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The legacy of William Eccles
In the haste to enforce the doctrine of “Massa Day Done” after Independence, at the urging of the brilliant yet bigoted Dr Eric Williams, T&T consigned to the rubbish heap of history the many good white men and women who contributed greatly to the building of the nation.
Among these men was William Eccles, a young Scotsman who came out to Trinidad around 1838-39, when the sugar-based economy was in shambles following the end of slavery. He was employed, as were many of his countrymen, by the rich planter William Hardin Burnley, who owned as much as 20 per cent of the productive cane lands in Trinidad.
Eccles was an innovator. In 1847 he founded the Naparima Harbour, Land and Tramroad Company in San Fernando, which saw the construction of a shipping place, or embacadere, at the mouth of the Sipriani Creek, now known as the Cipero River. This waterway was an essential road to the sea for sugar planters since it was navigable for several miles inland in an era when roads were mere tracks, unbridged and seas of mud in the rainy season.
Eccles connected the Ste Madeleine Estate with the Embacadere with Trinidad’s first railway—the Cipero Tramroad—which was merely a few trucks being drawn along by mules. Steam power came along in 1864, a full dozen years before the Trinidad Government Railway commenced operations. Eccles was not only a man of commerce but also one with a big heart.
The estates of his boss, Burnley, were among the first to receive quotas of indentured coolies from India, who began arriving in the colony in 1845. One of the evils of the immigration system was that the ratio of men to women was 3:1, thus resulting in a number of orphans, since jealous husbands would behead their wives with a sharp cutlass, then proceed to commit suicide, or else were executed by the penal system.
Eccles felt deep sympathy for the orphans and, with the backing of his employer, established an orphanage at Tacarigua, opposite the site of the newly constructed Anglican chapel of St Mary, which was also a gift of Burnley. The institution was administered by the Anglican church and also called St Mary’s.
Aside from providing for the physiological needs of the orphans, the institute educated them. When William Burnley died in 1850, his son divested full agency for his affairs to his faithful steward, Eccles. Eccles had three sons and a daughter. The sons remained in Trinidad, whilst the girl went to live in Scotland with her mother.
William Eccles was struck down early in life by illness, dying in 1859. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in sight of the orphanage he founded. A fountain was dedicated to his memory in the yard of the orphanage in 1860, being paid for by the heirs of Burnley, who owed him so much. It is the still-existing monument to a man who had a positive effect on the island in his lifetime.
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