This past week, a giant ceiba of great age toppled on the slopes of Picton in Laventille, causing damage to a home and injury to a person. It had been revered for generations as the focal point of magic and obeah.The mighty ceiba or silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) has been part of folklore and tradition since pre-Colombian times in T&T. Like the Meso-American societies of Central America, the first peoples of Kairi (Trinidad) believed that spirits resided in this colossus of the forest (also called the Kapok).Near Erin Bay on the south coast of the island, there existed from 500 AD, a large Amerindian settlement. Crowning the ridge above the village was a huge ceiba. This tree fell over during a severe rainstorm nearly two decades ago. In the earth thrown up by its exposed roots was a treasure trove of potsherds, shellfish remains and rude stone tools which indicated that possibly the tree was the focal point of devotions.
Near what is now Port-of-Spain, there existed an Amerindian village called Cu-Mucurapo or "Place of the Silk Cotton Trees." It was at this spot in 1533 that the first peoples banded together and expelled the conquistador, Antonio Sedeno who had tried to establish a stockade and thus a toehold in the island. The African slaves who succeeded the Amerindians as the oppressed people of the island treated the ceiba with a healthy respect amounting to fear as Charles Kingsley wrote of their descendants in 1870:"The Negros spare, whenever they can, the gigantic ceibas, or silk cotton trees. These latter are useless as timber; and their roots are, of course, hurtful to the canes. But the Negro is shy of felling the ceiba. It is a magic tree, haunted by spirits. There are 'too much jumbies in him,' the Negro says; and of those who dare to cut him down some one will die, or come to harm within the year.
"In Jamaica, says my friend Mr Gosse, 'they believe that if a person throws a stone at the trunk, he will be visited with sickness or other misfortune. When they intend to cut one down, they first pour rum at the root as a propitiatory offering.' The Jamaica Negro, however, fells them for canoes, the wood being soft and easily hollowed. But here, as in Demerara, the trees are left standing about in cane-pieces and pastures to decay into awful and fantastic shapes."Strangely enough, it has been discovered in Angola–the only species of the Cactus tribe in the Old World."The healthy fear with which the Afro-Trinidadian held the ceiba was transferred to his Indo counterparts. Near Debe, there were several huge specimens standing like wild sentries amid the waving sugarcane fields. One in particular has long been steeped in lore as a place where buried treasure was hidden–a hoard which is protected by the ghost of a Spanish man in a broad hat which is seen from time to time.
In Moruga, there is another which rears its stark branches high on a small mountain. The huge buttress roots with the dark spaces in between (some as large as a room) are believed to be an entrance to the underworld and the home of many nether-worldly creatures including a jumbie. Douens are apparently seen amongst the roots as well. Indeed, some speculated that silk cotton trees were seen as an underworld entrance by the First Peoples as well.At the junction of Belmont Circular Road and Queen's Park East, a majestic ceiba stood for eons, pre-dating the European settlement of the island. Its spreading crown bore witness to the felling of its fellows to make way for cultivation of sugar cane on the Peschier family's Paradise Estate, and then the sale of this land in 1817 to Governor Sir Ralph Woodford who laid out the Queen's Park Savannah and the Botanical Gardens.
The great tree saw the laying of tramlines as Belmont grew from a mystical place where proud Rada communes sounded the drums of Africa into a middle-class suburb with quaint gingerbread houses.This tree that had become a landmark for so many finally died and fell in 2012 since over the years, a vagrant had chosen the space among its roots as an abode and constantly lit fires which took its toll on the giant.This icon became the symbol and namesake of the longstanding Cotton Tree Foundation which was founded as a charitable organisation to help disadvantaged people in the district.