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Trinidad Police Force vs.
Messrs. Wuppermann, Prahl & Co.

Alfred Sheppard sworn:

"I am a Sergeant of Police, and clerk in the Inspector’s Office in Port of Spain.  I issue - that is - make out Permits for the Commandant’s signature on applications to remove gunpowder. "

It is early Monday morning in Trinidad, on the last day of a humid July in 1882.  Sergeant Alfred Sheppard, a 27 year-old English officer of the British Constabulary is getting ready for work, but he knows this is no ordinary working day.   As he carefully combs his dark hair and makes sure his uniform is impeccable, he’s tense and focussed.  He is a man trained in details and precision.  He had served with his  Regiment in Sussex since he was 19, was sent to Trinidad as a Colour Sergeant when he was 23, and had left the army to join the Trinidad Police Force as Supt. Sergeant in 1880 when he was 25.   Alfred's duty on this day is to appear in the Police Court in Port of Spain to give key evidence at a trial that has had the merchant community and influential white elite of Port of Spain buzzing for weeks.   He would be the first witness called to give evidence for the Prosecution.


The highly respectable family firm of Messrs. Wupperman Prahl & Co. was facing a Police charge of illegally removing gunpowder from the Powder Magazine, with three separate offenses contrary to the Ordinance No. 2 that had been passed in 1880.  They were alleged to have been committed on the 11th, 20th and 21st of July 1882.  On this day, they would face trial.

By 1882 Trinidad had become a land of immigrants under Victorian British rule.  One of the partners in the accused firm, Adolpho Wupperman, was married to Miss Marie Adele Ganteaume de Monteau - a young lady from a Trinidad upper-class French creole family.  There must have been an air of anxious anticipation, as connected and concerned family members - German, French and British - colleagues and compatriates from the business community- filled the seats of the Police Court.   The Port of Spain Gazette of Saturday, August 5 1882 published a full transcript of the proceedings. Among the several newspapers published in those days, The Port of Spain Gazette catered mostly to the planter and upper class of Trinidad.  They reported that  “The respectability of the Defendants, no doubt, was the reason for the large audience present at the trial - unquestionably, the enquiry was of considerable importance.”

 

As he entered the courtroom filled with the "Who's Who" of the community, the Inspector Commandant, Capt. Arthur Wybrow Baker must have struck quite an imposing figure.  The Englishman, then 39 years old,  was already well known throughout Trinidad for his decisiveness and skilled leadership as Chief of Police.  These were times of social unrest.  Baker had led his force on horseback, with unflinting bravery through the difficult, tumultuous Carnival Canboulay Riots of the previous year.   He has been described as a fine figure of a man, over 6 ft. tall, well-built, with dark black hair and mustache, with striking eyes.   Most importantly, he was to conduct the prosecution himself.

No wonder the trial attracted such a large audience.  Adolpho Wupperman’s business partner, Fritz Prahl, came from Lubeck, Germany.  He had first set up business in Cuidad Bolivar, Venezuela.  Prahl’s wife was Adolpho’s sister,  Antonia Wupperman.  She and her brother were born in Angostura, Venezuela, but their father hailed from Barmen, on the banks of the Wupper river (hence their surname).  Through family connections, Adolpho had first come to Trinidad in 1861 as a young man to join the firm of German immigrants Urich & Feez. Then in 1880 the brothers-in-law Adolpho Wupperman and Fritz Prahl formed their business partnership.  Their retail store was located on Almond Walk, Port of Spain, a few doors down from The Caracas Hotel.   It was there that an observant and curious Police Constable Brady, who happened to be on the beat near the Gunpowder Magazine, became suspicious of irregularities when he saw three deliveries of unmarked cases leave the building and be offloaded at the hotel.  It appears that acting upon this, a warrant was issued and there was what we would call in today's world "a bust".  The bold Irish Sergeant-Major Briefly gave testimony that, armed with the warrant, he went to the Caracas Hotel to investigate.  In his statements he revealed that quantities of gunpowder were discovered in a trunk in a room in the hotel.  He described in great detail what he found and seized.

 

Despite the Defendants' pleas of Not Guilty to each of the charges, the evidence of their infringement of the law was damning  enough for the Judge to find them Guilty on all three charges.  The audience went home stunned and the Defendants disappointed.  The Police had won their case that day.  It is not known what became of the appeal filed on their behalf by their lawyer, but the firm of Wuppermann, Prahl & Co. was dissolved the following year.  Fritz Prahl and his family returned to Germany.

Capt. Arthur Wybrow Baker

Inspector Commandant of the Trinidad Police Force , 1877–1889

Brierly.jpg

Inspector John N. Brierley 1871

 

 

My story above is written based on an article I came across in a 19th century newspaper report, quite by accident. I was fascinated by the story -  not because the case in itself was gripping, but because my great-grandfather was a key witness.  His evidence in the case is reported verbatim - I can almost hear his voice as he recalls exactly his role in each of the three charges brought against the defendants.  

From an historical point of view it is valuable, as the strict regulations and system in place for removal of gunpowder from the Police Gunpowder Magazine in Trinidad under British Colonial rule are set out.  Alfred Sheppard's duties in giving permission for this as a Sergeant and clerk in the Inspector Commandant’s office are explained by him.

 

To understand why the case drew such a large audience, I researched the company involved and wanted to know more about the social atmosphere in Trinidad in that era.  My sources were chiefly:

  • "The Germans in Trinidad" and "The Years of Revolt by historian Fr. Anthony de Verteuil

  • Caribbean History Archives by historian Gerard A. Besson

 I have transcribed the entire newspaper article for easy reading.  Click here

To see the article in the digital Supplement to the Port of Spain Gazette,

Saturday 5 August, 1882. Click here.

Valerie Sheppard

7 January, 2022

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