The Story of the Merikens in Trinidad

Today’s blog post was adapted from a paper entitled “Africanisms versus Orthodoxy: The Baptist Missionary Society, the “Meriken” Baptists and the 1905 Schism in the Orthodox Baptist Church of Trinidad” by Dr. Lovell Francis. Dr. Francis is a  Lecturer in History at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.

This story commences with the arrival of one of the most interesting group of immigrants to reach this island in the nineteenth century. They were one of a handful of New World African groups to gain freedom in exchange for military service in the British Army during the nineteenth century, and though theirs is not a unique story it still provides an interesting example of how imperial policies made thousands of miles away can alter the evolution of a small community far from the centre of power. In 1816, in what amounted to little more than a minor footnote in the annals of British foreign policy, six companies of African American soldiers, accompanied by their wives and children, after a few stops in the region, found themselves transplanted to the island Trinidad.

Photo taken from The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad - John McNish Weiss

Photo taken from The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad – John McNish Weiss

More interesting than that, they had hitherto been deployed as auxiliaries attached to the British Army campaigning on the North American continent in the early nineteenth century. These men who constituted the Third Battalion Colonial Marines owed their military origin to the War of 1812 fought between the British and the United States. This conflict which was ostensibly contested over relatively obscure issues of trade between the world’s preeminent power and its one time possession, was in some ways an extension of the wider Napoleonic Wars being fought in many territories throughout Western Europe. In situ, however, it was also an offshoot of the longer localised conflict between these two antagonists which commenced in 1776 when the Thirteen Colonies opted to relieve themselves of British rule, and thus constituted the last major armed struggle fought between the fledgling American nation and its former colonial masters.

It was not idiosyncratic that in the midst of a war in the United States the British pragmatically organised corps of Africans to fight against their former American masters, with the premise and promise of freedom at the war’s end. Neither was it particularly outstanding that the allures of freedom and re-settlement in some far flung part of the massive British Empire encouraged men who still understood the yolk of slavery to risk their lives and those of their loved ones. The invaders had a number of volunteers who were willing to fight. It was the case that:

Soon after the arrival of the British fleet in the Chesapeake, Black guides, messengers and pilots offered services. Families made perilous crossings in canoes to the ships from the first sighting of the squadron and refugees found their way to the British landing parties wherever their presence was known. This was the start of the Great Escape, [one of] the largest transition[s] to liberty between Haiti of the 1790s and the British colonial abolition in the 1830s. (McNish Weiss, 10)

This was a reasonable marriage of convenience. Pointedly these African Americans were fighting for their emancipation at the behest of an imperium which still blithely held thousands of their continental brethren in bondage on a number of West Indian islands. However though that fact cannot escape mention, the chance to earn liberty and self-determination provided sufficient reason for many of them to trust that the British would not renege on the bargain struck between them.

At the end of the conflict the British held to their side of the arrangement and the Colonial Marines were formally freed. However the empire did not wish to do so along the lines of the original agreement struck between the parties which would have seen the men and their families resettled out of America in a British territory. Instead, and unsurprisingly the British wanted to retain the services of this fine corps of fighting men. Nonetheless, and fortunately for their sake, these Colonial Marines proved to be no mere pawns of a larger imperial trope. According to John McNish Weiss, they resolutely ensured that the bargain struck was the one fulfilled. He notes that:

With the reduction of the naval establishment at the end of the war in Europe there were repeated and fruitless efforts to transfer them [the Colonial Marines] to the [British] Army. They resisted the blandishments of the Duke of York, Commander in Chief of the Army, even when he finally offered them a regiment of their own. The Black marines preferred Cochrane’s [the British commander who made the original agreement with them] offer of establishment as free settlers in a British colony and in their dealings with officialdom insisted on holding the British government to the original promise. (McNish Weiss, 10)

Perhaps the most peculiar part of this whole scenario was the selection of Trinidad as the final destination for these immigrants. On one hand it was a recent capture having being wrested from the far too willing hands of its former Spanish caretakers in 1797. It was also the test case for a new kind of governance in the British Empire, called Crown Colony rule, which meant that Trinidad had no  Assembly, like those in Barbados and Jamaica with sufficient clout to frustrate the Crown’s intentions. Furthermore it was also a relatively new sugar colony unlike the vast majority of the West Indian isles which began production in the latter half of the seventeenth century. In Trinidad, three hundred odd years of Spanish hibernation had ensured that the island remained largely and especially underdeveloped. It was only the Bourbon Reforms of the global Spanish Empire of the late eighteenth century, made incipient by the need to generate wealth to prop up a weakened Spanish economy, which ensured that Trinidad’s backwater status was excised. Later in 1783, via the Cedula of Population, sugar production arrived in Trinidad bringing wealth and the impetus for its seizure by the marauding British.

All of that has been explained to underscore that though certainly not mature like its close neighbour Barbados, Trinidad in 1816 was still a society that exploited African enslaved labour for economic production. However in the years 1815-1816, 544 men, 83 women and 85 children of African origin arrived as freed people in a territory within which the vast majority of persons of their hue and ethnicity were still uncomfortably ensconced in chattel servitude until 1838.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The question remained what would become of these freed people in an extant slave society. Though their situation certainly did not hinge on anything as arcane as British altruism, a fair assessment must note that they were not left entirely empty handed by the Crown. Instead they were presented with land grants and settled in the underdeveloped deep south of Southern Trinidad. To aid in this according to then Governor, Sir Ralph Woodford, the colony of Trinidad assumed the cost, “incurred by the necessity of employing [Native] Indians to assist them [the Companies] in clearing the high woods and in keeping a Superintendent over them.” Consequently their modus operandi was the opening up and development of this frontier area of the island which lacked infrastructure like formal roads, and means of communication with the rest of Trinidad.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Despite the grumblings of the local plantation owners, the establishment of the Company Villages was hailed by Governor Woodford. He romantically perceived their embryonic communities as “the furthest point of a moving frontier” helping to tame the underutilised and thus uncivilised south of the island. However he was also practical when noting the real socio-political difficulties encountered in this migration, stating via correspondence with Earl Bathurst the contemporary British Colonial Secretary that, “the first two arrivals in May [and] July of 1815 happened at a most unfavourable season, while I was yet deliberating and in great doubt respecting the best mode of providing for them [the Companies] under your Lordship’s instructions.” Furthermore as a pragmatic administrator he wished to have, “the reimbursement to the colony of the expenses of the maintenance of the American refugees” noting that up to time of his correspondence the colony had forwarded a sum which, “amounted to £4,020.00 of which £547.00 was [unsurprisingly] spent for medicines and medical attendance and hospital incidents.”

Photo taken from The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad - John McNish Weiss

Photo taken from The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad – John McNish Weiss

Of the six, the Second, Third, and Fifth Companies were settled almost literally at the bottom of Trinidad. In fact they were responsible for the creation of what is now called the Moruga Road, which leads to, and then parallels the Columbus Channel along Trinidad’s southern coast. On this score it is critical to note that the Second Company was quickly infiltrated and then subsumed by the Third Company so that there was no lasting village called Second Company, and later no church attributed to it. This was a historical curiosity which led many, even some amongst the descendants of the original settlers to assume erroneously that this particular Company was shipwrecked on its journey and never arrived in Trinidad. Of the remaining three, the Fourth was established at what is now eponymously called Hardbargain (Williamsville) due to the dissatisfaction with the difficult nature of the soil in that territory. While the First and Sixth were provided property at a place conspicuously and instructively named New Grant (close to Princes Town) because it included some who petitioned the government for a new lands because they were profoundly dissatisfied with the hard bargain which was bequeathed to them at Williamsville.

Photo taken from The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad - John McNish Weiss

Photo taken from The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad – John McNish Weiss

These nineteenth century émigrés were eventually dubbed Merikens, a Creole rendering of the word American. It became both a title and a description, once a pejorative, but later a badge of pride which helped to establish them as a distinct community within the territories they established in south Trinidad.  However there were other major qualities that set them apart. For example, the military culture and structure inherited from the Third Battalion Colonial Marines, was not abandoned and proved integral to community organisation. The discipline it bestowed was tremendously significant especially when one countenances the multiple difficulties inherent in carving thriving communities out of heavily forested land, whilst bereft of major assistance.

Sources

Benn, Carl . Essential Histories: The War of 1812. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002.

Brereton, Bridget . A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962. Champs-Fleurs: Terra Verde Resource Centre, 2009.

Governor Sir Ralph Woodford to Colonial Secretary Earl Bathurst 28th August 1816. Trinidad Duplicate Governor’s Dispatches January 7th 1815 to December 7th 1816.

McNish Weiss, John . The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad 1815-1816. London: McNish and Weiss, 2002.

Williams, Eric. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. London: Andre Deutsch, 1964.

Winer, Lise . Dictionary of the English\Creole of Trinidad and Tobago. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

Wood, Donald . Trinidad in Transition: The Years after Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Archives. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Story of the Merikens in Trinidad

  1. Joyce Cole Georges says:

    As a Meriken descendant I thank you for this informative blog which I enjoyed reading.

Comments are closed.