An African patriarch

By Bridget Brereton

History is made by men and women, and many fascinating individuals helped to shape T&T’s evolution over the centuries. Some are famous and their lives have been well documented, like Eric Williams, AA Cipriani or TUB Butler. Others, however, are mostly forgotten, or their achievements are known only to a handful of academics. One of the historian’s responsibilities is to rescue such persons from society’s forgetfulness.

Last year I wrote about a few Trinidadian women whose interesting lives were little known or remembered today. This year I will highlight some men who contributed to the development of Trinidad (or of T&T) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jonas Mohammed Bath endured the infamous Middle Passage and enslavement in Trinidad in the early 1800s. But, unlike the great majority of such persons, we know quite a bit about his remarkable life. He was born some time in the 1770s or 1780s in the region of Africa known to Europeans as Senegambia, between the Senegal and Gambia rivers. He was probably a Mande speaker and may have belonged to the Susu ethnic group. He was certainly a Muslim—this area of West Africa had been “Islamicised” for centuries—and from an elite family, since he had received an Islamic education as a youth and arrived in the Caribbean literate in Arabic.

Bath was captured either in 1804 or 1805 by non-Muslim slave traders, sold to British dealers, and brought to Trinidad just a couple of years before Britain outlawed its transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. On arrival, he was not sold to a plantation, but became a “Colonial Negro” or a “King’s Negro”, the property of the colonial government.

Perhaps this was because he was “discovered to be a Person of Eminence” and swore on the Qur’an he was “a prince in his own native country” (he claimed to be the “Sultan of Yullyallhad”, a place name that has not been identified). At any rate, the colonial government made him the foreman in charge of the enslaved men building Fort George in 1805, an assignment he carried out efficiently.

As a “King’s Negro”, Bath had a higher status than ordinary slaves. He was literate in Arabic, he was said to be learned in Islamic law, and he always appeared in public in the dress of a Muslim priest. All this, as well as his noble status in Africa, allowed him to become a religious and community leader among his fellow ‘Mandingo” (Muslim) Africans in Trinidad.

By 1812, Bath had probably bought his own freedom, and in that year, he was described as a “magistrate” over his “tribesmen”. The colonial government authorised him to countersign documents from Mandingoes, suggesting he may have become literate in English as well as Arabic.

Bath became the patriarch of a small but vibrant African Muslim community of perhaps 140 persons, living in and around Port of Spain in distinct, self-segregated groups. They acquired small cocoa and coffee estates and also owned urban houses. Organised into a sort of cooperative, the community used the proceeds from trading and agriculture to buy the freedom of their enslaved fellow Muslims. The “society” would buy a slave, manumit him or her, and then oblige that person to work without wages to repay the manumission price.

So Bath was able to boast that when the British emancipation decree came into force on August 1, 1834, “few, if any” of his community was still enslaved. Somewhere between 50 and 70 persons were freed by the society before 1834, a remarkable achievement, especially in Trinidad where slave prices were very high. It seems that the community lived a collective life according to Islamic law and Bath functioned both as a religious leader and as a secular authority.

Despite their relative prosperity in Trinidad, and even when Emancipation had arrived, Bath’s community had a deep desire to return to Africa. He organised two petitions, in 1833 and 1838, calling on the British government to help them to return to their homeland. In the first, Bath signed in Arabic “I am Jonas son of Ibrahim”; the second had twelve Arabic signatures, Bath’s being the first.

We have the texts of both petitions, and they are remarkable documents. They portray a community which claimed to be loyal to the British King and empire, but which proudly self-identified as both African and as Muslim—this in a British colony, officially Christian, which was just emerging from enslavement. Though of course they were written in formal English, the signatures and names in Arabic reflect the community’s pride in its cultural and religious heritage.

Sadly, though not surprisingly, the petitions were turned down. The government in London feared that if a precedent was set, there would be a flood of similar requests from surviving African-born ex-slaves throughout the Caribbean. Bath died in 1838, in Trinidad, just weeks after the final end of enslavement in the island.

The story of Bath and his Mandingo society in Trinidad in the early 1800s deserves to be remembered, as a remarkable episode in the history of Trinidad and, indeed, in the history of New World enslavement.

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