Gilpin – the village that disappeared

Rita Pemberton

THE NAME Gilpin is currently associated with one of the oldest, most popular and prestigious traces in the Tobago rainforest.

This two-mile trace leads to some of the treasures of the forest and provides some of the most desirable visitor experiences in the area. Along this trace, exotic rainforest flora can be seen, and in addition, it provides excellent birding opportunities, especially for sightings of the rare white-tailed sabre-wing hummingbird, which was thought to be extinct until it was discovered there in 1974.

But, aside from its tourism and environmental role, there is another important dimension to the story of Gilpin.

Gilpin was one of the two villages in the far recesses of the hilly areas of north Tobago, a considerable distance from the Bloody Bay estate.

This village was established off the main road (a track), within the precincts of the rain forest. This settlement, which was deliberately sited far from other human habitation, was a bid by the newly freed population to challenge plantation domination of land resources and lead an independent existence.


Distance, isolation and lack of facilities were not daunting for the villagers, for whom it was of utmost importance to liberate themselves from the restrictive, repressive, and exploitive stranglehold of the tentacles of the plantation and establish themselves in spaces they could call their own.

However, it is very instructive that the village was founded on the remnants of an estate. Its presence reveals that despite the imperial ban on settlement in the area, and the popular view that this restriction was rigidly obeyed, there was some clearing of parts of the rainforest.

One Englishman, after whom the trace is named, defied the law and established and ran an estate on the forbidden territory, down in a gully “behind God’s back” and out of sight of the island’s administrators. When he gave up cultivation, the land was sold and/or occupied by freed Africans.

The villagers of Gilpin established a symbiotic relationship with Dead Bay, the other isolated village in the area, which was the path to Parlatuvier, for access to essential services.


Gilpin was home to a small close-knit community, who included the Baptiste, Blake, Burris, Horsford, James, Lewis, Moses, Thomas and Winchester families.

Water for domestic purposes was obtained from springs and the Bloody Bay River. There was no commercial activity in the village, and groceries had to be bought at a shop at the junction of the trace and main road, or in Parlatuvier.

The trace could not accommodate vehicular traffic, so donkeys became the main means of transport.

There were no schools, so children attended the Anglican school in Parlatuvier. After Hurricane Flora, an RC church-owned building which housed school and church was constructed, and the priest, who was based in Delaford, led a service every other Thursday, usually after school was dismissed.

Gilpin was a largely self-supporting agricultural settlement whose occupants lived by farming, fishing and hunting; life was organised around these activities. Villagers, who were farmers by day cultivated cocoa and food crops, especially yams, dasheen, plantains and cassava.

Fishing and hunting primarily took place on weekends. The diet of the community was heavily fish-based, because the sea abounds with species such as round robin, jacks, bonito and salmon.

On Saturdays, banking occurred, and the catch included grouper, snapper, amber cavali, plum head (a small red fish of the red snapper family) and georgie.

Crabs were also harvested from the river: the area was well known for large crabs – said to be the largest in Tobago.

The teeming wildlife in the rainforest was a hunter’s paradise. Hunting was an activity for Friday and Saturday nights, when animals such as tatou, agouti, iguana, manicou and wild hogs were caught and provided alternative sources of protein.

Since there was no refrigeration in the community, meat and fish were preserved by corning – dried, smoked and saved for future use. Corned fish was a popular delicacy.


The diet of the community centred on the food they produced, all cooked with coconut, with the main foreign ingredients being saltfish, salt beef, pigtails and snout, purchased from the shop in Parlatuvier. Corn was grated and used to make corn dumplings, corn pone porridge and paimi.

There were limited alternative forms of employment. Occasional odd jobs on roads were offered to a few people by the government, but the round-the island steamer service became an important avenue for income-generation for the villagers, who supplied food crops and animals – pigs, goats, sheep, cows and donkeys – which were collected for sale in Trinidad every month

Until the era of gas lamps, light was provided by
boules de fe (flambeaux), sometimes made with a bottle, but commonly from a piece of bamboo with three or four joints, which are cleared, then the length filled with kerosene. The top is caulked with a piece of old fabric, rubbed with lemon and sealed with mud. Held high, these devices provided ample light for homes and hunters moving through the dark forest. This was one of the last areas of Tobago to be electrified.

Recreation was limited to cricket, played at the side of the village closest to the bay, and birdcatching. Children played windball cricket and football in the road.

Traditional celebrations were important activities for the villagers. Christmas was a period of visiting and sharing food and drink Preparations were made on the hill where the cemetery now stands for the social activities associated with the seasonal festivity, which included kite-flying.

Despite the small size of the community, death announcements were made with the traditional “Wake up, people, wake up," refrain, which echoed during the early morning.

Weddings were held at the church on the hill. People followed the wedding procession to the venue for the reception. On the night before the wedding, called the bachelor night, a ceremony was held which involved throwing rice and corn, with music from the tambrin band for the reel dance. All villagers attended.

Carnival was very popular in the community. Gilpin was known as the centre for black devils, and the calypso competitions, which the villagers enjoyed, were very keenly contested.

Village calypsonians included the Mighty Spitfire, the Ranger, Lord Vincent, Volcano, Mighty Whitehat and Growler. The entire village attended these shows.

The most significant change in the community occurred when, during the 1970s the main road to Roxborough was built, The entire population of Gilpin Village relocated to constitute the village of Bloody Bay. Gilpin Village disappeared and Gilpin became an agricultural road that permitted no vehicular traffic. The area once occupied by the village became Gilpin Trace, the way to the secrets of the interior of the Forest Reserve.


"Gilpin – the village that disappeared"

More in this section