According to De Verteuil (1858:300), the Mission was under the governance of a municipal council headed by Amerindians of the Mission, and under the control of the priest. In addition, under the British, a corregidor was appointed as well as a protector to whom the Amerindians could appeal against any arbitrary act of the corregidor. After the Spanish cession of Trinidad in 1802, the British vowed to uphold Spanish laws and institutions, in line with the terms of the cession.

All the Amerindians of the Mission, who were fit for work, were obligated to work two days of each week for the support of the community, employed in such tasks as cleaning the village and farming common lands. In addition, each head of family had his own personal allotment of land (De Verteuil 1858:300), as noted before. The Amerindians of the Mission were not subject to taxation, but were bound to serve as a public workforce when ordered by the corregidor, and had to accompany the latter, when required, and be paid wages in return (De Verteuil 1858:300). The Amerindians were not entitled to sell or otherwise dispose of their property, which descended to their heirs. As De Verteuil argued, “the Indians were considered in the light of minors”, and this measure was in force to “protect” them since, “the moment they became emancipated, they sold what property they had for a mere trifle” (De Verteuil 1858:300). Indeed, De Verteuil’s suggestion here is that this is one reason why Arima’s ex-Mission Amerindians would eventually evacuate from Arima. Of course, such a suggestion also masks the fact that local elites wished to acquire their lands and certainly went some way toward covering up the facts of how aboriginals lost their hold on land, and the De Verteuil family was certainly a part of the local oligarchy.[5]

The church was the center of the social, political and religious organisation of the Mission. The church building itself was in fact originally constructed by the Amerindians (De Verteuil 1858:300), and as noted by Governor Woodford, writing in 1817 on extant churches in Trinidad, “St. Rose of Arima: A thatched house built by the Indians” (quoted in Leahy 1980:37).


The church, and the ceremonies enacted within it, were themselves critical parts of mission organisation: “the missionaries very skilfully played upon every conceivable natural desire. They emphasised the externals of their religion—the ceremony, the music, the processions” (Whitehead 1988:141). In line with this, we see a number of patronal feasts celebrated throughout the various mission towns of colonial Trinidad, with records for the 1750s speaking of the festivals of Saint Augustine (San Agustín) and Saint Paul (San Pablo), patron saints of the towns that bore their names, and governed by “the corregidor of the Nepuyos, Gabriel Infante” (Noel 1972:36-37, emphasis added). The Santa Rosa Festival in Arima had its roots in this milieu, as did Trinidad’s only other surviving mission festival, La Divina Pastora in the town of Siparia in southern Trinidad (see Goldwasser 1996).[7]

The alleged intent of the church itself was to preserve the ‘racial’ and residential integrity of the Amerindian community under its control. Friars had, “prohibited ‘mission’ Indians from contact with ‘bush’ Indians, Negro slaves, mestizos or other Spaniards and kept them confined to the missions” (Harricharan 1983:22). Noel argued that one of the successes of the Capuchins, “seems to have been the partial preservation of the Indigenous race as agricultural workers under the external guise of living a Catholic life” (1972:18).

The Rights of the Amerindians and the Extent of their Lands

As noted above, Amerindians in the Mission of Arima held lands in common, plus lands allocated to individual families, and earned incomes and possessed such properties free of any taxation. The Catholic Church acted as the parental guardian of the Amerindians, and thus also exercised a right to overall control of the Mission, as was the case before the British Conquest and was to legally remain after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.

Going back to De Verteuil, a historian in Trinidad during the early half of the 1800s when the Mission of Arima was still intact, he explains: “The Indians were considered in the light of minors, and could not sell or otherwise dispose of their property, which however descended to their natural heirs” (De Verteuil 1858:300).

Donald Wood, a noted historian of Trinidad, reported that by 1846 the Amerindians of the Mission of Arima, “held 1,000 acres from the King of Spain and 320 acres from Sir Ralph Woodford” (1968:44). The fact that Spanish laws were still in force under the British, after 1802, is demonstrated by a British Governor himself, who even went as far as adding more land to the Mission.

Recorded testimonies of the time also provide concrete evidence of the extent of the lands held by the Mission of Santa Rosa de Arima. Testifying before the Burnley Commission, the actual corregidor of the Mission himself, Martin Sorzano, was recorded in the following exchange on Friday, 16 July 1841:

[Question] 559. Do they [the Indians] not hold a tract of land set apart for their own use?

[Answer by Sorzano:] Yes, a tract of about 1,000 acres, granted to them by the King of Spain, to which Sir Ralph Woodford added afterwards 320 acres, in consequence of their complaining of a want of provision grounds. [Burnley 1842:109]

Evidence of Spanish Laws Enforced as per the Treaty of 1802

It is important to understand that the fact the British enforced Spanish laws after 1802 stemmed from the Treaty of Amiens, and evidence of such enforcement is also evidence that such laws were recognised. In recognising these laws, British colonial authorities were also recognising their obligations toward the Amerindians of the Mission of Arima.

The arrival of Sir Ralph Woodford in Trinidad on 14 June 1813 as the new Governor of the colony provided the clearest evidence of the laws in force, and as enforced. As an acquaintance of the Governor and writer of the time noted, Woodford, “regarded himself not as representative of a constitutional British sovereign, but as a Spanish viceroy, armed with the most absolute authority” (Joseph 1970 [1838]:248). As late as 1838, the Spanish colonial code known as the Laws of the Indies, compiled in 1680, remained in force in Trinidad to some extent (Joseph 1970 [1838]:111). One of the titles inherited by the British Governors of Trinidad from their Spanish predecessors was that of ‘Royal Vice-Patron of the Holy Roman Catholic Church’ (Fraser 1971 [1896]:10). This title had been held by Spanish colonial governors as representatives of the Spanish Crown, with the Spanish monarch having been conferred the title of Royal Patron of the Church by Pope Julius II (Bull, 28th July 1508) (Fraser 1971 [1896]:10). In line with this, one historian explained that “the office of Vice-Patron was not only one of dignity; it possessed many well defined powers and duties which Sir Ralph Woodford exercised with more strictness than any of his predecessors, whether Spanish or English” (Fraser 1971 [1896]:10-11). One of these duties, of course, was to uphold the Roman Catholic Church, Spanish laws, and the Indian missions. Interestingly, a monument in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Port of Spain commemorated Sir Ralph Woodford as “Founder of the Church”, the foundation of the Cathedral having been laid “with great ceremony” under Woodford on 24 March 1816 (Collens 1886:79-80).

As Royal Vice-Patron of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, Sir Ralph Woodford also took a special interest in the Mission of Arima, and it was he who largely reconstituted it for its final two decades of life in Trinidad.

[8] In 1818, “desirous of re-establishing the Mission of Arima in the rights and privileges which the Laws accord to the Indian”, Woodford appointed Captain William Wright to take charge of the Mission (Woodford quoted in Harricharan 1983:45). The following is a statement issued by Sir Ralph Woodford in this regard and the rare voice of this actor is worth quoting at length:

The Governor and Captain General being desirous of re-establishing the Mission of Arima in the rights and privileges which the Laws accord to the Indians, and of contributing by all the means in his power to its improvement and prosperity, has decided to name as its Corregidor an Officer of His Majesty’s Forces who possesses all the qualities needed for such an important post….In Don William Wright the Indians will find all aid and protection, their person and property will be under his immediate care; he will encourage their industries and render their trades profitable to themselves, so that their children following the example of their activity, may be useful and virtuous, and the lands which the Law allows them may be constantly kept in cultivation by the able-bodied amongst them….The Governor hopes that the Indians on their part will co-operate in his good intentions on their behalf by obeying all that the Laws enjoin upon them, by being sober and industrious, and carrying out their respective duties as submissive fathers, wives and children, and especially by seeing that the latter attend regularly to hear and to learn the Christian Doctrine so strictly enjoined by the Law, on the days and hours fixed by their venerable Parish Priest….The above notice is to be communicated to them and put up on the Casa Real of Arima–Ralph Woodford, Government House, St. Ann’s, Trinidad, 27 June 1818. [quoted in Fraser 1971 (1896):102, emphasis added]

In a letter to Captain William Wright, Woodford instructed the latter to execute the following commands, as quoted in Fraser (1971 [1896]:102-104). First, upon taking charge of the “Village of Arima”, Capt. Wright was to obtain a general return of the Indians from his predecessor. Second, Woodford instructed Wright to “proceed to make a return of them by families, shewing [sic] their lineage or descent as well as their trades, and if intermixed with other than Indian blood”.

[9] Third, Wright was to examine all dwellings of the Indians, noting their state, and make plans for their maintenance (in the case of widows, the elderly and the infirm) by demanding a “general contribution of labor”, or to compel ‘the idle’ to fix their own homes. Fourth, Woodford instructed Wright “to inquire into the tenures of the houses built by others than Indians of which many have been introduced into the Mission without my knowledge or concurrence”, to examine titles in order to learn if lands were purchased from Indians, and then to take action given, “the laws expressly forbidding and annulling any such sales”. Fifth, Wright was to “call upon all persons not being Indians, residing in Arima, to show my [Woodford’s] permission for the same, and in default of their possessing it”, he was at liberty, “to order them to quit the Mission within a reasonable time to be fixed according to the nature of their establishment; for those having none a very short notice will suffice”. Sixth, Woodford requested that Wright “cause all strangers to be apprehended that enter the village not being furnished with my permission to reside in this Island”, and to prohibit “any person henceforward to reside in Arima that has not my express authority for that purpose”. On the other hand, Woodford added, it may be “desirable to attract respectable inhabitants and useful artizans [sic]; the former may be encouraged and the latter permitted to exercise their trades upon condition of teaching the same to one or more young Indians under the usual stipulations of apprenticeship”. Seventh, Wright was to formally delimit the boundaries of the village, and command the Indians to plant a lime fence along its boundaries. Eighth, Wright was required to “inspect with the greatest attention and care the Conucos or provision grounds of the Indians situated within the limits of the Mission, taking a note of the extent and condition of each, the nature and degree of the cultivation, notifying all persons encroaching therein to justify themselves before you in the first instance”. Ninth, Wright was commanded to “not allow any of the Indians to work abroad until you shall receive further orders for your guidance, and you will order back to the Mission those who now may be employed abroad”. Tenth, the Indians were to be ordered to maintain the public infrastructure of the Village, and their presence at Mass on Sundays and the ‘great holidays’ was to be enforced. Thus Woodford set about enforcing and consolidating the Mission of Arima, possibly to a greater extent than had been done before.

Woodford never failed to support the Cabildo, or municipal council of Arima in any move aimed at “guaranteeing Arima as Amerindian territory” (Anthony 1988:3). Indeed, Woodford took a leading role in preserving Indian rights over the territorial integrity of the Mission. Three individuals with commercial agricultural interests complained to Governor Woodford about the steep rents they were asked to pay for the use of lands in Arima. In reply, Governor Woodford wrote, and this is worth reproducing in detail:

To the Marquis del Toro, Don Francisco Toro, and St. Hilaire Bégorrat, Esq.:—Gentlemen, I have received and considered your representation on the 12th ult. and in reply have to observe that the ground rent which the Indian Cabildo of the Mission of Arima have (sic) imposed on the lots occupied in the village by others than Indians received my consent and approbation….As regards the right of the Indians to impose this charge, the existing documents prove that the land of Arima was given to them (the Indians) as their property in community, with an exclusive and untransferable right to the employment thereof to the best advantage for their general benefit, and as I am not aware of their having by any act forfeited their right to claim rent for any land belonging to them in common, I am advised that it was competent to them to impose a ground rent on lots belonging to them in Arima…. As regards the transfer of lots, it is within my knowledge that Don Manuel Sorzano who established the Mission, never permitted any transfer but of the houses, and not of the lots themselves, and Mr. Goin and Mr. Francisco Febles have declared the same; they could not indeed legally authorise the transfer of any portion of any portion of the Mission lands or of the property of that establishment. As to the occupation of these lots since 1783, and the invitations given by the Spanish Government to strangers to resort to Arima, I have to observe that in 1797 only two white persons and nine colored men (married to Indian women) were then living in the village, and notwithstanding every search I remain quite ignorant of any regulation of Governor Chacon or of His Catholic Majesty that might have altered the Law regarding the settlement of strangers in an Indian Mission—I have, &c., &c., Ralph Woodford, Government House, 26th October, 1819. [quoted in Fraser 1971 (1896):101]

Both Governor Woodford and Capt. Wright assumed a patronal role with the Amerindians of the Mission of Arima. In the case of the latter, very little is written except that I found evidence in the Baptismal Registers of the Church of Santa Rosa that Wright became a formal godparent to at least one Amerindian child. Wright also married a local ‘white’ Spanish woman, Serafina de Orosco, which resulted in a child born on 12 November 1825.[10]

Woodford also regularly patronized the Santa Rosa Festival. As Anthony (1988:4) found: “Woodford never failed to journey to Arima for the feast of Santa Rosa, celebrated on August 31. Woodford, referred to as ‘Gouverneur Chapeau Paille’, because he always wore a straw hat, cut a merry figure on those occasions, enjoying himself with the Amerindians during this festival of dancing, sport, fruit and flowers”. Of especial interest is the following passage, by De Verteuil, quoted in full here given that at the time of Woodford’s attendance at the Santa Rosa Festival, De Verteuil was a boy, who grew up in the Arima area, and was an eye-witness to the festival according to Rétout (1976:46). De Verteuil thus describes the festival:

The village of Arima was formerly, and for a long time, celebrated for its festival of Santa Rosa, the patron saint of the mission. On that day the Indians elected their king and queen–in general, a young man and young girl–and all appeared in their best apparel and most gawdy ornaments. The interior of the Church was hung with the produce of their industry–bunches of plantains, cassava cakes, and the fruits of the season; game of various descriptions, coincos, lapos, parrots, &c., and draperied with the graceful leaves of the palm tree. After mass, they performed ceremonial dances in the church, and then proceeded to the Casa Real, or royal house, to pay their compliments to the corregidor, who gave the signal for dancing and various sports–among others, that of archery, in which the men exercised themselves until a prize was adjudged to the best marksman. People from all parts of the country would resort to Arima for the purpose of witnessing the festivities, which were invariably attended by the governor and staff. Sir Ralph Woodford, in particular, always took the greatest interest in the mission, and every year would distribute prizes to the children of both sexes, who deserved them by their good behavior, and their improvement at school. [De Verteuil 1858:301]

Woodford’s statements are thus direct testimonial evidence of the laws in place, as enforced by himself as Governor of the Colony, and of the rights of the Amerindians of the Mission of Arima.

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