THE recently installed Chinatown arches on Charlotte Street are not the first such structures erected in Port of Spain.
The last time arches were put across local city streets was almost 100 years ago.
In 1920, two elaborate arches were created to mark a visit to Trinidad by a member of Britain's royal family. One was placed uptown – across Frederick Street, at an entrance of the Queen's Park Savannah. The other was positioned downtown – at the junction of Broadway and Marine Square (now Independence Square), just off the city harbour.
The royal visitor was Edward, Prince of Wales. He came to the colony on September 6, 1920, while returning home from a world tour that took him as far as Australia.
Edward was a son of King George V, who himself had visited the colony in 1880 as a boy prince, along with his brother Albert. That visit was commemorated by the village of Princes Town being named after them, and two poui trees the two princes planted in front of St Stephen's Anglican Church in Savanna Grande.
Such visits to imperial territories by the royal family were a method used by the British to hold together their disparate empire.
According to the late historian Angelo Bissessarsingh, in an August 2013 article, "Prince Edward's impending arrival threw the colony into a frenzy of activity. A committee was hastily assembled by Governor Sir John Chancellor (1916-21) which included the black lawyer Mzumbo Lazare and the Indian mayor of San Fernando, CH Gopaul, among others."
In his book Down Under with the Prince, author Everard Cotes, who spent seven months touring Australia with the Prince of Wales, provided fascinating details of the tour, including the prince's three-day stopover in Trinidad.
Cotes wrote: "The entire city of Port of Spain had been effectively decorated. Sugar cane-stalks, cocoa-pods, and coconuts, were worked in cleverly upon arches, spanning its substantial streets, to represent the agriculture of the colony."
Bissessarsingh painted a verbal picture of the prince's entry into the city after disembarking the HMS Renown near the lighthouse at South Quay: "This was one of the first motorcades in local history since the prince would be chauffeured in an open car driven by the deputy inspector general, AS Mavrogordato. Thousands of adoring subjects lined the streets up to the old City Hall on Knox Street where he saluted a guard of honour before proceeding to Governor's House where he charmed all with his fine manners."
Cotes put it this way: "The other main Trinidad industries, asphalt and oil, were well in evidence in the smooth surface found upon the roads along which the Royal procession passed. The crowds lining the route were made up in fairly equal proportions of negroes, East Indians, and persons of mixed or 'coloured' race. Few Europeans were seen until the Legislative Council building and the Town Hall were reached, where they were in considerable numbers.
The reception party represented Trinidad's who's who of the time. Cotes noted, "Those presented to the Prince included Messrs. DeB Best, Colonial secretary, HB Walcott, controller general, AG Bell, director of Public Works, L Elphinstone, solicitor-general, Colonel Mui, commandant of the Local Forces, Major Rust, acting president of the Civic Council, Rev Dowling, Catholic Archbishop, Dr Ansley, Anglican Bishop, Sir Alfred Smith, Chief Justice, also Justices Russell and Deane, and Father de Caignai, head of the Tunapuna Monastery."
The royal visit came against a backdrop of the monarchy’s role in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans (until Emancipation in 1834) and indentureship of East Indian labourers (1845-1917). Britain's Duke of York was said to have had his initials, "DY," branded onto the left buttock or breast of each of his 3,000 slaves, then shipped them out to the Caribbean.
It also came on the heels of World War One (1914-1918) in which many Trinidadians answered the call to arms issued by Edward’s father, King George. Seventeen contingents of volunteers were sent to join in one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
When Edward, Prince of Wales, spoke at the welcoming ceremony at Port of Spain Town Hall, he attributed Trinidad's growing prosperity to its colonisers’ war victory. He said, "...the people of this colony contributed in worthy measure to the victory of British arms. I am particularly glad to have this opportunity of congratulating the colony upon its fine services, and of meeting some of the gallant men whom it sent overseas. I am also much pleased to hear the colony appreciates how much it owes to the Royal Navy for its tranquil prosperity during those terrible years."
The prince also sought to reinforce the colony's loyalty to the British crown. He said, “I feel sure that all its people, not only long established but recently arrived, will do all in their power to maintain its good traditions of law-abiding progress and loyalty to British ideals."
Edward's visit was consolidated by a grand state dinner and ball at the Prince's Building near the uptown arch. Ironically, that building, constructed within a month in 1861, had originally been intended to host Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria. However, Alfred's visit was cancelled because of the sudden death of his father, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He never came, but the building was named in his honour anyway. (NAPA now stands where the Prince’s Building once did.)
To celebrate Edward at the state dinner, Bissessarsingh wrote, "The feast spread before guests was largely composed of imported viands such as the vast roast of beef and artfully prepared poultry although a few local dishes were served as well."
When he addressed the garden party, Edward made the point that Britain had no intention of relinquishing its control of Trinidad. He said, "I saw a suggestion, before I left England, that the British Empire might be willing to part with one or more of the British West Indian Islands to a foreign power, and I should like to say here again what I said in Barbados in March, that British subjects are not for sale. I can assure you that the King and all of us in the old country have very much at heart the welfare of Trinidad and all the British West Indies, also of all other British possessions."
Apart from touring Port of Spain, according to Cotes, the prince's itinerary also had him "driving through Trinidad's thickly wooded hills, past shady cocoa plantations, well-ordered coco-nut groves, and fields of sugar-cane." He also visited the town of St Joseph, which had been the capital of Spanish Trinidad between 1592 and 1783, as well as some oil wells and the famous pitch lake in La Brea.
There is no record of how Edward regarded the native people of Trinidad. Little may the islanders have known he was racially-prejudiced against many of the British Empire's subjects, believing whites were inherently superior.
A 2019 BBC documentary, The Crown and Us: The Story of The Royals in Australia, revealed that just before Edward came to Trinidad, he wrote of indigenous Australians: "they are the most revolting form of living creatures I've ever seen!! They are the lowest known form of human beings and are the nearest thing to monkeys."
Little did Trinidad also know that Edward, who had been made Prince of Wales on his 16th birthday, nine weeks after his father succeeded as king, would himself eventually become king and shock the world by abdicating the throne for the love of a woman.
As Prince of Wales, he had had a series of affairs that worried his father and the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
He became King Edward VIII on his father's death in January 1936. However, Edward showed impatience with court protocol, and caused concern among politicians by his apparent disregard for established constitutional conventions. Only months into his reign, he caused a constitutional crisis by proposing to Wallis Simpson, an American who had divorced her first husband and was seeking a divorce from her second.
Edward abdicated on December 12, 1936, and married Wallis in France on June 3, 1937, after her second divorce became final. With a reign of 326 days, Edward remains one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history. He and Wallis remained married until his death in May 1972.
The royal scandal did not escape the attention of Trinidadian griots. Edward's abdication was immortalised in a popular 1937 calypso by Lord Caresser, Edward VIII. With the chorus "It's love, it's love alone that caused King Edward to leave the throne," the calypso became an international sensation, the top-selling calypso of the year outside of Trinidad.
Twenty years later, American singer Harry Belafonte took the song and recorded a version he called Love, Love Alone, for the album Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean.