From time to time, I like to write about interesting individuals who contributed in some way to T&T’s history—not so much the ones about whom a great deal has been written, like Eric Williams or CLR James, but men and women who are hardly known today. Today I’ll focus on Michael (or Michel) Maxwell Philip.
Philip was born in south Trinidad in 1829, a man of mixed race, perhaps an illegitimate son of someone from the well-known family which produced the two doctors, Jean-Baptiste and St Luce Philip.
He was educated at a Jesuit college in Scotland, where he absorbed a love for classical and modern European literature; he could read Greek and Latin, and was fluent in French, Spanish and Italian. Later he studied law in London and was admitted to the English Bar in 1854.
While in his 20s, he wrote a novel, Emmanuel Appadocca, which was published in 1854. Though it is not exactly a great piece of writing, it is definitely a literary curiosity: it is almost certainly the first full-length work of fiction published by someone born in Trinidad. (A modern edition appeared in 1997 with an introduction by Selwyn Cudjoe).
Returning to Trinidad as a barrister in 1855, Philip soon became a successful lawyer. He was famous for his eloquence in the courtroom, for his “oratory” and his “literary” speeches to the jury; his knowledge of French and Spanish, and of Spanish law, were advantages in his practice at a time when some remnants of the Spanish legal system still survived, and when French and patois were still living languages in Trinidad.
In 1931, over 40 years after his death, CLR James wrote an essay about Philip. James spoke to elderly people who still remembered Philip as a striking presence in the island’s courts. “His personality still lives vividly with them,” James wrote. He was very tall, and “broad in proportion”, “handsome as few creoles have been”, in James’s words. A print of him in a local paper at the time of his death shows him with European facial features and hair and a fine Victorian moustache.
Soon after his return to Trinidad, in addition to making his name as a lawyer, Philip engaged in local politics. In the 1850s and 1860s, his politics were generally liberal, and opposed to the policies of the British colonial regime.
He helped to defend the Catholic Church against attacks from the colonial officials who saw it as too “French”, too foreign (un-English) for a British territory. And he served as mayor of Port of Spain in 1867-70; he was the first non-white person to be elected to this post.
But his life—and his politics—changed dramatically in 1869. Governor AH Gordon, who reversed earlier policies which saw “coloured” or black men shut out of official posts, appointed him acting solicitor general (he was confirmed in the post in 1871).
This meant he was one of the two legal advisers to the colonial government and sat in the Legislative Council as an official member—again, the first non-white to do so.
This appointment was greeted with great acclaim in the local newspapers which spoke for the educated mixed-race and black class. It seemed like a new beginning for Trinidad, the end of overt discrimination against men from this class.
As one editor wrote: “As a son of the soil, Mr Philip’s appointment has given satisfaction, but by a large section of the community it will be regarded with feelings of pride and rejoicing as another triumph over a narrow-minded policy which was wont to create and maintain invidious distinctions of birth and race. Mr Philip is a representative man, and as such his appointment is the more notable.”
Philip held this post until his death in 1888. He was certainly an able solicitor general; he loyally supported all government measures in the council (whatever he may have thought of them privately) and piloted many important laws, such as the one making possible the “annexation” of Tobago in 1887. But he was denied all further promotions.
He acted as attorney general on many occasions, but was always passed over for the substantive appointment, in favour of clearly less qualified English lawyers.
Just as his initial appointment had been praised, the denial of promotion was attacked in the same newspapers: “All creoles should grieve that the possession of superior talent, abundance of qualifications, and an honest and proud right to promotion, are not enough to secure justice to a creole of extraordinary merit.”
Philip was useful to the colonial regime: he was an able servant of the Crown (the government), and his appointment helped to neutralise discontent among the educated mixed-race and black class. It co-opted him, so that he was forced to abandon his liberal politics of the 1850s and 1860s.
Yet he deserves to be remembered for his achievements in an age when all the odds were against non-white professional men, for his patriotism, and for (in James’s words) “that varied intellectual power and breadth of culture which make him and such as he the fine flower of a civilised society”.
• Bridget Brereton is Emerita
Professor of History at The UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean,
for many decades