A Brief History of San Fernando

Magistrates Court, San Fernando
Magistrates Court, San Fernando Reporters
Posted: May 04, 2007

The city of San Fernando, which is located in the southwestern part of the island of Trinidad, is the second largest city in Trinidad and Tobago. San Fernando, which is a coastal town located in western Victoria County, is bordered by the Guaracara River to the north, the Oropouche River to the south, the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway to the east and the Gulf of Paria to the west.

The area was first inhabited by the Amerindians who had referred to the area as 'Anaparima' which has been interpreted to mean 'single hill'. This hill refers to the tall mass of rock which is a prominent feature of the city, now called 'San Fernando Hill'.

This city was first recognized by the European colonies in 1595 when Sir Walter Raleigh landed in the area from the Gulf of Paria through the Serpent's Mouth. It is said that although his main aim was to search for the mythical "El Dorado" (city of gold), he also wanted to meet and capture Antonio de Berrio, the governor of Trinidad and to forestall him in his search for the "Land of Gold".

In 1687, some Capuchin priests landed in the area and had attempted to convert the Amerindians to Christianity. The priests erected a mission church called "Purissima Conception de Naparima" on the Naparima Hill.

In 1784, the then Spanish Governor, Don José Maria Chacón, named the town San Fernando de Naparima (over time 'de Naparima' was dropped) in honour of the heir to the Spanish crown. Chacón also stepped foot in the area to ensure that the 1783 Cedula of Population (a decree which awarded land grants to incoming settlers to develop the country) was enforced there. As a result of this decree, many sugar plantations were established in the Naparima plains surrounding San Fernando.

Chacón had granted a portion of the land to Isidore Vialva in the Purissima area on the condition that a section of it would be set aside for a town. However, Vialva broke the agreement and sold his grant to Jean–Baptiste Jaillet. It was Jaillet who had established the first sugar estate in the Naparimas called "Mon Chagrin" or "My Pain". He too, after some time, sold out the land divided into plots (which stretched from High Street to St. James); even the land that was reserved for the town in the original agreement. This had angered the authorities and had caused confusion in the distribution of land titles but it did bring more and more people into the area.

Concurrent with the growth of the sugar cane plantations was the growth of the town. In fact, the southland came to dominate sugar production in the country. Eventually, the growth of the sugarcane industry led to the construction of the Usine, Ste. Madeline factory a few miles east of the town which was once the largest sugarcane factory in the world. Also, the development of cacao cultivation and the petroleum industry brought employment to many in the area.

In 1792, Chacón had renamed the area San Fernando in honour of Fernando, the infant son of Carlos III, the then King of Spain.

By the time the British took over in 1797, San Fernando contained only a few houses at the waterfront. The town fashioned itself in some ways after an old Spanish colonial town. At the waterfront was a square called Plaza San Carlos (which today is situated between King Street and Queen Street). The other features of a Spanish town: a casa real (government house), a church, a cabildo and a jail were built after the British settled from 1797 onwards.

During the time when land surveyor Frederick Mallet had produced a map of the island of Trinidad, the San Fernando area, known on the map as "Little Village of Naparima" was inhabited with 166 Whites, 346 "free Blacks" and 882 enslaved Africans totaling 1,394 which was, at the time, the highest number of inhabitants outside of Port of Spain. The area had 25 coffee mills, 20 sugar mills, 8 rum distilleries and 28 cotton mills.

By 1811, the British administration then divided the Naparima district into North Naparima, administered by Commandant Robert Mitchell and South Naparima, administered by Commandant Robert Outten. By this time, the population had risen to 3,680. The area, which had stretched from Point–a–Pierre to Spanish Royal Road and beyond in an easterly direction, had become very popular for coffee plantations and had been then called "The Coffee."

In 1818, the San Fernando area was completely ravaged by fire and the fact that Jean–Baptiste Jaillet had sold out the land in lots made it that much harder to determine land titles. In that same year, despite the devastating fires, Governor Ralph Woodford introduced the coastal steamer service to San Fernando, thereby linking it with Port of Spain.

By the end of the 1820's, some years after the city was demolished by fire, it was completely rebuilt and continued to grow as a result of the profitability of the sugar industry. The expansion of the town included the naming of the Royal Road (from the waterfront junction to Estate Road to Point–a–Pierre) to High Street. Also, as time progressed, merchant shops began to line St. James Street which further encouraged entrepreneurial relationships in the San Fernando region.

In 1846, the so–called "Village of Naparima" obtained a town council; an ordinance establishing San Fernando as a corporate body took effect on March 31st of that same year with Robert Floyd as its president.

In 1853 the town was raised to the status of a borough and on August 30th the Municipal Corporations Ordinance (no. 10, 1853) came into effect. That year, Robert Johnstone became the first mayor of San Fernando.

Other developments included its first ward school which was built in 1851; the San Fernando Borough School built in 1855; and the Cipero Tramroad built in 1859, which ran from San Fernando wharf to what is now Princes Town. In 1882, five years after the passenger railway system was introduced to Trinidad, it was introduced to San Fernando on Monday 12th April. This had greatly helped the already expanding city which had reached a population of 6,335 inhabitants according to 1881 census reports, and contained 327 shops, 44 policemen and 29 public officers.

By the 19th century, San Fernando continued to expand and develop. Paradise Estates, now referred to as "Paradise Village", which was once a huge sugar plantation, had converted into an area of residence and the residents clamored for the area to fall under the jurisdiction of the borough of San Fernando so as to become recipients of services such as sanitation.

Some of the street names were named in honour of past governors of the area: Lewis Street after Governor Lewis Grant (1829–1833); Gordon Street after Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon (1866–1870); Harris Street after Lord Harris (1846–1854); Irving Street after Sir Henry Irving (1875–1880) and Freeling Street after Sir Sanford Freeling (1880–1883). Gransaul Street and Gomez Street were named after former owners and the other three streets on Paradise lands were named after British Royalty: Prince Alfred Street named after Prince Alfred, Prince Albert Street named after Prince Albert Victor and Prince of Wales Street named after Prince George, the then Prince of Wales.

One of the most memorable developments for residents of the area was a proper water–works system (pipe–borne water supply) opened by Sir Hubert Jerningham on February 27th, 1899, because the area had suffered tremendously during the dry season. In fact, the term 'Naparima' was wrongly interpreted to mean "no water" because of the harsh dry season. Despite the construction of pipe lines, the problem was not solved until the Navet Dam was built in the 1930's.

Also in 1899 the Company of Port of Spain had gotten permission from the San Fernando Borough Council to put up telephone wires in San Fernando. In 1900, the 1871 elected Borough Council member James Wharton had received the first telephone in San Fernando which was in operation at his business place, 'The Naparima Dispensary,' Number 5 High Street, and his phone number: 1.

In 1899, Paradise Village, upon the inspection of borough councillors, officially became part of the San Fernando area. Paradise Pasture is the last remaining remnant of the sugar estate today.

In 1912, the Central Market was removed from its original site to Prince Alfred Street (now Prince Street).

A year after in 1913, the government approved the construction of a library on the former Central Market site after tireless efforts by San Fernando residents. This began with the Mayor of San Fernando writing to Andrew Carnegie for one of his libraries followed by the formation of a library committee in 1910. Construction of the Carnegie Free Library began in 1917 and was completed in 1918. It was opened to the public in January 1919.

Also taking place in 1913 was the connection of the railway between San Fernando to Siparia which greatly helped Debe, Penal and Siparia residents, especially those involved in agriculture.

Palace Cinema, built by businessman G.J. MacDougall, was completed in 1915.

These developments made San Fernando increasingly popular with visitors coming to the city to take in these new innovations.

In 1919, San Fernando, for the first time experienced electric lights, 28 years after Port of Spain, with the efforts of the San Fernando Borough Council and members including Mayor Clarence Hamilton Gopaul and Superintendent John James Waddell. The power station was built in La Coulee on Carib Street.

By 1926, vehicles started appearing in the area including cars and motor omnibuses.

Also around that time, the Usine Park (which was so named because of its connection with Usine, Ste Madeleine), was erected and was later renamed "Skinner Park" after G.C. Skinner, the then manager of the Ste Madeleine Sugar Company.

San Fernando had expanded much by 1939 with the Mon Repos Housing Scheme and in the 1940's the construction of the San Fernando By–Pass which allowed traffic to pass along its eastern fringes as opposed to the centre of the town. Concurrently, sugar–fields were transformed by houses or tramway tracks.

Also, the building of the By–Pass encouraged the building of the Pleasantville housing estate in 1956.

In 1950, the foundation stone of the San Fernando General Hospital was laid; it was officially opened in February 1955 and was an improvement to the old hospital built in 1860 by L. Samuels.

San Fernando was elevated to the status of a city on November 18th, 1988 and had adopted "Sanitas Fortis" – In a Healthy Environment We Will Find Strength – as its motto.

Today, San Fernando still plays a very important role in the economy of Trinidad and Tobago with oil in its vicinity. Nearby the main town is an oil refinery at Pointe–à–Pierre which played a significant role in San Fernando's development between World War II and the 1980's.

In addition, the 'oil boom' of the 1970's and 1980's led to the growth in the suburbs of San Fernando such as Marabella, Bel Air, Gulf View, Cocoyea and Gasparillo. Other residential areas that surround San Fernando include Mon Repos, Vistabella, Tarouba, St. Joseph Village, Gopaul Lands, Pleasantville, Union Hall, Drive Gardens, Les Effort East and Les Effort West.

Trinidad and Tobago is very heavily dependent on the south for its oil and it is in fact the industrial capital of the twin island state.

Some of the schools in San Fernando include: Naparima College, Naparima Girls' High School, Presentation College, St. Joseph's Convent, San Fernando Secondary School, ASJA Boys' College, ASJA Girls' College, St. Gabriel's Girls R.C. School and Saint Benedict's College.

Within the city there are also prominent buildings such as the city hall, the magistrates court, the supreme court, the police station and Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist churches. In addition, the ever–popular old "Carib" house, located on Carib Street is still in existence. It is said to be the oldest house in San Fernando, dating back to either 1832 (built by Barbadian, Samuel Edwards) or, according to some, is as old as San Fernando itself.

Skinner Park, San Fernando is also the site of the Calypso Monarch Semi–Finals and for the first time, on February 17th, 2007, the National Steelband Panorama Finals were held there. Thus San Fernando continues to create history in Trinidad and Tobago's historical records.

San Fernando continues to blossom as an important area where developments take place very rapidly and is still recognized as vital to the survival of Trinidad and Tobago's economy.

San Fernando in pictures:

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