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The Devil's Woodyard

Published: 
Sunday, April 3, 2016
The Devil’s Woodyard as sketched by Charles Kingsley in 1870.

The large mud volcano known as the Devil’s Woodyard was most probably known to the first peoples of Trinidad since it was located in an area where several pottery and stone tool remains have been discovered over the years. 

One cannot be sure of the manner in which they viewed the large expanse of mud and bubbling pools of gas, but it is possible that like a similar formation in Cedros, it was treated as a cenote or entrance to the underworld. 

The area was known to the Spaniards in the 18th century, but its isolation deep in the forest made it inaccessible. In the 19th century however, the area to the immediate west of the volcano, the Naparimas, had become a rich sugar district of rolling canefields. 

There was an old Amerindian Mission, established in 1687 and by the time all the indigenous inhabitants had either left or died, it was still known as Mission. To the south along an old Indian trail, and near the volcano itself, companies of black American soldiers who had fought for the British in the War of 1812 had settled in what became known as the Company Villages.

These new inhabitants, known as the ‘Merikins” had been promised land in the British Colonies for their services and this was the fulfilment of that promise, albeit in barest form since the allotments were deep in the virgin forest and almost inaccessible. 

Near the volcano, one of the grants was located on infertile land and became known as Hardbargain because of this. The Merikins were resettled on another tract which became New Grant. An estate known as Hindustan was developed almost bordering on the volcano.

Perhaps one of the most vivid descriptions of the spot comes from the great English author, Charles Kingsley, who visited in 1870 and was guided by a Merikin descendant whose ancestors had probably given the place its ominous name:

“We had some difficulty in finding our quest, the Salse, or mud volcano. But at last, out of a hut half buried in verdure on the edge of a little clearing, there tumbled the quaintest little old black man, cutlass in hand, and, without being asked, went on ahead as our guide. Crook-backed, round-shouldered, his only dress a ragged shirt and ragged pair of drawers, he had evidently thriven upon the forest life for many a year. He did not walk nor run, but tumbled along in front of us, his bare feet plashing from log to log and mud-heap to mud-heap, his grey woolly head wagging right and left, and his cutlass brushing almost instinctively at every bough he passed, while he turned round every moment to jabber something, usually in Creole French, which of course I could not understand. ‘Dere de debbil's woodyard,’ said he, with somewhat bated breath. And no wonder ; for a more doleful, uncanny, half made spot I never saw. The sad forest ringed it round with a green wall, feathered down to the ugly mud, on which, partly perhaps from its saltness, partly from the changeableness of the surface, no plant would grow, save a few herbs and creepers which love the brackish water.”

A decade later in 1880, the Devil’s Woodyard received royal visitors. Princes Albert Victor and George (later King George V) came to Trinidad aboard the HMS Bacchante as midshipmen. The grandsons of Queen Victoria were taken to see the volcano and en route, passed through Mission Village, where they planted two poui trees in the yard of the St Stephen’s Anglican Church and the town was forever called Princes Town in honour of the occasion. The recollection of Prince Albert was as follows:

“Alone it must be an uncanny sort of place  to visit, too much jumbies here." 

"De debbil he come out here  and walk about," said the negro guide; but today the cheerful noise  of midshipmen's voices hallooing broke the stillness of the haunted ground and drove all dark-dreams of evil far away: and the old  gentleman was probably occupied on his walks in thickly-populated  towns, where, for the most part, he seems to find more congenial occupation for his wits nowadays than in lone forest depths.”

One might note that from the conversation of the Princes’ guide, that he was the same man who showed Kingsley the spot a decade earlier. The Devil’s Woodyard is not always quite as several violent eruptions in recent times have shown. The Devil’s Woodyard still attracts many visitors but unlike the old days when the road was a muddy track, a proper driveway is now constructed along with a play park and recreational facilities.