Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Rebel with a cause

In my last piece I wrote about Henry Alcazar (Express, March 27); today, my subject is his contemporary, Edgar Maresse-Smith, who was also born in 1860, and like him, was from a mixed-race middle class family.

The greatest influence on Maresse-Smith’s life was his mother Emilie Maresse-Paul. I wrote a column about her some time ago. She was a remarkable woman, well read and very critical of Trinidad’s institutions, especially the colonial government and the Roman Catholic Church. Her unconventional and radical views helped to shape her son’s.

Another influence was JJ Thomas (I also wrote about him). Thomas, an African-Trinidadian, was a brilliant, self-taught scholar and writer. The young Maresse-Smith helped him in his work in the 1880s, and greatly admired and revered him.

In the words of his biographer (and descendant), William Smith, “Maresse-Smith was the most radical opponent of Crown Colony government in the pre-World War 1 (1914-18) era”.

Maresse-Smith qualified as a solicitor in 1887, after serving some years as an “articled clerk” and then passing an examination. He practised as a solicitor all over Trinidad (and Tobago, united with Trinidad in 1889) until his death in 1905. Though he often worked for poor clients without charge, he must have done well, since he was able to acquire estates in Trinidad, and one in Tobago, by the time of his death.

Maresse-Smith hated injustice and discrimination of all kinds. He used the colony’s newspapers to publicly attack official misdeeds and unjust treatment of people. At a time when there were no elected members in the legislature, the newspapers—especially those owned by black or mixed-race men—provided a vital forum for opponents of the colonial regime.

Many of his letters or articles attacked racial or colour discrimination in the public service, in the schools, in social institutions such as the Queen’s Park Cricket Club, and in the Roman Catholic Church. He also criticised what he saw as failures of justice by judges and magistrates, a brave act for a young solicitor in colonial Trinidad.

Maresse-Smith was especially notable for his sense of race pride, and his conviction of the need for unity among all those of African descent, whatever their “shade”. When the Jubilee of Emancipation came around—that is, the 50th anniversary of the final end of slavery in 1838—he led a small group of men who insisted that the occasion should be properly celebrated in Trinidad, and should be seen as an opportunity to express pride in the progress of the emancipated people and their descendants.

Needless to say, in the Trinidad of 1888, this was quite controversial. But Maresse-Smith stood his ground, and he and his supporters ensured that the anniversary received a great deal of coverage in the newspapers, and was publicly marked with banquets, speeches and lectures.

In 1901, Maresse-Smith took a leading role in establishing a Trinidad branch of the Pan-African Association, which had been founded in London in 1900 by Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams. Though it soon faded away, it was another vehicle for men like him, and “M’zumbo” Lazare, to express their race pride, and to stand up against the crushing racism of the age.

Even as a young man, Maresse-Smith took part in anti-Crown Colony politics in Trinidad. He was one of the leaders in the “Reform Movement” of 1892-95, which campaigned (unsuccessfully) for elected members in the legislature. Unlike his contemporary Alcazar, his views were radical for the time: he wanted a much lower franchise than his colleagues in the movement (meaning he wanted men with only a small income, or with little property, to be able to vote).

Like Alcazar, Maresse-Smith was involved in the Water Riots of 1903, though in a different way. He was one of the leaders of the Ratepayers’ Association, which agitated the Port of Spain population against the government’s proposed new water ordinance. When the actual riots took place (March 23, 1903), he and his colleagues tried to keep the excited crowd away from the Red House where the Legislative Council was debating the bill. Of course they failed, the Red House was burned down, and several people were killed by the police and the military.

The colonial government was determined to hold some of the leaders of the Association accountable for what had happened. Maresse-Smith, Lazare and a radical newspaper man, Henry Hall, were prosecuted for incitement to riot. Predictably enough, the jury acquitted all three.

Maresse-Smith wasn’t intimidated by the trial, and in the aftermath of the riots, he continued to write against the colonial government. He also defended the ordinary people of Port of Spain, including the rioters and the relatives of those who had died or been injured, though he himself had always advocated constitutional means of protest.

Maresse-Smith died in 1905 at the age of 45. Many tributes to him were published in the local newspapers. He was widely recognised as a patriot, an enemy of racial and other injustice, a defender of his people, and an opponent of the Crown Colony regime. Indeed “a rebel with a cause”, in the words of his biographer William Smith.

• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at The UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T and the Caribbean for many decades. Her column returns to its regular fortnightly Thursday space on April 24.