation. Legend goes that a young nun, often seen in the old convent building, was in love with a fisherman, and upon becoming pregnant ended her own life. Stories aside, not enough can be said about the tireless service and sacrifice that was given by the Dominican sisters who looked after the patients of the old leprosarium. A visit to the nuns’ cemetery is a sobering reminder of how many young nuns came from France, Poland, and mainland Trinidad to provide the service of their lives. They now lie, largely unremembered, at the end of a lane behind the old nunnery.

Prior to its incarnation as a leper colony, this was a thriving cotton-producing island. “From 1807, Chacachacare was home to the three families Carry, Marino, and Sanders,” writes de Verteuil. The Marino family were tireless in their support of the Venezuelan Republicans in their battle for liberty against the Spanish Royalists. A daughter of the family, Maria de la Concepción, is still regarded as a national hero of Venezuela, and her portrait hangs in the National Capitol in Caracas. It’s not hard to grasp, when the Venezuelan hills loom into sight, that Trinidad is, in fact, an orphaned South American island.

 

With all this talk of revolution and battles, it would be remiss not to give some history of the Five Islands. Remember those rocky outcrops first spotted off Carenage village on the drive out of Port of Spain? They are collectively referred to as “five,” though there are six of them: Nelson, Lenagan, Rock, Pelican, Caledonia, and Craig. Both the Spanish and the French called them “The Parakeets,” and despite their isolated appearance, an abundance of history happened here.

Between 1866 and 1917, de Verteuil records, approximately 114,000 East Indian immigrants were processed on Nelson Island — Trinidad’s own Ellis Island of sorts. At the beginning of the Second World War, the island’s role as a holding bay was resurrected. All persons holding German or Austrian passports were kept on Nelson Island “at His Majesty’s Pleasure,” while a detention centre was constructed in Port of Spain. Labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, then considered a threat to state security, was also confined to Nelson Island for the duration of the war. The island was used again for similar purposes  in 1970, when Black Power activists were detained there for several months. Twenty years on, after Trinidad and Tobago’s 1990 attempted coup d’état, the buildings were renovated in preparation to resume their habitual duty — but, as it turned out, the insurgents were never held on the island. But not far on the horizon, the Five Islands look out towards nearby Carrerra Island, its sleepy appearance an excellent camouflage for its role as an active prison.

My grandfather built two houses on Gasparee before I was born. He built them with the help of his boatman, Ashton, who lived a short distance away with his wife and some livestock. The houses sat on the bluff above the bay. Behind my grandfather’s little cottage was a barrier of scrubby trees that blocked our view of the Roman Catholic chapel. Every Saturday afternoon, we would make our way through the wild path of trees to go to church.

 

My mother was an only child, and my grandfather built a larger cottage for himself and my grandmother and a smaller one on the edge of the water for my mother and father, on land that was his only by way of a long lease. The houses were built of wooden planks with simple wire windows, painted in the green and white that characterised many oilfield-camp homes — because my grandparents were from San Fernando, and had only recently moved to Port of Spain.

Some weekends I went down alone with my grandparents while my parents stayed in town. I had pride of place as the first grandchild, and even though I was very young, I have vivid memories of this particular time of my life. I remember the English woman who lived on the side of the bay and cooked eels for her dogs. Our own Labrador we had to contain in my grandparents’ bedroom when the priests went to swim, because the valiant creature would plunge into the water behind them and tow them vigorously back to shore, blessed elbow held firmly in his mouth, convinced he was saving them from the awful fate of drowning. The priests would send a delegate before they headed down to the bay to politely ask that we contain Buster for the duration of their swim. We travelled with the dogs, the Siamese cat, my baby sister, sheets, clothes, towels, food, ice, and all ensuing excitement that an entourage such as this generates on a small powerboat.

I was only five when my grandfather died, and my grandmother gave up the lease and the houses soon after. Ashton and my mother were the only ones who could drive my grandfather’s boat, and it became too hard and too painful to revisit. Not that this stopped us from visiting others’ homes — going “down the islands” has been a constant in my life up to today. I visited for a weekend last March, and the boatman who helped us tie up the boat told us the dolphins had been in the bay just days before, frolicking between the mooring and the jetty. It is their season in March. “Plenty red sardine in the water now,” he said. “You bound to see them.”

All around us in Turtle Bay the water was deep and green, the chill blowing off the water. The foreigners ask if we know we have paradise here. Yes, we answer, we know we do.

 

Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Piarco International Airport in Trinidad from destinations across the Caribbean, North America, and the UK

  • Richard Valdez

    A history blurred by the hands of merciless time and neglect, but reinvented with nostalgia and vivid experiences. Thank you for reminding me—a Trinidadian long gone from the salt of my ancestors thoughts—of the Paradise I once enjoyed.

  • Phillip Boos

    I can trace my roots to the 1700’s with Don Geraldo Carige (AKA Carry) who was granted the island of Chacachacare in 1791 by King Charles IV of Spain and also with my family leasing the island of Huevos for 999 years at the beginning of the 20th century. Many memories were made for many years and I hope to continue making more.