Monday, January 22, 2018

The Merikens again

Bridget Brereton logo4

Donstan Bonn

RECENTLY, AB Huggins’s book, Saga of the Companies, first published in 1978, was reissued in a new revised and enlarged edition.

This book is about the company villages in South Trinidad, the home of the Merikens (from “Americans”). Many people know about this group’s existence but are vague about how the Merikens came to Trinidad. It’s often thought they were former slaves who had fought for the British in the American War of Independence (1776-83), which isn’t correct—though many enslaved men did, in fact, serve with the British troops in that war.

In fact, the Merikens came here after a rather obscure war between Britain and the young United States known as the War of 1812, which began in that year and ended in 1814. During this conflict, many enslaved African-Americans in the southern states joined the British forces, responding to the promise of freedom if they did. Most were enlisted in the Corps of Colonial Marines.

After the war, recognising that their fate when the British left would have been grim indeed, the British military and naval authorities shipped them out of the United States. Some were settled in Trinidad with their families, starting in 1815. This is the origin of the company villages.

Public awareness of the Merikens was raised last year, with the showing of the excellent film about them, made by Judy and Anthony Dennison. (Hazel Manning, daughter of AB Huggins, was one of the Meriken descendants interviewed in that film.) The film was shown on national TV and is a very good teaching resource.

The Merikens and their descendants were (and are) proud people who always celebrated their unique past. In 1850, a generation after they had arrived here, the English Baptist missionary George Cowen held a special service to commemorate emancipation at the Mount Elven Baptist church, near New Grant.

He found that many of the descendants of the Merikens stayed away because, they said, they were not “fuss augus’ negroes”—people freed on August 1, 1838, by the British emancipation decree—but had been settled in Trinidad as free people long before. But some attended, and “they recalled their experiences in the United States, and the horrors they escaped by aid of the British fleet”.

In 1888, 70 years after the Merikens’ arrival, a commission held a meeting at Fifth Company Village and found a strong, cohesive community still inhabited mainly by their descendants. Its leader was Robert Andrews, who called the village “his dominion”. The son of two of the “old Americans”, both former slaves in the United States, Andrews was literate and politically sophisticated. He had signed the petition for constitutional reform, which the commission was investigating, on behalf of many illiterate people in his district.

He and several other Merikens of the district, such as Alexander Wood and Philip Hill, gave evidence to the commission, setting out clearly their desire for elected members in the Legislative Council, “to make a House of Council where the Black could sit as well as the White”, in Hill’s words. These men were so well-informed and so confident in their views that the very colonial-minded commissioners were impressed almost against their will.

So the Merikens made an important contribution to national development in many ways, and their story reminds us that not all Africans first came to this island as enslaved people.

This new edition of Saga of the Companies will further contribute to our understanding of this fascinating component in the national fabric. When it appeared in 1978, it was the first book about the company villages written by a Meriken descendant, “Boysie” Huggins.

Its great value lies in it being an “insider” account of the Merikens written by a man who had grown up and always lived among them, especially the folk ways and beliefs, the religious and cultural practices, of the people as he knew them growing up in the 1930s to 1960s.

As we would expect, much of this kind of traditional life and culture has since disappeared in urban, modern Trinidad, making his account all the more precious as a record of vanished folkways.

The book includes a great deal of detailed information on the Baptist churches to which the Merikens traditionally belonged—they brought with them from the United States South the African-American type of the Baptist faith so strong there. This section explains the different groups among the Baptists in the company villages, informs about the organisation of the Baptist churches and their unique religious observances, pays tribute to some of the leading Baptist missionaries, pastors and school teachers, and explains the influence of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on the company villages.

The editors of this new edition have added (pp. 205-237) a series of “Questions and Answers”, which present detailed historical information on the Merikens derived from recent research, especially by John Weiss, who is married to Meriken descendant and famous artist, Althea McNish. This section will be very valuable to researchers and students.

The new edition of Saga of the Companies is a welcome addition to our documentation of this unique group and its rich heritage.

• Bridget Berereton 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.