A day of general rejoicing
For many years now, Emancipation Day has been celebrated in T&T with numerous events of different kinds. It’s become an opportunity to remember the end of enslavement, to celebrate the ancestors, and to think about what happened after Emancipation.
But this was not always the case; it is only since the mid-1980s that Emancipation has been commemorated in this high-profile way, thanks mainly to the efforts of the Emancipation Support Committee. So this might be a good time to recall an interesting Trinidadian who campaigned for the celebration of August 1 at a time when most influential people wanted to forget all about slavery and Emancipation.
Edgar Maresse-Smith was born in 1860, only 22 years after the final end of slavery, into a middle-class, mixed-race family. On his mother’s side he was descended from a “French free coloured” family who had emigrated here from Martinique in the 1780s.
His mother was Emilie Maresse-Paul, a remarkable woman, who passed on her liberal political views, her social conscience, and her passion for freedom of thought to her son, whom she raised after the early death of Edgar’s father.
Maresse-Smith was a solicitor; like M’zumbo Lazare, whom I wrote about in July, he had qualified by serving as an “articled clerk” to a lawyer and then passing examinations which you could take locally. And like Lazare, and CP David, a barrister, he was a strong opponent of Crown Colony Government in the period between the 1880s and his early death in 1905. Indeed, he was probably the most radical opponent of the colonial government in the era before World War 1 (1914-18).
Even as a young articled clerk, before he was admitted to practise as a solicitor, Maresse-Smith fearlessly denounced injustice and misdeeds by local officials and judges in the colony’s newspapers. Throughout his life, he wrote letters and articles which were published in the anti-government newspapers in Trinidad and Grenada, using the press as a means of protest and advocacy at a time when no Trinidadian could vote for members of the legislature.
As we might expect, he was prominently involved in the agitation which led up to the Water Riots in Port of Spain on March 23, 1903. Along with Lazare and a radical newspaper editor, he was indicted for incitement to riot and other charges; all three were acquitted by the jury.
Maresse-Smith was from a family of mixed racial heritage and middle-class status—a group which often, in the colonial Caribbean, tried to distance itself from the slave past and all things connected to Africa. Not Maresse-Smith; he was strongly race-conscious and believed that all “descendants of the black race” should commemorate the end of slavery “in a manner befitting it”.
He saw the Jubilee of Emancipation—1888, 50 years after the final end of slavery—as a great opportunity to celebrate Emancipation and highlight the progress of the ex-slaves and their descendants since. For him August 1, 1888, “should be a day of general rejoicing”.
With a small group of friends, Maresse-Smith used the local newspapers to promote their plan for a high-profile celebration of the Jubilee. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of opposition, from local whites, from some more conservative mixed-race people, and from the colonial government, which refused his request to make the day a one-off public holiday.
Maresse-Smith and his friends persevered, holding a banquet on the day at which speeches were made recalling slavery, celebrating the British abolitionists, and narrating the successes of people of ex-slave origins, despite all the odds. The speeches were reported in the one or two local papers sympathetic to the Jubilee.
Interestingly, Maresse-Smith was especially severe on people of mixed heritage like himself, who tried to disown their black grandmothers and affected to despise those darker than themselves. “Let us then be not ashamed of our race”, he wrote, “and understand for good that the servitude of our ancestors was a misfortune for them, for the which we need not blush”.
The young radicals led by Maresse-Smith rejected the claim that the Jubilee would revive old hostilities and divisions between descendants of the enslavers and the enslaved, but instead stressed that it would help to “uplift the race”.
It was an opportunity to promote “the social and moral emancipation of their race from the chains of political cowardice, ignorance and superstition”. Its celebration would promote unity and “racial feeling” among African-Trinidadians, which Maresse-Smith believed were weakly developed.
Maresse-Smith’s efforts ensured that the Jubilee of Emancipation in 1888 was celebrated in Trinidad—and in Tobago, still a separate colony. The event provided an occasion for a revival in public interest in slavery, Emancipation and the “progress of the race”, and helped to promote race consciousness, at least in the small but growing educated middle-class.
Later, along with Lazare, Maresse-Smith helped to form branches of the Pan-African Association in Trinidad in 1901. In his short life (he was 45 at his death), he contributed to the development of political awareness and race consciousness among the Trinidadian middle-class, and deserves to be remembered as a pioneer in the celebration of Emancipation Day.
• Bridget Brereton is Emerita professor of history at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades