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Water Riots of 1903

Sunday, April 30, 2017
smoke at Red House

In this season of drought, when every newscast is embellished with at least two fiery protests for the crystal element of life (a necessity your humble correspondent is now straitened for), it may be appropriate to recall an event precipitated by a volatile combination of disenfranchised masses, water restrictions and an oppressive colonial government. Though the memory of the 1903 Water Riots is now relegated to a few custodians of the past, it had far-reaching implications, socially and politically.

The genesis of the riots began long before 1903, when shortly after the devastating cholera epidemic of 1854, the installation of pipe-borne water was viewed as a top priority for Port-of-Spain. It had been in limited availability at the Governor’s House in St Ann’s since the tenure of Governor Lord Harris in 1851, of his predecessor, Sir Ralph James Woodford in 1821. With the usual snail’s pace of implementation that has remained our legacy of colonial administration, it was not until the 1880s that something concrete was done about this situation. In that decade, the Director of Public Works, Edward Tanner, settled on the upper reaches of the Maraval River as a likely place for the site of a reservoir. After much wrangling with the De Boissieres and other landowners along the river for permission to route pipes through their properties, the project was completed in the early 1890s by Tanner’s successor, Walsh Wrightson, who was partially responsible for the construction of the roadway which bears his name.

Thus, the burgesses of the municipality of Port-of-Spain not only had access to public fountains and pumps spewing an endless supply of cold, sweet water, but many also had the luxury of precious liquid running from pipes in their homes. In the noisome barrack-yards of the city, the denizens of the town’s ‘Jamette’ society, revelled in the new utility and frolicked under open taps in their yards and wash-houses all day and night. This, however, was to lead to one of the causes of the riots.

To diverge slightly, on January 18, 1899, Governor Sir Hubert Jerningham, under advice from the British Secretary of State, abolished the Borough of Port-of-Spain and its Council, which was deemed to be petty and inefficient in the management of its own affairs. Henceforth, the affairs of the burgesses were to be managed by Central Government. This move was received with much bitterness and resentment by the masses, as the Municipal Ordinance was seen as a concession to self-governance by the colonial masters. The revocation of the Ordinance was seen as a humiliating slight to the rising tide of Black Nationalism which was sweeping the colony.

Part of this sense of transgression fostered by the people was due to the influence of Emmanuel ‘Mzumbo’ Lazare (1864-1929). Mzumbo, as he called himself in tribute to his African heritage, was a hero to the downtrodden coloureds of the town. A dignified black man, and a prominent solicitor and a Lieutenant in the Trinidad Field Artillery Volunteers (who represented the colony at the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897), Mzumbo was a founder of the Ratepayers Association with Henry Alcazar and Edgar Maresse-Smith, also outstanding coloured citizens of the period. The Association also included white sympathisers like the disenfranchised Mayor of Port of Spain, John Cox Newbold. The organisation was formed in response to the impending Water Ordinance of Public Works Director, Walsh Wrightson which proposed that water meters be installed in the town to make burgesses pay for their water. It was based on reports of drafted Water Inspectors, who reported freely running taps in the seedier districts. The Association viewed water as a right of existence, and not a scarce commodity to be bought and sold.

The Ratepayers’ Association also took issue with the shoddy state of water delivery and with the disbanding of the Borough of Port-of-Spain by the British Secretary of State and Governor Sir Alfred Maloney, who had succeeded Governor Jerningham. On the morning of March 23, 1903, the Water Ordinance was carded for debate in the Red House, which was the seat of the Colonial Government and the Legislative Council. Thousands of people, incited by the Ratepayers’ Association, assembled in Brunswick Square (now Woodford Square) and created an uneasy tension while the Legislative Council sat in caucus. The debate over the ordinance had originally been carded for March 16, but had been postponed to the 23rd because of the interruption of the rowdies assembled in the Public Gallery.

Governor Maloney, perhaps expecting public unrest, ordered the Commandant of the Trinidad and Tobago Constabulary, Hubert Brake, to have 35 armed policemen sequestered within the Red House in addition to several dozen outside. In an attempt to limit access to the Public Gallery it was proclaimed that access would only be granted by a system of allotted tickets. The Ratepayers deemed this action to be illegal and attempted to storm the Gallery at 10.30 am but were repelled by Brake and his officers.

Alcazar and William Gordon Gordon, a wealthy Scottish merchant, were in the Council Chamber at the time of the barring of the Ratepayers, and they in turn, left the room as a sign of protest. Meanwhile, the tense crowd outside erupted into heated aggression. The violence was incited when a constable outside the Red House attempted to arrest a woman and immediately came under a hail of stones, forcing him to liberate his captive.

A shower of missiles began to assail the building and the windows of the Council Chamber (where the debate was in session) were shattered. The deliberation over the Water Ordinance ended abruptly as Governor Maloney was spirited to the Education Office for his safety, while a group of rioters broke into the Registrar’s Office and set fire to the stacks of files and papers stored therein. Walsh Wrightson, had in local parlance ‘taken front before front took him’ and slipped out of the Red House disguised as a policeman, in full view of the protesters who were calling for his blood.

As the flames spread, the security of the Governor became critical and Commandant Brake took the decision to have him moved to the nearby Police Headquarters on St Vincent St (the same building that was burnt in the 1990 attempted coup). In order to gain a passage through the mob, the ominous Riot Act was read to the crowd, and then the policemen were given the order to fire on the protesters. When the smoke from the rifles of the police cleared, 18 people lay dead and 51 were wounded. Two of the more touching fatalities involved Eva Carvalho, a young woman who was shot at point-blank range by a policeman who was alleged to be her estranged lover, while 12-year-old Eliza Bunting was bayoneted through the chest. Several others were arrested, including the Executive of the Ratepayers’ Association, Lazare, Alcazar and Maresse-Smith, who had fled when the shooting began.

Among the more bizarre incidents of the riot, was the fact that though the Fire Station (now part of the Nalis complex) was a few meters away from the Red House, it did not turn out to combat the flames in the Red House until it was almost completely gutted. The Captain of the Fire Brigade, Walter S Darwent, was accused by Colonial Secretary Courtenay Knollys of being sympathetic with the cause of the insurgents, an accusation which may not have been too far from the truth.

A Commission of Inquiry was hastily assembled and chaired by Colonial Secretary Knollys. Lazare, Alcazar and Maresse-Smith, the leaders of the Ratepayers’ Association were acquitted of all charges surrounding their arrest over the riot. The Commission also made another compromise in recognition of the need for self-governance, by recommending that water management affairs fall under the jurisdiction of a municipality, rather than central government. This was a major victory for those who had raised their voices in protest. As a trophy of the triumph, Lazare seized upon the ornate fountain which had stood in the covered foyer of the now-gutted Red House, and had it installed at his country estate in Diego Martin, called Lazdale. This relic was later given to the National Museum and can now be seen in the courtyard of that institution.

A year later, the Port-of-Spain Water Authority and Port-of-Spain Sewerage Board were incorporated. Both these entities were later merged with the Municipal Water Works in San Fernando to form the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA). It was not until June 26, 1914, that the Borough Council and Municipal Ordinance of Port-of-Spain were reinstated. The Red House was completely rebuilt by 1907, its most notable addition being the imposing rotunda or dome which is its most recognizable feature today. Though it is long forgotten, the Water Riots of 1903 and the events sparked by this momentous chapter in our history, have doubtless impacted on T&T in the years following, and will certainly do so for many years to come.

It is interesting to see history is occurring in cycles. Even computer models can predict drought, famine, food shortages, political turmoil. Is there a replay of the water riots in all these communities? Civil unrest for water? Should we be planning urgently for global warming? Angelo presents the Water Riots and its political consequences. —Rudolph Bissessarsingh


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