The lady in the attic …the story of Mariquita Johnson

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A report by Richard Charan for Trinidad’s Express. As is always the case with Charan’s reports for the newspaper, this one is beautifully illustrated and should be read in its original form here.

THE east Trinidad villages between Manzanilla and Mayaro had as many douens, lagahoos and socouyants as there were undead people. At least that’s the story told by the elders, which filled the mind of Joseph lexander as a child growing up in Plum Mitan in the 1930s and 40s

There were so many “jumbies” floating around at night, they told him, that people welcomed the full moon night light in those days before electricity, a lesser chance of being sucked, possessed or led astray.

Many were also scared of making the road trip to Sangre Grande, not daring to even look as they hustled past the beautiful but foreboding estate house at Johnson Hill in the village of Comparo, Manzanilla, since it was the reputed source of supernatural events, and mysterious occupants hidden by the hedgerow, who could “turn beast”, literally.

Alexander never believed a word of it. He said he did his own paranormal research, cycling from cinema at 1 a.m. and passing the house without so much as a garlic clove in his pocket, hoping to see the ghost horse. Or checking his girl late at night near the old quarry in forested Biche, close where the evilMano Benjamin would later commit his crimes, and where plenty lagahoos were said to inhabit.

“Not once did I see a candle fly bigger than a candle fly. Not a single thing. And I think I going to die never seeing a thing,” Alexander said rather dejectedly during an interview with the Express last week. Unsurprisingly, Alexander would grow up to become a fearless stick fighter

(with the Sangre Grande gayelle), going by the name Silver Fox and travelling the country putting licks on others, with two broken fingers and one “buss head” among his war injuries.

So when, 33 years ago, Alexander was offered the job of being the caretaker by the owner of that same spooky estate on which the Great House and its many empty buildings were located, he took it despite friends warning that he would be hounded out the place by unseen things.

Alexander, 79, is still there, having raised a family in one of those buildings once occupied by the overseer, managing what was almost 300 acres of cocoa on the Santa Maria Estate.

What Alexander does not know is that the place he has come to live in for the past 30 years, has a history tumbling back more than 200 years.

The plantations on the area date to the time of the Cedula of Population in the final years of the 18th century, when then Spanish-owned Trinidad granted free land to French royalists coming from other islands, who developed their holdings through African enslavement and later Indian indentureship. The Manzanilla known today by most is that extensive coconut plantation hugging the coast between Point Radix (near Ortoire Village) and Manzanilla Point, where the road turns inland near where the coconuts first took root along the coast when they washed ashore, from an 18th century schooner wreck offshore.

However,  the cocoa boom, which began in 1870 (high prices and land ownership reform permitting small farmers to prosper), led to the emergence of a part of Manzanilla which few nowThis was the cocoa district which stretched from Sangre Grande, a town that practically did not exist before 1898, until the Trinidad Government Railways (TGR) extended a line to the sleepy hamlet of Cunapo in order to tap into the growing number of cocoa planters in the district.

Before that, Manzanilla had to rely on the coastal steamer calling once a week to receive produce, and to deliver goods, passengers and mail. The cocoa district of Manzanilla was a mixture of white creole planters like the Ganteaumes, O’Connors and Knaggs families, but moreso coloured proprietors and numerous former Indentured indians who had used their five pounds in lieu of a return passage to India (and the end of their indentureship period) to buy forest lands at one pound per acre, which was cleared and planted in cocoa.

The estate on which “Silver Fox” Alexander hopes to die belonged to George Johnson (also known as George Boodoo) and Ma Johnson, who commissioned the buildings that still stand today, including the Great House, at what came to be called Johnson Hill.

The heyday of the Johnson house would have been up to 1920 when the price of cocoa collapsed internationally and many estates were strapped for cash. Those which were mortgaged went bankrupt and those who retained their holdings (as did the Johnsons) were forced to downsize dramatically, to the point where they were barely operating.

Another blow came in 1941 when the Bases Agreement was signed and construction of massive Fort Read at Cumuto and the Wallerfield Aerodrome began in preparation for World War II. The Americans were paying $20 a week in a time when that was a good monthly wage for an estate labourer.

What little remained of the cocoa workforce flocked to work for the Yankee dollar, proving to be the death knell of the estates in Manzanilla.

However, the Johnson’s estate would limp on, until the last surviving member of the clan died in the 1980s, without a direct heir.

Who were the Johnsons? What has become of their estate worth tens of millions of dollars? How did they come to be regarded as highly peculiar? And what became of the things they accumulated over the course of their lives?

THERE are two cemeteries three kilometres apart in a forgotten part of Upper Manzanilla that outsiders would find it difficult to locate.

The burial grounds date from a time when the area’s lucrative cocoa industry lured migrants looking for work and who ended up staying, to live and die on the east coast of Trinidad.

The plots are smothered most of the year by a tangle of vines that county council workers make an extra effort to defeat each November, to reveal the grave markers in time for relatives to visit their ancestors on All Saints Day.

The graves are simple, many unmarked, some with crosses, others with only a name and date of death. Rising above them all is a mausoleum enclosing the burial chamber of a man, the only such elaborate tomb at either the Cedar Hill Road, or North Manzanilla Road public cemeteries.

Beat back the bush, pull open the steel doors, and you find a cool tiled interior, empty except for graffiti, and a cross bearing the inscription Sacred To The Memory Of Our Dear Father, Geo Johnson, died 23rd April 1931. Aged 71 Years. But this tomb is visited by no family.

According to those who have researched it, this is the grave of former Indian indentured labourer George Johnson, also known as George Boodhoo, who a century ago would become the most important man in the village of Comparo, with his 300 acres of cocoa planted on the Santa Rita Estate, and a great house built into the hillside near the site of the present-day Manzanilla Secondary School.

Johnson, said to have once been a Hindu pundit and mystic, chose to purchase property instead of the return trip to India, buying forest land at a pound an acre, and settling in an area that had a mix of white creole planters, coloured proprietors and other former indentured immigrants.

Johnson would sire three children with his wife, who had some Amerindian blood and was believed to have come from Venezuela. The children were sons George Emerson Johnson and Albert Alfred “Popo” Johnson, and daughter Behemia “Maraquita” Johnson.

The siblings also had a half-brother, Errol Charles, who was born of a relationship between George Johnson and the family maid, Emily Alexander, in that house which still stands alongside the adjacent overseer’s house, and a building where the horses and stableman lived.

That these buildings survived a century is testament to the quality of the wood and workmanship. However, all that remains of the cocoa-drying houses are the concrete posts, and the rotted beams of the barracks that housed the workers which can still be found in the abandoned plantation surrounding the houses. But during the height of “King Cocoa”, hundreds would have worked to plant, tend, harvest, transport, dance, dry, and bag the beans before they were taken by cart to the bay for loading on to the coastal steamer at a time when Trinidad was the world’s third-largest producer.

Lording over it all was plantation owner Johnson, so rich that his nickname was “Money”, who had the first horse and buggy and, later, the first car in the village.

From the stories passed down by the elders, Johnson was considered by some as cold and unsympathetic, with one former Comparo Village resident (now in his 50s) recollecting a story told by his grandfather, a devout Christian, who lost his cocoa crop to the Witch Broom disease, and who went in the late 1920s to the great house of old man Johnson seeking employment. Johnson took one look at the man, turned him away, and told him to never set foot on his property, because he had no employment for such people.

Lennox Roberts, 90, a lifetime resident of Manzanilla North Road, recalled working the plantations (“when big man working for less than two bobs (25 cents) a day”) near the Johnson estate and of his encounter with Ma Johnson (short for madam). He remembered as a child being encouraged to steal pawpaw on the Johnson estate and caught by workers who took him to the “Big House” with its wallpaper-covered cedar walls, paintings, and “expensive-looking” furniture, and into a room no outsider saw.

“They carried me to Ma Johnson. How I was scared and cried and cried. I thought it was the end. I never came close to this place before. She hit me some belt, and the next day she came to my school (Comparo Government, which no longer exists) and told the head master, Mr Granderson.

“I get two set of licks,” said Roberts.

Roberts, who apprenticed as a mechanic in the then-tiny village of Sangre Grande as a 15-year-old, also recalled marvelling at the cars the Johnsons would own over the years, the last one being a British-manufactured Vauxhall Velox LIP.

But for reasons lost to time, none of the Johnson children had children of their own, growing old in that old house built in an uncommon style, without the broad wrap-around verandah of the time, adding to the mystery and the tales told about those moving about behind the hedgerow and wooden louvres.

Behemia Johnson would end up being the last Johnson to die, on August 12, 1983. She, too, for several years lived as a virtual recluse in that home, keeping company with only a few. The people of Manzanilla knew her by that name, Maraquita and it’s one you should remember.

You couldn’t cut some grass for your goat across the road from the house, for she would appear and run you off, they said.

Try stealing a fruit, and there she would be. And as she travelled to and from that home in that Vauxhall, driven by Roy Austin (whom she would marry in her later years) Mariquita had no time for the people of Manzanilla, they said. But Maraquita had a secret life far different from what existed in Comparo, which very few knew–that of a “high society” lady in Port of Spain.

And 33 years after her death, there still survives evidence of an amazing talent she learned as a child. And it also turns out that there is a blood relation who has spent years researching the lives of the Johnsons–Cleville Morris, whose father, Errol Charles, was the offspring of old man Johnson and the family maid.

What Morris has found out is both incredible and dispiriting.

FOR more than a century, that estate house at Comparo Village has been watching over the affairs of Manzanilla, and the development and decline of its plantation economy.

The great house was already there when the “road” from the then-tiny village of Sangre Grande was just a horse trail leading to the east coast, and indentured immigrants were still being shipped to Trinidad to work the fields.

It was the centre of operations during cocoa’s peak in the 1920s, when scores of people worked the 300-acre plantation, coming to a back door to be paid their pittance by owner George Johnson.

In that house Johnson raised three children with his Venezuelan migrant wife, fathered a fourth with a servant, and earned the reputation of a stone-hearted overlord with the power to use black magic and “turn beast”.

Old man Johnson, himself a former indentured immigrant whose wife survived him by two decades, would make the family fabulously wealthy by the time he died at age 71 in 1931, two years before a hurricane devastated Trinidad and around the time cocoa began its terminal decline from disease and low prices.

Other estates would go bankrupt and be abandoned, the demise accelerated by the build-up to World War II when the labourers chose to work for the Americans to establish a facility in Manzanilla (where 1,200 soldiers were prepared for jungle warfare in Burma and all but two would die), and build that air base at nearby Wallerfield.

But still the great house, built from the area’s finest cedar and mahogany, stood solid and straight, with Johnson’s sons George and Albert keeping the business going until they, too, died.

It meant that everything went to surviving sister, Behemia Mariquita Johnson, given a rare name from the Middle Ages, and a second name meaning “lady bug” in Spanish.

And it is Mariquita, for all the wrong reasons, who became part of enduring village lore – imagined into a witch-like caricature, cursed with childlessness, lurking behind shuttered windows, refusing to meet face-to-face with the hired help, travelling through the village in her Vauxhall Velox motorcar but acknowledging no one, paying wages to workers through a trap door in the verandah, carrying on no conversation with the “commoners”, staying up late into the night, alone in the attic to do-only-the-devil-knows what.

Mariquita died in 1983. She was in her 80s. Few acknowledged her passing since she had left the great house months before and never came back.

But there are still some people alive who knew the real Mariquita, and what they tell of her is sure to change the opinion of the people of Comparo.

Cleville Morris, whose father was the child born of that relationship between old man Johnson and the family maid, remembered his aunt being a recluse who kept few friends. Morris, who along with two siblings, may be the closest blood relatives of the Johnsons, recalled passing by that great house as a lad on his way home from school, to hear Mariquita yelling at children to stop throwing stones at her trees, but who would sometimes call him to the house to offer him fruits.

He also recalled working at her cocoa house selecting beans at 60 cents a day, and as a pump attendant at Marlay Gas Station where she would pull up in the Vauxhall being driven by “Mr Roy” and sometimes give him a tip with the warning “don’t steal boy, be honest”. Mariquita was already old then, and there is no one who can remember her when she was young.

In her 70s, Mariquita would marry the man who for years was her companion and driver — Roy Austin. The two would often be seen travelling out of the village, headed to Riverside Road, Cascade, Port of Spain, where, unknown to most Comparo villagers, the Johnsons also had a home. Austin died in the late 70s, leaving Mariquita alone again.

Estate caretaker Joseph Alexander, 79, said he came to live on the property in early 1981, hired by Elmo Westfield, who had leased some of Mariquita’s land with the intention of redeveloping the cocoa plantation.

Alexander, who still lives on the estate’s overseer’s house, remembered, “She would share her time between Cascade and here. But she could not walk too well so when the car brought her, I would lift her out and carry her to a rocking chair inside, where she would be able walk about the house. People would say she was a miserable person. Some people were afraid to even pass on the road outside. That could not be true. We had a good relationship. We were never close, but she was always good to me.”

But it is this Elmo Westfield, now 81 years old, who believes he knows why Mariquita appeared odd to so many. Westfield befriended her in the 70s, and the two became close friends. Quite simply, the woman was brilliant, he said. And the proof of it, is what she left behind.

THERE was once a wooden staircase in the corner of a room that led to the attic of that crumbling great house at Johnson Hill, Camparo Village, Manzanilla.

From this vantage point, one could choose any of seven portals, and see much of the 300-acre cocoa estate developed in the early 1900s by plantation owner George Johnson.

Old man Johnson, his cocoa panyol wife, and three children would, during the course of their lives, revel in the reputation of being aloof, eccentric, unfriendly and capable of delivering a “spirit lash” should anyone cross their path.

Many of the elders of the village can recall a story of the evil-doing that must have taken place in the house behind the hedgerow and, particularly, what must have been conjured up by whoever it was often seen drifting past the attic windows, during the day and by the light of lamp at night.

It turns out that the person in the attic was Behemia Mariquita Johnson and what she was doing was magical.

This woman, considered by many to be mean-spirited, cold and unapproachable, was painting and sketching.

Her collection, over the course of more than 50 years, could have been in the hundreds. She is possibly the most prolific colonial-era artist you never heard about.

Mariquita died in 1983. She was the last of the Johnson clan. In her will, she left no heir. The Johnson estate is still unresolved 30 years later and the passage of time has silenced, or erased, the memory of those who knew her.

Except Elmo Westfield, who befriended this woman in the twilight of her life, saw the real person and remains enamoured to this day.

Westfield, now 81 years old, said he met Mariquita in the early 1970s, when he leased 30 acres of her estate, with the intention of redeveloping the cocoa plantation which, along with much of the country’s agriculture and livestock industry, was one of the first casualties of Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence in 1962.

He recalled that at the great house in Manzanilla “there were a lot of books and paintings, and pencil drawings. Many were of scenery, of the estate as seen from the house, some of birds, the beach, the hills. She was very interested in the history of Manzanilla, since her father owned so much. And the estate back then was a beautiful place. Yes, she had two brothers, but the three worked together at a distance. She was the driving force, the more educated one.

“People said she took after her father and was short-tempered. He was East Indian (while the mother was Venezuelan-born). Mariquita was a beautiful woman and very creative. And she was a mysterious lady. But when you sat down with that woman, you didn’t want to get up for two days,” said Westfield.

In about June of 1983, an ailing Mariquita left her Manzanilla home for her town house in Port of Spain. She died there, at Riverside Road, on August 12. She was in her 80s. There were only a few people to mourn her passing. Her accountant was one. They chose to bury her at Lapeyrouse Cemetery, Port of Spain, far from the mausoleum that she commissioned for her father at Cedar Hill Public Cemetery, located over the hill from the great house at Manzanilla.

That house was then left vacant for years and vandalised. Every piece of furniture, every article worth something was taken. There is no record of her or her work at the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago. There is also nothing at the house now that is evidence of her life, and no image of Mariquita is known to exist.

However, there are a few things of Mariquita that the Express found. Like her Vauxhall Velox, the car in which she was taken to and from Manzanilla by her driver Roy Austin, whom she would marry in her later years.

The car, by then rusted and engine beyond repair, was acquired by San Fernando businessman Brij Maharaj, who restored it to pristine condition and returned it to the road. The car, a six-cylinder automatic with a 1949 date of manufacture, starred in the 2001 Merchant Ivory production of Sir VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur and more recently in an historical film, Pan! Our Music Odyssey, by Dr Kim Johnson.

Several of Mariquita’s paintings were rescued from the attic of the Manzanilla great house. Three paintings are in the possession of the family of former Express writer/historian Louis B Homer.

Homer, who was born in Manzanilla and knew of the Johnsons, was the one who retrieved the artwork. He found other pieces but the bats had destroyed them.

One painting still in the possession of the Homer family depicts the samaan-tree-shaded walkway of what is likely the Queen’s Park Savannah. There is one of the British coat of arms painted at a time when the country was a crown colony. A painting shows two men playing a game of draughts. Another is of angels. This was the real Mariquita.

ART historian Geoffrey MacLean, considered an expert in the work of Trinidad’s most famous painter Michel-Jean Cazabon, was asked by the Express whether he knew of Mariquita’s art.

“This lady becomes more and more mysterious!” he said.

MacLean said he spoke with Helen Atteck, who with her sister Sybil (one of Trinidad’s leading 20th-century artists) opened possibly the first art gallery in Trinidad–first in Salvatori Building on Independence Square in Port of Spain and then at Trinidad Hilton, which existed between the mid-50s and late 70s.

Said MacLean: “Helen has never heard of her. She also echoed my thoughts about the second of two paintings, that she (Mariquita) appeared to be excellent as an illustrator, or in contemporary terms, graphic artist. The second of the two is very art nouveau in expression and fantasy. The coat of arms is strictly a graphic representation. Her Savannah painting is interesting in terms of its representation — one assumes that it is the Queen’s Park Savannah, and one wonders what period this was, the 1920s would be an appropriate guess.”

CLEVILLE Morris, whose father was the child born of a relationship with George Johnson and his servant, has sought to resolve the dispute over the ownership of the estate, with the help of his siblings Francis Lloyd-Leopold, and Patricia Leopold. The matter remains muddled. However, Morris, who lives outside of San Fernando but often visits the place of his birth, hopes that one day, the estate of his grandfather will return to a Johnson descendant. Morris has a dream of restoring the Great House, and making it into an orphanage. One day, children may run through this house.

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