South of San Fernando, in a belt of rolling country bordering on the Oropouche Lagoon mangrove swamps was the district of South Naparima. Around 1810-20, two large sugar plantations–Wellington and Woodland–were established on these lands. The soil was exceedingly rich and those fortunate enough to have properties here, reaped rich annual harvests as LAA DeVerteuil recounted in 1857."Not only do the canes ratoon in this soil for many years, but it does not seem to be favourable to the growth of rank weeds; from three to four annual weedings only are required to keep the cane-fields clean and in good condition. The canes generally do not grow to a very large size; but from 20 to 30 shoots from the same."
Initially tilled by slave labour, the estates of South Naparima struggled after Emancipation until the introduction of indentured workers from India who began arriving sporadically in 1845 and in earnest after 1849. From 1860-66 and ending around 1880, an incentive of �5 in lieu of a return passage to India was offered in order to encourage the Indians to settle and create a peasant class.Around 1875-80 a number of labourers whose contracts had expired, began to farm the land assiduously, producing prodigious quantities of rice, ground provisions, vegetables and watermelons. Much of this food found a ready market some four miles away in San Fernando.
In time, the village they founded became known as Cooliewood.
Dire need for a South road
Another smaller hamlet began to sprout downhill to the east around 1900, even closer to the borders of Wellington Estate.This was the birth of Debe, although it was then considered amalgamated to Cooliewood. There were no public services in the area and the villages were almost entirely composed of Indo-Trinidadian agrarian peasants.Owing to the quantity of food being produced here, as well as in Penal some five miles south (which had begun as a settlement in much the same fashion around 1900), there was a dire need for a proper road to get the crops to market.
To this call, the wealthy planter and owner of Palmiste Estate, Sir Norman Lamont, lent his voice, and in 1912 he announced:"Towards one other matter I have also been able to make some progress, though I am not able to state definitely that the work will be undertaken. I refer to the possibility of our having a direct road from San Fernando to the south, which would run through Palmiste and Canaan by means of a bridge near the mouth of the river Cipero."His Excellency the Governor himself came to see the proposed route, and the matter is now under his consideration. If the road is made, it will, in my opinion, be of great value to all the people on this estate, as giving them a short and direct road to San Fernando for their marketing."
A train trackthrough the swamp
This road was not commenced until 1915 and eventually became the San Fernando–Siparia Erin Road. This was not to say, however, that Debe was bereft of transport. In 1912 the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) extended a line towards the settlement in an infrastructure expansion drive to reach Siparia which happened in 1914. A station was put up at Wellington Road with a crossing gate cutting off traffic on the SS Erin Road when the train was moving across.The project of extending a line through the swamps of Debe was considered to be one of the great engineering feats of the TGR since a massive embankment had to be constructed all the way to Penal. Bits of this earthwork and an old bailey bridge are still visible off Suchit Trace.
Debe had a Presbyterian church and school since the 1920s which were on a steep incline just south of the village. Owing to severe earth movements, the old school was abandoned and a new building erected a short distance away in the 1990s.
Famous for doubles, aloo pies
As early as the 1950s, the Wellington Road junction of Debe was becoming famous as a spot for Indian delicacies, particularly doubles and aloo pies. From the 1940s until it closed in the late 1990s, Hummingbird Cinema operated near this place, showing Indian pictures as its staple fare. In 1962 Dr Eric Williams mandated that the name of the original settlement, Cooliewood, should be changed to Gandhi Village, both to honour the most famous Indian statesman in history and to erase the derogatory nature of the name.Today Debe is a bustling commercial area, very different from its humble origins.