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Looking Backward

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 11, 2012

Karl Hudson Philip's brilliant advocacy for a respect of legal tradition and his reminder that standards ought to be adhered to touched an important note in Trinidad and Tobago's psyche. Reading Hudson Philip, I was reminded of a time when things were simpler, standards were more transparent and justice [or perhaps consistency] was among desired outcomes. One stands amazed as one contrasts the legal maneuverings of Ish and Steve, the shenanigans of Calder Hart and Laurence Duprey, and the audacity of Harrynarine of the Hindu Credit Union with the behavior of British officials during the days of slavery.

The year was 1831 and Charles Smith, Acting Governor of Trinidad, was writing to Viscount Goderich, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to inform him that Dr. Henry St. Hill, the Treasurer of the Colony, had misappropriated close to twenty thousand pounds (many million dollars in today's currency) from the national treasury. Although he was not sure what had happened, Governor Smith appointed a three-person committee under to the chairmanship of William Burnley, Senior Member His Majesty's Council (a position akin to being the Prime Minister of our time), to investigate and to sort out the matter. John Miller, Judicial Referee, and J. Flanner, Deputy Council General, were the other members of the Committee.

St. Hill was the Treasurer of the Colony's accounts from 1819 to 1831 when this discrepancy was discovered. No regular books of account were kept and the island's finances were in bad shape. During that early period, most public figures stole as if it were going out of style. Even Burnley, the richest man in the island, built his fortune under dubious circumstances.

St. Hill was no exception. He did what he pleased with the government's money, much of which he used for his personal benefit. When confronted, he tried to bamboozle the governor and the Council (what would then be the Legislative Council) by arguing that "the deposits from the Courts [some of the many deposits for which he was responsible] are monies for which I am individually, and only privately, responsibly."

Governor Smith immediately rejected such an idea which he called preposterous. Although he hoped that fraud was not involved, he informed Viscount Goderich: "This and other circumstances which have since come to my knowledge tend rather to shake my faith in a satisfactory final arrangement. Although I have not seen sufficient to induce me to this early to withdraw the paragraph in my former dispatch where I stated that I was sanguine in hoping that no eventual loss would be sustained."

The report of Burnleys' committee dashed any such optimism. After going through the colonial receipts and expenditures of1819-1830, Burnley's committee found that St. Hill owed the Colonial Treasury twenty thousand, one hundred and eighty three pounds thirteen shillings and ten pence sterling. There was one salutary note in this fraudulence. St. Hill gave 108 pounds, six shillings and eight pence to the Amateur Theatre of Orange Grove, Tacarigua, which suggests that even at this early period Tacarigua played a prominent role in the island's culture. It was the home of Burnley's mansion. A nascent formal theatre also operated in Port of Spain where E. L. Joseph's plays were performed.

Once Smith received Burley's report, he took swift action. There were no constitutional motions or prevarications of law. By March 31, judicial proceedings had been taken against St. Hill to recover the moneys he had stolen from the Public Treasury and judgment was passed against him for the sum of fifteen thousand, two hundred and ninety five pounds, nine shillings and four pence sterling "for the payment of which all his property, real and personal, is attached, and will be placed immediately in the hands of the Escheator General for its security and administration."

Smith and his government were not concerned particularly about how much it cost the government to investigate and prosecute St. Hill. They seized his sugar estate and the cocoa plantation, together with his slaves and appurtenances in Chaguanas, which they felt would cover the money he had stolen. The Council also seized a lot of land which he owned "with dwelling house building, etc., about two miles from Port of Spain and some of his personal slaves."

The state wasted no time in disposing of St. Hill's property. By the end of May St. Hill's personal property was sold although his estates and his slaves presented unique challenges. Even though the law stipulated that St. Hill's property had to be sold within three months of the Court's ruling, the offers made for the properties were below their value (or what the state thought their value was). Under the circumstances, Governor Smith requested permission to keep the property a little longer since "The present depreciation in West Indian property renders it advisable to retain the estates for some time in the hands of the Crown."

One would have thought the matter would have ended there but the sale of the enslaved Africans presented another problem. Viscount Golderich responded to Governor Smith as follows: "I do not think that consistent with the instructing for the liberation of Crown slaves the sale of Mr. St. Hill's estates can be sanctioned. Being confiscated to the King the Negroes in them (as it seems to me) must have their rights to freedom acknowledged if it be really meant to push the principles which have been laid down to their legitimate consequences."

Under this ruling the enslaved Africans were freed. St. Hill did not enjoy his ill-gotten gains nor was he allowed to gallivant in London and thumb his nose at the people from whom he had stolen. One wonders what would have been the fate of Ish, Steve, Hart, Duprey and Harrynarine if they lived during those early days. Would they have been allowed to thumb their noses at the State in the manner in which they are doing now?

Thinking of it, there might be something to Winston Churchill's observation: "The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward."

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