Caroni is Amerindian in origin (there is another river bearing the same name in Venezuela) and the great stream though diminished in status to a flooding hazard, was once the very important lifeline which helped to build Trinidad.
In 1592 the Spanish conquistador Domingo De Vera rowed upriver to where a smaller stream formed a confluence. On this tributary he continued to the lands of the cacique Goagonare at the head of a cool, fertile valley where he established a settlement.
This village which was the first permanent European one in the island was christened San Jose de Oruna (St Joseph). At the mouth of the tributary of the Caroni a small battery was erected with two small pieces of cannon. Given the ostentatious name of Puerto Grande, it was also a landing place for people travelling to San Jose.
Around 1690 a Camino Real or Royal Road was laid out parallel to the river but the latter continued to be the main highway to the sea. In 1783 the Cedula de Poblacion was proclaimed which invited Catholic planters and their slaves to settle and open up the hinterlands and thus the sugar economy was born.
The Caroni became a major thoroughfare since the Camino Real was little better than a track. The tributaries of the river which were navigable also found use. There was a sandbar at the mouth of the river which impeded traffic. During his lifetime, until his death in the 1890s, Paolo Andrea Guiseppi of Valsayn Estate employed his labourers in keeping a channel open through the sandbar.
In the pre-Emancipation days, slaves were used for this purpose. Corials or dugout canoes had been floated on the Caroni since pre-Columbian times. The design was originated by the Amerindians who made corials by burning, then hollowing the log of a felled tree. These transported the bulk of the hogsheads of rum, sugar and molasses down to the sea. A large canoe could take as many as six barrels while a mule cart along the Royal Road could only handle three or four.
When going upriver, poles were used to push the canoes while heading downriver meant easy sailing since the current did the work. By 1900 the Caroni River was no longer a highway to the sea. In 1876 the Trinidad Government Railway was inaugurated and connected Port-of-Spain and Arima. Large sugar estates, particularly those belonging to the Orange Grove conglomerate, used a series of private railway lines connected to the government system and the river ceased to be a sugar road.
Indeed when the following account was written in 1914, there was almost no possibility of getting a boat to see the river: "After spending about a week between the town and its suburbs, I determined to commence my acquaintance with the country by exploring the banks of the principal river in Trinidad, the Caroni, which discharges itself into the Gulf of Paria only two miles to the south of the capital.
Near its entrance into the sea it opens out into a broad expanse surrounded by mangrove scrub, which anyone acquainted with the tropics knows must be practically impassable on foot, as the mangrove always takes its root in shallow salt water.
I tried, therefore, to arrange with a boatman for a passage a few miles up the river. The man, taking me probably for a rich tourist, asked the exorbitant price of ten dollars (more than two pounds), asserting it would require four men, although I was told afterwards that two would have been sufficient.
There were certainly two miles to be traversed by sea before entering the mouth of the river, but the waters of the Gulf of Paria are generally calm and the journey would have been well paid at half the price.
Finding that another boatman was almost as unreasonable, I put into practice my plan of taking the train as far as the crossing of the Caroni, 11 miles from town, trusting to be able to return part of the way in the canoe of some peasant or fisherman." After Hindu cremations were legalised in 1936, the banks of the river became the equivalent of the Ganges as the ashes of the dead were placed in the waters. The Caroni River supplies water to many citizens through the Piarco pumping station which is today its main utility, whilst the mangroves at the estuary are home to the Scarlet Ibis and a thriving eco-tourism industry. Although not as important commercially as it once was, the Caroni River remains an indelible part of national history.