Anna-Lisa Paul and Bobie-Lee Dixon
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Schoolchildren turn out in hundreds as Citizens raise one for Robbie
Former head of state Arthur NR Robinson passed into history yesterday with a 21st-century “salute” of the upraised hand from Port-of-Spain spectators who clicked photos of his funeral procession with camera phones and other equipment. Spectators stood along streets of the capital as T&T began bidding a final farewell to the former prime minister, president and Tobago House of Assembly head, who received a royal send-off in yesterday’s Trinidad leg of the funeral proceedings. The late head of state received full military honours. Robinson’s body, in a flag-draped casket, was borne through Port-of-Spain atop a gun carriage en route to the funeral service at the National Academy of the Performing Arts (NAPA), Queen’s Park East.
Activities got underway hours ahead of yesterday’s 9.30 am funeral, with a gathering of armed forces outside the Clarke and Battoo Funeral Home, Tragarete Road, Port-of-Spain, before 7 am, as they prepared for the military procession. All in immaculate dress uniforms, the cortege set off at slow step at 7.50 am into St Vincent Street, heading to Independence Square. Leading the procession, apart from security vehicles and motorcycle escorts, was the Flagman, Hubert Diaz, dressed for the occasion in black mourning coat and hat trimmed with purple. Diaz led marching members of the military and mounted police who preceded the gun carriage bearing the casket. Symbolic of the dead leader, a riderless horse, with a pair of boots turned backward in the stirrups, again was led by a soldier ahead of the gun carriage.
Walking behind the flag-draped casket were Robinson’s children — David and Ann Margaret—and his granddaughter Anushka. Ann Margaret wore a black long-sleeved dress, broad-brimmed hat, low-heeled shoes and dark glasses. Keeping step with the family was aide-de-camp Debra Coryat. Escorting the gun carriage and walking on either side were retired military heads. These included Major Gen Edmund Dillon, Brigadier Generals Carl Alfonso, Ancil Antoine and Roland Maunday, Commodores Garnet Best and Anthony Frankli, and Rear Admiral Richard Kelshall.
From early yesterday before the procession began, spectators had gathered on the pavements at points along the route, including atop St Vincent Street’s Park Plaza. They also stood outside offices. The majority were office workers or people doing business in the capital. Before the procession came into view, some peered up St Vincent Street looking for signs of activity and there had been mild chatter. Holding up camera phones and tablets to capture the moment, they were however mostly silent as the solemn procession marched past, and they were particularly hushed when the sombre sight of Robinson’s family members came into view. The procession picked up pace from Independence Square and lower Abercromby Street but marchers slowed their quick step on approaching Trinity Cathedral and the Red House.
At that point, with deep solemn bangs of a bass drum, the Defence Force band struck up, in dirge tempo, the Mighty Sparrow’s Memories. It was to that tune, and with spectators on both sides of Abercromby Street, including students, that the former commander-in-chief of the armed forces made his final pass by the Red House. There, Robinson had been held hostage in the failed 1990 coup attempt and shot in the knee. It was also the location of Robinson’s defiant “attack with full force” declaration to the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen insurgents. Robinson’s cortege rolled past the Eternal Flame monument which was erected outside the Red House to mark the memory of 1990 victims. While the Red House, currently under renovation, is now behind a galvanise fence, the fencing around the Eternal Flame was moved back and the surrounding landscape manicured, revealing the flickering emblem yesterday. Members of the police, army and Coast Guard stationed at the monument saluted as the cortege rolled by. The procession headed east on Hart Street, going past the Hall of Justice and up Frederick Street to NAPA, where funeral guests had been seated since 8.30 am. It arrived at NAPA on schedule for the 9.30 am start.
Anushka grabs spotlight
Tributes and messages in the three-hour service came from a mix of foreign and local dignitaries, including former president George Maxwell Richards, who succeeded Robinson in 2003, and Richards’ successor, President Anthony Carmona. But the spotlight was really taken by Robinson’s granddaughter Anushka. Listed on the programme to read Psalm 91, she rattled off the lengthy verses without prompting, in a way that would have made her grandfather proud, judging from Chief Justice Ivor Archie’s recollection that she had spent time reading the Bible to her grandfather. She cut a touching figure at one point when she cuddled up to her mother, who held her close. Opposite NAPA, at the Grand Stand, Queen’s Park Savannah, large screens conveyed the proceedings to primary and secondary schoolchildren from all over T&T who had gathered to view the funeral. Officials said they catered for 5,000, but couldn’t confirm the number present, spread around the venue. Students travelled to the capital by bus and chartered maxi taxis while others from schools near the Savannah walked there.
Marking the solemn occasion of Robinson’s death, those from certain schools wore black armbands. The length of the programme was clearly felt by many of the younger students, who focused everywhere else but on the screens. While students did not applaud the first four speakers—a majority of foreign dignitaries—they did so heartily for the last four, starting with former president Richards. Snacks, water and juice were provided for students, who also received a programme, a bookmark bearing Robinson’s image and a miniature T&T flag. The final part of yesterday’s programme, transporting the body to the airport, ran ahead of schedule.
The convoy of security vehicles, plus the hearse and others transporting family members, passed through lower Frederick Street at 3.26 pm heading for the Tobago flight to take Robinson homeward bound.
(See Pages A6 and A11)