THE TRINIDAD HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
Publication No. 72.
Letter from General Thomas Hislop, Governor of Trinidad to
Lord Castlereagh Secretary of State reporting the great fire in
Port-of-Spain. March 27th, 1808.
Source : Public Record Office. State Papers Colonial. 295/19.
1808. Published by the courtesy of the Master of the Rolls
and the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records.
27th March, i808.
To THE RIGHT HONOURABLE LORD VISCOUNT CASTLEREAGH.
With the keenest sense of regret I have now to perform the
most painful instance of duty which ever fell to my lot by the
melancholy recital which I have the honour to make to
Your Lordship of a conflagration which on the night between
the 24th and 25th inst., reduced to ashes the greatest part of
the town of Port-of-Spain.
This dreadful calamity, the consequences of which cannot
be foreseen, has suddenly plunged thousands of the unfortunate
inhabitants into the most abject want and distress and the
difficulties which present themselves in the first moments to
afford them relief, combine most forcibly to augment the
horror which the surrounding scene of desolation and despair
are found to inspire.
It was between the hours often and twelve in the night of
the 24th that the fire first burst forth from the house of an
apothecary of the name of Schaw (the point being indicated
in the subjoined plan of the town which I have thought proper
to transmit in order to afford Your Lordship a clear idea of
the destruction which has taken place) and the rapidity with
which it spread was inconceivable leaving not a moment to
any of the inhabitants immediately adjoining, to save the
smallest remnant of their property.
All the efforts of fire engines were soon discovered to be
useless in counteracting the fury of the flames. Recourse was
had to the whole strength which could be collected to level
streets and houses yet untouched by the fire but the frequent
shifting of the wind disconcerted every precautionaiv step
which sound reason and cool reflection had suggested.
The calmness which gradually accompanied the dawn of
day followed by the reflection of the morning sun at last by
degrees appeared to put a check to it and about noon of the
25th it may be said to have run its course having within the
space of twelve hours entirely reduced to ashes upwards of
two thirds of the old town which had contained a population
of between three and four thousand souls.
As soon as possible after the fire had subsided, 1 called
together the Members of His Majesty's Council to consult
them on the measures most urgent and nccessaiv to be
pursued in our distressing situation.
The result of their advice produced the Proclamation of
which a copy is herewith annexed and under the existence of
absolute expediency in which it was dictated, I must rely
with confidence on the approbation and sanction of
His Majesty's Ministers for the measures thereby adopted
which no consideration short of the dread of the want of the
necessaries of life and the serious apprehension also arising
from the want of shelter for so considerable a portion of the
population would have induced me to promulgate.
At the same time I wrote to the Governors of the
neighboring Islands as well as to those on the Spanish Main
to tender us every assistance in their power although from
the former we cannot expect much if any, particularly in the
articles of provisions and of flour which latter owing to the
embargo in the United States has for some time past, been
generally very scarce.
The present estimated calculation of the loss in houses
amounts to between three and four million of dollars and
that of merchandise, produce and effects is supposed to be
equal to half a million sterling.
Many individuals who were enjoying wealth and comfort
are reduced to penury and want, gratefully accepting a daily
allowance of provisions for their support which the arrival of
a vessel from Halifax the day after the conflagration, enabled
the more fortunate who had escaped its direful effects, to
purchase for the relief and benefit of the sufferers.
Subscriptions were immediately opened for the purpose
and sufficient means will I trust thereby be provided to meet
In the midst of such distressing and afflicting scenes
which at every instant present themselves to view, there is
some consolation left in the reflection that the loss of very lew
human lives have to aggravate the general calamity.
A grenadier of the 37th Regiment in his endeavours to
save the life of a child and in which lie succeeded, was so
dreadfully scorched as to occasion the loss of his own life
a few hours after.
I must beg of Your Lordship to excuse the hurried detail
from the general state of confusion which still pervades the
community and the constant necessity there is for my presence
to re-establish a system of order and tranquillity.
I have the honour to be My Lord,
Your Lordship's most obedient and humble Servant,
I. A general return of the houses and stores burnt dcwn by
the fire of the 24th and 25th of March, 1808, agreable to the
return of the Alcaldes of Barrio in which are pointed out the
names of the Proprietors
Alcalde of Barrio. Barrios.
and description of the inhabitants.
Houses. White., Coloured Slaves.
. No. i
S. No. 3
Costeano Delile .. No. 4
. No. 5
Lewis Chippel .. No. 6
Philip Cournand .. No. 7
Aristimuno No. 8
Number of Whites
Free Coloured. .
78 31 143 139
45 3t 123 II
89 32 75 241
io8 186 104 360
40 21 48 I07
3 o 13 7
5 8 26 0
35 28 85 39
412 337 615 1,004 2,028
Deputy Surveyor General.
By His Excellency Thomas Hislop,
Governor and Commander-in-Chief
of the said Island and Vice-Admiral
of the same.
Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God to visit this town
with the most dreadful of all calamities by a Fire which hath
destroyed the greatest part thereof and it becomes necessary
immediately on so serious an emergency to take steps for the
relief of the inhabitants I do therefore, by and with the advice
of His Majesty's Council hereby proclaim and declare as
follows that Martial Law shall immediately be proclaimed and
remain in force until further orders.
That advice vessels shall immediately be hired at the
expense of the Government and be despatched to Head-
quarters, Barbados as also the neighboring Islands and the
Spanish Main to request aid and assistance in furnishing the
Colony with all kinds of provisions and lumber.
And I do hereby declare and proclaim the Port of the
Island to be open for all neutrals of all description for the
purpose of furnishing and bringing all kinds of provisions and
lumber and every material for building and which the said
neutral vessels for the space of four months from the date
hereof shall be at liberty to take in barter or exchange and
export for such supplies, sugar, rum, molasses, cocoa
And I do hereby also proclaim and declare that all the
inhabitants of the Town of Port-of-Spain (who have been
sufferers) bearing arms in the Militia of this Island and
requiring the same, shall be furnished with rations in the
same proportions as His Majesty's troops.
And all persons whomsoever are hereby required to
govern themselves accordingly.
Given under my hand and seal at Port-
of-Spain this 25th day of March,
I8o8 and in the 48th year of His
By His Excellency's Command.
III. Copy of the account of the fire from the Trinidad Weekly
Courant and Commercial Gazette".
No. 466. Friday ist April, 1808.
Between ten and eleven o'clock on the night of the 24th
ultimo, the inhabitants of this town were suddenly awoke by
the drums beating, and bells ringing the alarm. Fire was
soon found to be the cause, and the house of Dr. Schaw, in
Frederick Street, one of the narrowest, most populous, and
built altogether of timber, the focus from whence the conflagra-
tion issued, threatening, by its impetuosity, devastation
The fire from the inflammable and combustible materials
of Dr. Schaw's shop, in which were stored quantities of nitre,
and essential oils, soon raged with inconceivable violence :
and diverging from that focus in every direction, the whole of
the street, together with Henry Street on the east, Chacon
Street on the west, and King and Queen Streets on the north
and south, were soon enveloped in the devouring element ;
and to those who had time to reflect, afforded a melancholy
presage of the total destruction of the town. The terror
which took possession of the unfortunate tenants and
proprietors of this neighbourhood is not to be described, nor
can fancy paint a scene of such astonishment and dismay.
They were roused from their sleep to behold the very
flames bursting into their chamber windows, and had but
sufficient time to abandon all and save their lives. The
screams of the women and children running distractedly
through the streets in search of a place of safety-the neighing
or rather squealing of the horses and mules, many of which
were burned to death in their stables ; and the loud and
frequent reports of butts ofspiritous liquors, and of gun-powder
as the fire reached them, altogether formed an assemblage of
horror, as awful as it was terrific. Of lives we have not
heard of.any being lost, except a negro of Mr. Sandes the
vendue master, whose house was contiguous to the spot
where the fire originated, and a grenadier of the 37th, who
generously devoting himself to save the life of a child, succeeded
in the attempt, but was so scorched as since to have died oi
The pump company with the water engines did everything
that could be expected from them, to stop the progress of the
flames ; but from the number of years that the town, thro
a variety of hazards, had escaped, and the late uncommon
wet weather, which had lulled the inhabitants into security,
people were off their guard, and the machinery of every class
attached to the establi hment had been neglected ; the want
of water was another difficulty, the wells only furnished the
little that was procured, but those were soon drained or
became inapproachable by the excessive heat of the houses
and palings on fire around them. We will venture to affirm,
however, that the quantity of water a dozen such engines
such as ours, well served and well furnished, could have
thrown, would have been totally useless and unavailing to
extinguish or even arrest the impetuosity of a conflagration
such as we have been a witness to, after it once got head.
His Excellency theGovernor with the officers of his staff,
and working parties from the 37th and 8th, were early at
the scene of action, and although their efforts were vigorous,
and behaviour orderly and meritorious, under His Excellency's
orders, it was all infruituous ; human art or exertion could
do nothing against the progress of such a torrent of fire,
continually renewed and excited by fuel of such inflammable
When day broke, and the clouds of smoke which lay on
the ground and could not ascend from its own density, had
cleared away by the morning breeze, a view of the desolation
presented itself not to be described- a large and populous
town which, but a few hours before, bore the second in rank
in our Windward Island possessions, had vanished, and
nothing remained but stacks of chimneys and walls in ruins;
not an atom of anything inflammable escaped, and in many
places bottles and glass ware, and even pot metal were fcund
to have been in a state of fusion.
On taking the account of the extent of the damage with
the plan of the town in hand, we find that 12 squares or
blocks have been entirely consumed, and 9 partially making
an ensemble of 435 principal houses or stores with the frcnis
to streets, besides back stores and out offices, which may be
estimated at four times that number at least, and the whole
at a moderate calculation, worth 3,500,000 dollars; the
lodging or property of about 4,500 persons who are now in
the streets, and numbers of them totally destitute; of the
value of merchandise, produce, and effects destroyed, we can
at present form no idea. Government has called for the
account of every persons loss upon oath, it will however
exceed we think half a million sterling.
Of the public buildings, not one has been saved,
Government House, the customs house, the hospital, the
protestant church, the gaol, the town hall, and a part of the
public archives and the treasurer's offices, all have fallen a
sacrifice to the flames ; most fortunately the commissaries
stores and king's provisions were by great exertion saved, and
to this source of life, many now owe in a great measure, their
subsistence. It having pleased His Excellency to proclaim
martial law, and with his usual goodness and humanity to
order rations to be issued to the militia as in times of actual
warfare, and all the tents which could be spared in the
garrison, have been pitched in Brunswick Square to lodge the
unfortunate sufferers who have neither house nor home, and
they are numerous.
On the part of Government, every measure that could
contribute to alleviate the public misery has been taken, with
a precision and promptitude which does His Excellency
infinite honour. Expresses have been sent to the neighboring
colonies, to the Spanish Main, and to the United States for
supplies ; a committee of His Majesty's council and of the
notable inhabitants has been appointed to receive donations
of every kind that can be useful, and distribute to those in
need, rations of bread, flesh and fish salted, and even fresh
beef to the infirm, which are purchased up by the committee
from a private subscription opened for the relief of the
sufferers, at the head of which stands His Excellency's name
and that of the Collector of His Majesty's customs,
Charles Grant, Esquire, I,ooo sterling each, an example of
munificence, worthy the imitation of the charitable and
humane, to whom it has pleased God to dispense the blessings
of wealth or independence.
With respect to the source of this dreadful calamity, we
have not only the concurrent testimony of the inhabitants of
Frederick Street who were most contiguous to the flames, but
of Dr. Schaw himself, who has confessed before authority that
the first knowledge he had of the fire was it bursting in at
the window of his back gallery from the out offices in his yard;
but by what means his out offices caught fire is all conjecture.
We firmly and religiously believe that there was no design
immediate or premeditated in the affair, it was undoubtedly
owing to accident, and that is the best face we can put upon it.
A town opulent and flourishing, and an immense property
has been destroyed; it is of little consequence to the suflcrcls
to be informed how it happened, the mischief is done and
there is no remedy, but it is at least satisfactory to be assured
that evil design had no hand in it.