A new chapter in the 169-year-old history of the Red House is in the making following the discovery of bones and artefacts in the foundations of the Rotunda.
Preliminary reports by archaeologist Peter Harris suggested that “the bones are from members of an Arawak tribe dating back to AD 0 to AD 350, and the pottery is definitely Amerindian in style dating back to the same era”.
Government pathologist Dr Valery Alexandrov of the Forensic Science Centre in Port of Spain confirmed that “the bones are similar to those of human beings”, but in the absence of facilities to determine the exact ethnicity and sex, arrangements are being made to send samples of the bones abroad, either to Michigan University, USA, or Miami University, for further testing and evaluation.
The report of the findings, one way or another, will now place the Red House and its surroundings in a new light, as one of the most controversial State buildings in Trinidad, where, since 1903, it has been at the centre of abuse and assault.
Historian Gerard Besson recalled an article by John Newel Lewis on the status of the site on which the Red House was built. The article, written by James H Starke, noted, “There was a great battle between rival Arawak tribes that took place in ancient times where Woodford Square now stands. Because of this, the area was called Place des Armes.”
Another source indicated that landfill from Laventille was taken to the site during construction of the first Red House.
On February 15, 1844, the foundation stone was laid for the construction of a government building which became the Red House.
The current building is the second structure to be built on the same spot. The first was designed by Richard Bridgens and built by G de la Sauvagere and AA Pierre. It comprised two main blocks connected by a double archway. Though not quite complete, the Red House was opened in 1848 by Governor Lord Harris.
Fifty years later in 1897, it was painted red during the celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Since then Trinidadians and Tobagonians have given the building the name Red House.
As the seat of government since the mid-19th century, the Red House, which is of Greek revival style, has undergone more assaults than any other government building in Trinidad.
In 1903 it was destroyed by fire, when an enraged mob broke windows, threw missiles and started a fire that gutted the entire building. This incident is known as the Water Riots, which took place on March 23, 1903.
On the day of the fire, members of the Legislative Council were debating a bill on the distribution and increased payment of water rates by burgesses in Port of Spain.
While the debate was in progress, there was also a protest meeting by members of the Ratepayer’s Association in progress at Woodford Square, then called Brunswick Square.
During the protest, the crowd became agitated and noisy and stones were thrown, at the windows of the building, smashing them to pieces.
Members in the council chamber were forced to duck under tables and desks and behind pillars.
One member, Henry Albert Alcazar, had walked out of the building in protest against the government’s water policies, stating, “The public movement is the inauguration of a more serious movement which I hope will end in the people having their own say at this table.”
After the riots, he served as counsel for those accused of rioting, before the Commission of Enquiry, as well as those who had died or were injured in the riots.
In the face of violence and destruction, the Governor Sir AC Maloney had refused to withdraw the bill.
In the aftermath of the fire, 16 people lay dead and 42 injured, and the first Red House building was completely destroyed, leaving only the shell of the building standing among the rubble which was later removed to fill open spaces in Victoria and Harris Squares.
Rebuilding a new home for Parliament began the following year. It was designed and built by DM Hahn, chief draughtsman at the Works Department, at a cost of 7,485 pounds sterling.
The ceiling in the new chamber was one of the most striking pieces of architecture. An Italian craftsman installed the ceiling.
The columns and entablature were made of purple hart wood imported from Guyana, a fountain was installed in the middle of the Rotunda and the passageway between the two buildings was closed to vehicular traffic.
Work was completed in 1906 and the building was opened to the public on February 4, 1907 by Governor Sir HM Jackson.
At the opening, Jackson called on the people of Trinidad to forget the past events at the Red House and concentrate on a fresh history of Trinidad.
In his address, Jackson said, “Today we leave that episode of the past behind us forever, and we turn a fresh page in the history of Trinidad.”
Eighty-three years after the call by Jackson to forget the bitterness of past memories, there was an attempted coup at the Red House by members of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, who on the afternoon of July 27, 1990, stormed the Parliament building during a sitting of the House of Representatives. During the siege, seven people were killed in the Red House and several injured.
Long after the assault, bullet holes could be seen on the ceiling, walls and doors of the building.
On July 26, 1991, the traditional chamber was restored, and commemorative plaques relating to the incident installed. These included a portrait of Leo Des Vignes, Member of Parliament for Diego Martin Central, who had died in the siege; a plaque bearing the names of the casualties of the invasion and a marble cenotaph crowned with an eternal flame erected on the eastern end of the lawn of the Red House.
These formed part of the history of the Red House depicting the tumultuous past, the fire, the attempted coup and other incidents that threatened the core of our democracy.
The discovery of bones and artefacts will undoubtedly raise further issues concerning the past, and even the future, of the Red House.