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Chacachacare: Cotton and Revolutionaries

Published: 
Sunday, February 7, 2016
La Tinta Bay, one of the sheltered anchorages on Chacachacare, in the late 1800s.

The ghostly ruins of an abandoned leper colony, the spirits of rebels, and the hint of the first peoples all reside on the island called Chacachacare today. The place is mainly a haunt for yachties and drug smugglers, but once there was a permanent population that few know about.

The island was sighted by Christopher Columbus on August 5, 1498, and called Puerta de los Gatos (Island of Cats) because of a troop of monkeys which chattered at the seamen and which were thought by the explorer to be related to cats! There is material evidence of a pre-Columbian Amerindian population on Chacachacare since several shell middens containing food remains and pottery at Sanders Bay and other locations.

One imagines that life must have been difficult for these indigenous people since there is a lack of surface water and dry seasons could be severe. They would have been dependent on marine resources for protein since there is not an overabundance of land mammals. 

Louis Bertrand, a Catholic priest, visited the island in 1565 and allegedly encountered the natives who were initially hostile. This clergyman was later beatified and is known as St Louis Bertrand. The Amerindians may have left the island long before the end of the 17th century which left it open for the Spanish authorities to divide in a series of land grants. 

In the 1780s, cotton was king and the dry conditions on Chacachacare made it ideal for the cultivation of sea-island variety. The first official settler was Gerardo Carry (Carige) of an Irish-Catholic family who had travelled to Margarita island in 1771 and there married the daughter of a Spanish grandee Maria de Ortega. The name of the island is thought to be a combination of his title and the word ‘Chac’ which is an Amerindian name for cotton. 

In 1791 the Cabildo (Town Council) tried to have the island granted as a resource of this body but it had already been given to Carry. In order to cope with the arid nature of the island, Carry constructed a dam across one of the ravines which had a seasonal flow of water and it was on this fitful supply that the property was cultivated. This family sold or rented lands to other people including one very important clan. 

Santiago Marino was the son of a high-ranking militiaman and magistrate in the Spanish era in Trinidad before 1797 when the British seized control. His mother was the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants who had come to the island during the Cedula of Population in 1783. Although born on the island of Margarita in 1788, Santiago spent his childhood at his parents’ cotton plantation on Chacachacare.

After being educated abroad, he returned to Margarita in 1808 after his father died. Marino joined the revolution in the era of the First Republic but his regiment was defeated and he returned to his cotton estate on Chacachacare to reconnoitre. 

At his house on Chacachacare, Marino assembled a patriotic group of 45 republicans and stored a quantity of arms and ammunition. On January 11, 1813, the patriots crossed the Bocas Grande in small canoes and landed near the fortress town of Guiria. 

Back in Trinidad, Governor Munro made a half-hearted attempt to show Britain’s neutrality by sending a body of soldiers to ‘apprehend’ Marino and his cohorts as well as banishing the planter in principle and nominally confiscating his property. Marino’s revolutionaries seized the fort in a valiant sortie and appropriated a goodly store of munitions.

Their courage gave heart to others and the “Immortal 45” as they were later known, marched on the city of Maturin where he set up an independent eastern front while Bolivar led a foray against Caracas. Clashes between Marino and Bolivar were inevitable and although they sometimes fought alongside each other, Marino eventually ousted Bolivar who fled to Haiti. This civil abrasion would have ended the War of Independence right then and there had Bolivar not returned in 1817 and ceded military high command to Marino.

Together, they campaigned in the Battle of Carabobo which was the final confrontation that saw the Republic of Venezuela emerge in 1821. 

There was a significant slave population on the island throughout this period of history. One imagines that they fared badly enough since there was precious little land to allow them provision grounds for the cultivation of corn and root crops for their own sustenance. Thankfully, however, the seas abounded in fish. Next week, we will look at how Chacachacare fared towards the end of the 1800s.