There is a little building on Sackville Street, recently restored, right next to the newly built office of the Attorney General, that has been known for years as the cabildo building. Tradition has it that this, Trinidad's first governing body, once sat there. This is very likely, as the Cabildo sat in many places, not having a home of its own. It met in the private residences of its members.
The building on Sackville Street, however, does not date from Spanish times, which came to an end in 1797 with the British conquest. The Illustrious Cabildo continued up until the late 1840s and then metamorphosised into the City Council. That particular building may have belonged to the Senoir family, a distinguished Spanish family of Jewish descent.
The Cabildo, as a Spanish governing institution, involved in administration and deliberation, is claimed by some to extend as far back as the tribal assemblies of the original Iberian peoples in the Spanish peninsuar, prior to the arrival of the Romans. This is an interesting piece of historical trivia for anyone wishing to study the origins of jurisprudence in Trinidad and Tobago!
Be that as it may, it started as an annual court to elect their magistrates and their municipium for the year, to manage their local affairs. This annual assembly also legalised or censured the proceeding of the provincial governors.
From the 400s A.D. to 700 A.D., under the Visigoths, and from 700 to 1000 A.D., under the Muslims, the conditions in Spain favoured the risk of the warlords and the powers of the Cabildo waned. It was not until some 300 years later, in the 1300s, that a notable revival took place and the Cabildos were again supported by the crown.
With the discovery of the New World, it was inevitable that the Spanish authorities should take with them their system of Government. The Cabildo was established in Trinidad in 1592. Its membership was slightly altered in 1797, when the British started to keep Spanish low in place.
The revenue of the Cabildo was obtained from various sources, some of which have continued in practice to the present day. The following is a summary of the general heads revenue and the average yield in the early 1920s (from Dr. K.S. Wise, "Historical Sketches of Trinidad and Tobago", Vol 3):
1. Licenses to sell spirituous liquors, which cost about $10 each year. About 50 licenses in Port of Spain yielded about $6,000 a year.
2. Licenses for billiard tables, $4 monthly. Port of Spain had four tables, yielding $192 a year.
3. Rents for stalls in the public fish and flesh markets, yielding $1,100 a year.
4. Rents of land down the islands for planting cotton, provisions etc. Monos, Huevos, the Perroquets (now Five Islands), Diego Martin Islands (now Carrera and Cronstadt) and El Pato had been granted to the town of Port of Spain by Governor Chacon. Rent was from 4 -6 reals a quarree, totoal yield about $100 a year.
5. Rents of lots in Marine Square and in the Grass Market, yielding $1000 a year.
6. Rents of lots at the western extremity of the town, called Puerto Cacao, granted by Chacon, yielding about $120 a year.
7. Rent of the Cocal on the east coast, granted to the town by the Spanish king, renting for $300-500 a year, but for a few years had been without a tenant.
8. Rents of the new lots east and west of the new mole made by filling at the end of frederick Street and which formed a new part of the town. Granted to Port of Spain by Governor Picton. Annual rent $50-$150, yielding $2400 a year.
9. Grant of one quarter of one percent, on inward and outward cargoes at the port. This was collected by the customs officers and forwarded to the Cabildo. It had been granted by the King of Spain, yielding $2500-$3000 a year.
10. Payments for the use of water from the public well and for the use of the pump and aquaeduct by ships in the harbour. Yield $1000 a year.
11. Fines imposed on delinquents, varied yield.
12. Tax on carts, $2 a month, yielding $1400 a year and wholly spent on maintenance of the streets.
13. Duty on foreign liquors, yielding $1000 a year.
The total annual revenue of the Cabildo was thus approx. $17,000, exclusive of the various fines collected in the Courts of the Alcaldes. The population of Port of Spain was about 7,000.
The annual administrative expenditure of the Cabildo was:
Escribano (Secretary) $300
Chief of Police $912
Gaol Keeper $365
Seven Police $1680
Collector, 3% on collections $800
Rent of gaol and maintenance of prisoners unable to keep themselves $2,700
Rent of Caibldo building $960
Maintenance of properties $400
Celebration of the Feast of St. Joseph $400
"The necessary expenses to keep the streets in order were variable from year to year, as also were the expenses of the maintenance of slaves employed on works of public utility," writes Dr. Wise.
The records show that any money left over after expenditure had to be invested in fixed property, so as to increase the revenue in future years. In 1802, fish and flesh market was built. Later, a gaol was completed, costing $20,000. Afterwards, a hospital for those found ill in the streets was commenced, and in 1809, $5000 was spent to repair the mole at the foot of Frederick Street.
The houseowners of Port of Spain also made a voluntary payment to the Cabildo for the maintenance of fire engines. This was introduced by the first British governor, Sir Thomas Picton.