Reel: The remains of Trinidad's Brechin Castle, once ‘the largest sugar factory […] in the British Empire’

Screenshot of Brechin Castle taken from the YouTube video ‘Brechin Castle sugar factory [f]rom the sky’ by Lyndon Baptiste.

Along the western side of central Trinidad sits the town of Couva which, in its beginnings, was a village that had sprung up around sugarcane. Trinidadian author Michael Anthony, in his book “Towns and Villages,” described it as “one of the most dynamic centres of the cane belt” that “owe[d] its prosperity to sugarcane.”

In 1880, it became part of Trinidad's railway network, which largely contributed to its growth, but at the time, writes Anthony, it was “physically not much more than a clearing in a cane field”:

The population, chiefly on indentured East Indian cane workers, with a small percentage of Africans, could not have numbered more than a few hundred. Yet, even then […] it was bustling, vibrant village.

By 1886, Brechin Castle, which by then included Sevilla House (acquired as part of the post-abolition centralisation of sugar estates), was owned by Turnbull Stewart and Co., which also owned a railway and ships, both of which gave the company significant advantage when it came to transporting product from the factory to the docks, and then exporting the sugar abroad.

Over the years, the area was used for many things. During World War II, for instance, the Camden (Field) Auxiliary Air Base was established for use as an emergency airstrip. As Trinidad and Tobago grew into a predominantly energy-based economy, more people, both from within and outside of the area, sought work at the nearby oil refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre which, after several decades, was shut down on November 30, 2018.

In heart, however, Couva remained a community that revolved around the sugar industry, the proud symbol of which was the Usine Ste. Madeleine estate and sugar factory, and its associated sugar mills at Brechin Castle. The National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago noted how innovative and significant it was at the time:

The Company introduced Vacuum Pan Process which at the point in time was only used by the Brechin Castle Estate. […] This was also the first central sugar factory in Trinidad and Tobago, which meant that cane from surrounding estates were sent there for processing. It was the largest sugar factory at the point in time in the British Empire.

Nevertheless, sugar faced a steady decline. The eventual death knell came on August 1, 2003, with the closure of Caroni (1975) Ltd., effectively ending large-scale sugar production in the country. In 2009, the government decided to dismantle the factories at both Usine Ste. Madeleine and Brechin Castle, both of which had been non-operational.

Decades later, the issue remains a political football, not only because of the country's political divisions, but because some former employees of the company, who signed voluntary separation of employment (VSEP) packages, maintain that they have not been given possession of the residential and agricultural land that was a condition of their departure. In 2021, however, then Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat, who said that the land distribution process had been “substantially completed” (save for 1,130 people that his ministry could not locate), advised recipients to “farm the land or lose it.”

A nearly two-year-old Trinidad and Tobago Newsday editorial suggested:

Little has been done to pursue the results of a 2003 UWI study of the potential of its 78,780 acres of arable land. There has been no establishment of a skills bank profiling the former workers. Irrigation systems have been implemented spottily and with no strategy to deliver a value-driven outcome. […]

At a lease distribution ceremony in December 2017, Mr. Rambharat noted that the VSEP package given to the former workers cost $18 billion, including land assets valued at $10 billion.

Of course this asset should not be allowed to continue to go to waste.

As this struggle continues, however, Brechin Castle has fallen into ruin. A proposal to turn the area into a solar farm did not appear to have legs. Then-minister Rambharat clarified that the government planned to retain Sevilla House, and not Brechin Castle, as a sugar museum, adding that “sugar factories and the preservation of sugar history were two separate matters,” a position with which some social media users disagree.

The Sugar Archives Centre and Sevilla Sugar Museum was formally opened on August 5, 2015. Brechin Castle, however, now in an advanced state of disrepair, remains a stark reminder of what used to be:

@lemniscate_tt Have you ever seen it in operation? #trinidad #abandonedplaces #drone #trinidadandtobago #islandlife #mysterious #trini_tiktoks #trinidad🇹🇹 #fyp #dji ♬ Fly – Ludovico Einaudi

Such compelling drone photography of the site, though dystopian in feel, speaks deeply to the significance of the buildings and the life they represented, even from Couva's genesis as “not much more than a clearing in a cane field.”

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