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Return of the Bobbies

By Terry Joseph
March 24, 2006

Part I

Some 50 years ago, the words "Scotland Yard" first sprang into my consciousness but on attaining adulthood, broader appreciation of British policing set in, having only then understood the 1881 "Camboulay Riots" was really a very gory story of a massacre- peddled with exemplary spin-to exonerate Captain Baker of the Bobbies.

Although the episode that made me notice The Yard at age eight involved sleuths detecting that fugitive Dennis Stafford was thousands of miles away in Trinidad, the lasting recollection was of a constabulary walking the beat, The Bobbies, as they were known since 1829, when Greater London's Metropolitan Police force was established and headquartered at Scotland Yard.

Stafford, a singularly suave, blue-eyed boy, fled here after escaping London's Wormwood Scrubbs Prison and through sheer whiteness, was swiftly embraced by high society as a rich, young businessman-albeit of unspecified enterprise. Indeed, Stafford was the toast of the local cocktail circuit, until Scotland Yard tracked him and flew here to arrest the high-flying impostor.

It was stuff of which comic-book heroes were made and we, a puny satellite of the Mother Country, were lucky to have similarly-sourced genius in charge of our police force which, presumably through indoctrination by foreign superiors, presented an awe-inspiring and highly reliable service.

Betimes, spectacular police work back on their home-turf, like solving the 1963 Great Train Robbery in record time and later pursuing one of the convicted bandits, Ronnie Biggs, for 36 years after he escaped Wandsworth Prison (having served just two years of a sentence 15 times that long) and eventually seeing him back behind bars in 2001 to complete the full term, ranked for continuing admiration.

Agent 007, James Bond, had meanwhile been created by British novelist, Ian Fleming, from a template supplied by MI-5, the British National Security apparatus that acts as high-level support for that country's police and other law enforcement agencies in preventing and detecting serious crime.

The benefit of hindsight allows me to note that the fugitives, unable to resist the lure of the good life, concomitantly heightened their visibility, making it considerably easier to be located, Biggs enjoying la dolce vita in Brazil only because that country did not have an extradition treaty with the UK, whereas Stafford simply picked the wrong place to consistently star in local newspapers.

Even so, conceding those lucky breaks does not comprise compelling critique of Scotland Yard, for we had experienced at close quarter, the work of successive heads of our police force, all brought from England and many of whom spent the rest of their days here, Capt Muller's stewardship shortened during a riot in Fyzabad and Capt Fletcher drowning after his celebrated busting of Dr Dalip Singh for murder. Major Rupert Dennison lifted the police band by its bootstraps and to the level of musical integrity still respected today.

But we haven't always had feelings of gratitude for British policing, which invariably took considerable time to grasp local rhythm, routine, rights and religion. Flaunting their early 20th Century authority, Shouter Baptists were pursued and persecuted for reasons not distinctly different from oilfield workers attempting organisation, city-folk complaining about water-rates and pannists creating what became, in our time, the national musical instrument.

The Camboulay confrontation of 1881, in which Capt Baker attempted to stop Carnival altogether, was but the first of two singularly brutal assaults on the culture of our people, targeting the largely Afro-Trini festival in Port of Spain. Interestingly, the other, which took place in 1884, attacked the Indo-Trini commemoration of Hosay.

Institutionalised as an annual commemoration after the inaugural observance of Hosay took place here in 1854, a ban on all types of parades was imposed by the British 30 years later, following upheavals on sugar estates. Some 30,000 defiantly took to the streets of San Fernando for the 1884 Hosay. Police retaliated killing 22 men and wounding another 120 then, embarrassed at the bloody outcome, deemed that too a "riot".

As if by way of rewarding perpetrators of these atrocities with a lasting monument, Police Headquarters was built two years later, utilising limestone from the Eastern Quarry to forge a structure considered unassailable, until 1990, when insurgents exploded incendiary devices, setting it ablaze at sundown.

And as we shall see next week, while citizens frustrated by seemingly hopeless response to spiraling crime begged for the return of Scotland Yard, homegrown police officers then and now weren't always happy to welcome the return of "The Bobbies".


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