Sunday, December 17, 2017

A maverick journalist

Recently I wrote about MM Philip, Henry Alcazar, and Edgar Maresse-Smith, three “coloured” lawyers active in Trinidad’s public life between about 1860 and 1920. My subject today is Philip Rostant, who also played a significant part in the political movements of the 1880s and 1890s.

Rostant was born in Trinidad in 1822, into a family of French descent which had lived there since the 1790s. His father, Toussaint Rostant, had been a well-off sugar planter and a considerable slave-owner. The young Rostant was educated in Ireland, where he lived for several years, and came into contact with radical Irish politicians in the 1840s, which probably helped to shape his later politics.

Following family traditions, Rostant owned a cocoa estate, but his main interest was in journalism and politics. He was a key player in Trinidad’s lively press in the last quarter of the 1800s. At different times, he wrote for, or edited, the Port of Spain Gazette, San Fernando Gazette, Public Opinion and Reform.

Rostant was the editor of the Port of Spain Gazette, the colony’s leading paper, between 1881 and 1884. He left it to found his own paper (which he edited), Public Opinion, in 1884. Later, in the 1890s, he founded a second paper, significantly named Reform.

Most unusually for one of his background at this time, Rostant’s political views were distinctly radical in some ways, though he always retained a respect for landowners as the most important group in any society. But he was sympathetic to labour, and he believed that middle-class men, of all ethnic backgrounds, should be allowed to take part in the colonial government and in making laws.

In other words, Rostant wanted the Crown Colony constitution—by which the island’s Legislative Council had no elected members, only colonial officials and private citizens nominated by the governor—to be reformed. Elected members, for whom at least some local men would be allowed to vote, should be introduced.

He was an important leader in the “Reform Movement” of the 1880s and 1890s, which campaigned (unsuccessfully) for elected members in the legislature. Rostant was the main leader during the campaign of 1885-88, and he was probably the most radical politician in the colony in the later 1800s, despite his French Creole landowning family background. In this respect, he resembles Captain Cipriani in the next century.

During the campaign of 1885-88, which he effectively led, he used his paper, Public Opinion, as the main mouthpiece for the reform cause. It was a daily, it was cheap, and Rostant claimed that it was widely read, in the rural districts as well as the towns. By the 1880s, literacy in English had spread quite widely, thanks to the primary schools established since the 1840s and 1850s, as well as the arrival of thousands of people from the English-speaking islands.

Rostant tried to make the campaign a popular one. He organised a big “reform meeting” in Port of Spain in 1887, attended by about 5,000 people—a “monster” meeting for that time. He also organised and circulated a pro-reform petition to the queen, which was signed by several thousands—again, a “monster” petition.

Unfortunately for his cause, these efforts to get wide popular support for reform, along with the sugar depression which began in 1884, frightened the more conservative sugar and cocoa planters. They made their hostility to any significant constitutional changes clear. This, as well as the lack of support from key officials in Trinidad and in London, ensured that no elective members were granted at this time.

The campaign resumed in 1892-95. Rostant was no longer the main leader, giving way to younger, mixed-race lawyers like Alcazar, Maresse-Smith and CP David. But he emerged as the leader of the “radical” wing of the movement, arguing for a lower franchise (men with relatively low incomes and little or no property should be able to vote), and lower property qualifications for being elected to the Council, than most of the other reformers.

As it happened, yet again, London decided to veto the grant of elected members in 1895. Rostant, however, continued to argue for political reform, and for other measures in the interest of the middle and working classes, in his newspapers Public Opinion and Reform. Into old age, he remained a consistent opponent of Crown Colony government and a supporter of liberal, even radical, politics.

It’s not surprising that, like Cipriani later on, he was regarded as a “maverick” within his own French Creole community, perhaps even a traitor to his class. And this could only have been reinforced by his private life: Rostant’s second marriage was to a young Indo-Trinidadian teacher, Alice Sebastien. For a member of a prominent French Creole family, to marry (not just to have sex with) someone who was not white marked him as one who had defied the conventions of his group, and such marriages were extremely rare at this time (and long after).

As a radical journalist and opponent of Crown Colony government, who broke away from the conservatism and prejudices of his own elite class, Rostant deserves to be remembered.

• Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of history at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T and the Caribbean for many decades.