By: Karishma Nanhu, Heritage Preservation and Research Officer, National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago
Summary: As Trinidad and Tobago celebrates 60 years of independence, this article takes a look at the status of heritage preservation today. While there are numerous challenges to heritage preservation there are also positive developments which will hopefully encourage the growth of a heritage economy.
Picture of Mille Fleurs, 2022
Source: Karishma Nanhu
If you’ve ever had the chance to visit Mille Fleurs, now the home of the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, you would have noticed a water fountain in the middle of the driveway as you enter the compound. The intricate design of a boy and a girl holding an umbrella must have been a remarkable accomplishment in 1904, when the house was completed. The fountain certainly adds to the character of the heritage asset, and it was one of the features carefully considered by UDeCOTT in their restoration of Mille Fleurs. It is a small but valuable feature which thankfully was not overlooked. However, the original centerpiece of the fountain, could have been lost to us, the people of Trinidad and Tobago, if not for the observant eyes of two female heritage advocates, who each played a role in salvaging the centerpiece of the broken fountain, each unaware of the actions of their fellow advocate at the point in time. These were none other than Ms. Rudylynn De Four Roberts (the current President of Citizens for Conservation) and Ms. Margaret McDowall (the current Chairman of the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago).
The story begins around 1995 when Ms. De Four Roberts salvaged the broken fountain centerpiece from a rubbish heap, at the back of Mille Fleurs. Dumped in an open rubbish container, amongst old furniture and newspapers ready to be thrown out for garbage collection, was the centerpiece of the Mille Fleur fountain—or at least what remained of it. The headless bodies of the boy and the girl, without the iconic umbrella, would have been unrecognizable to the untrained eye. She took the piece with her to the Historical Restoration Unit at the Ministry of Works and Transport, where it remained as she eventually moved on from the job.
Several years would pass before Ms. McDowall, representing the Trust at a meeting with the then head of the Heritage Restoration Unit at the Ministry of Works and Transport, spied the broken fountain, the headless children without the umbrella, in an obscure corner of the office. She immediately recognized it and promptly requested—successfully—that it be given to the Trust for safekeeping. Now we can speculate many trajectories for the broken fountain centerpiece, had it remained at the Ministry, but nobody knew then, that the generous donation of the broken fountain of Mille Fleurs to the National Trust would eventually aid the restoration project roughly a decade later and indeed, figuratively make a full circle by bringing the Trust to its new home.
Picture of the restored fountain at Mille Fleurs, 2022
Source: Karishma Nanhu
The visibility and the cultural appreciation of heritage assets in Trinidad and Tobago is growing and the National Trust is one of the organizations at the forefront of this movement. To date the Trust has listed 51 Properties of Interest (an additional 8 properties are pending) and has a vast Heritage Asset Inventory. The Trust even offers heritage tourism tours which incorporate the nation’s heritage assets with cultural experiences. If you have gone on a Trust tour, you will surely know that they are as educational as they are entertaining. If you have not been on a National Trust tour, you should hurry up and book one, because they fill up fast. The Trust even offers free online learning resources and lectures, as it has evolved in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this information and more can be found on the Trust’s website, https://nationaltrust.tt/.
At 60 we are now able to look at the restorations of Mille Fleurs, Queens Royal College, the Red House, the President’s House, the Heritage Library, Killarney (Stollmeyer’s Castle) and others with pride. The reality of how Mille Fleurs, the Magnificent Seven and countless invaluable heritage assets have been treated, during the 60 years of our independence, is however unfortunate. It was not a magic water fountain that brought about the restoration of Mille Fleurs and the landing of the Trust at its doorstep. These have all taken years of advocacy, years of commitment, political will and millions of dollars. Yes, heritage restoration, like everything else, comes at a financial cost. The National Trust is often caught in public debates about heritage assets, such as the costs of restoration, as it is a national organization. However, we should not forget that for years, Mille Fleurs was boarded up, a derelict eyesore on the Savannah. Now the Trust is very proud and grateful to call Mille Fleurs its home.
The realities of protecting heritage in Trinidad and Tobago are nuanced. The challenges are vast and indeed an entire treatise could be dedicated to this topic alone. Squatting on heritage assets, dumping of rubbish and vandalism are now everyday occurrences. The neglect of heritage assets—visible as well as obscure ones—is a common issue. The recent theft of the 153-year-old bell from the St. John’s Anglican Church in Petit Bourgh, a heritage asset older than the nation itself, is not just a robbery, it illustrates a wider lack of appreciation for heritage amongst the population. At this point, we may never be able to account for the vast number of heritage assets which have been sold for scrap iron including the railways of Trinidad. At the same time, we are unable to prevent the fate of dilapidated heritage assets, which have decayed so much that they are now a threat to safety and await demolition (and scrap iron dealers), such as the Brechin Castle Sugar Factory. It is known that Tobago’s cannons, coppers and other artefacts are being sold from private estates. It is disheartening that Tobago’s rich underwater cultural heritage is being pillaged before it could even be properly documented, as there are no laws to protect it.
Pictures of Lion House, 2022
Source: Karishma Nanhu
At 60 we have come a long way and celebrating our independence encourages us to reflect and evaluate the things that are important to us as a people. There is public interest in heritage assets, as evidenced in the case of Lion House, which is currently in danger of collapsing. In addition to its significance as the ancestral home of the esteemed Capildeo family, which produced the likes of Simbhoonath and Rudranath Capildeo amongst others, the Lion House is an architectural landmark on its own. An ardent advocate for Lion House, Ms. De Four Roberts, describes the Lion House as an architectural gem, an iconic part of the history and culture of Trinidad and Tobago. She also pointed out that the National Trust has been trying to protect Lion House, a privately owned property, since the establishment of the first National Trust Council. For many years the Trust has continuously engaged pertinent stakeholders including the family, the Mayors of Chaguanas/ the Borough Corporation and independent non-profit groups in the interest of protecting Lion House. There are persons who are keen to assist with the restoration, but the National Trust, as a government organization, is guided by its mandate—in colloquial terms, it must ‘bat in its crease’. 2022 makes it 96 years since the Lion House was completed. It is an invaluable heritage asset, also older than the nation, which is at risk of being lost. In the simplest way possible, we are continuing to ask the stakeholders to help or more accurately to let us help, before it is too late.
Amidst all of this, there are individuals and organizations who are actively trying to bring awareness to save our nation’s critically endangered heritage assets. Small and large organizations have been working to protect their community heritage. Individuals and corporations have answered the call to finance or offer technical support for aid or restoration projects. In 2018 Junior Sammy assisted with the removal of the Cross and the Orb from the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port of Spain after it was damaged by the 6.9 magnitude earthquake, at no cost. In 2022 Amalgamated Security Services Limited pledged substantial monies towards the completion of the restoration of the St Francis of Assisi Church in Belmont.
Currently, the National Trust, guided by the Minister of Planning and Development, the Honourable Pennelope Beckles-Robinson is ardently working to facilitate a heritage economy. Following the announcement made by the Minister of Finance, the Honourable Colm Imbert in his Budget Statement for 2022, the Trust is currently preparing the mechanisms for the Heritage Tax Allowance Programme. The purpose of this Heritage Tax Allowance Programme will be to encourage corporations to commit expenditure to heritage conservation projects which will include preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, reconstruction and adaptive re-use of assets. This will pertain to tangible cultural assets (buildings and cultural assets like instruments, paintings and more) as well as natural heritage assets. More information on this initiative will be provided via the Trust’s website and social media soon.
A magic fountain did not make any of this possible, it was persistent work and dedication. Years of continuous, unseen, hard work. While acknowledging the numerous contemporary challenges to heritage, at 60 there is hope for heritage preservation in Trinidad and Tobago.
De Four Roberts, Rudylynn. (9th August 2022). Personal Interview.
Amalgamated Security Services LTD. (2022). Amalgamated Security Services LTD (ASSL) Pledges Towards the Restoration of St. Francis of Assisi Church, Belmont. https://assl.com/index.php?option=com_flexicontent&view=item&cid=137:news&id=899:amalgamated-security-services-ltd-assl-pledges-towards-the-restoration-of-st-francis-of-assisi-church-belmont&Itemid=1773
Connelly, C. (2018). Junior Sammy ‘walks the talk’. Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. https://newsday.co.tt/2018/09/15/junior-sammy-takes-down-damaged-holy-trinity-cross-for-free/
Julien, J. (2022). 153-year-old tower bell stolen from Anglican Church. Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. https://www.guardian.co.tt/news/153yearold-tower-bell-stolen-from-anglican-church-6.2.1519481.803903e574#:~:text=Thieves%20have%20stolen%20a%20153,the%20church%20on%20July%204.
Ministry of Finance, Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. (2021). Budget Statement 2022. https://www.finance.gov.tt/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Budget-Statement-2022.pdf