Monday, February 20, 2017

The 'free mulatto'

In my last piece I wrote about Jonas Mohammed Bath, the African Muslim leader who lived in Trinidad in the early 1800s.

Today I want to look at an equally interesting man who lived here around the same time, though there is no evidence that they knew each other.

Jean-Baptiste Philip was born in the Naparimas, in southern Trinidad in 1796 or 1797. He was of mixed African/European ancestry, born into the community known as the "free coloureds'' in the Caribbean. The Philips were the leading free coloured family in the island, owning sugar estates and enslaved labourers, and they were French in their cultural orientation (they had originally come from Grenada).

The young man spoke French as his first language, but he was educated mainly in Britain (the family was wealthy enough to send two sons for secondary and university education there). He graduated as a doctor from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1815 (in those days very young boys could enter university and the medical course was much shorter than today).

Returning home in 1816, Philip practiced as a doctor in the southern part of the island, where the family estates were. As a qualified, cultured, European-trained doctor who was of mixed race, he was an aberration in a slave society. He soon became only too aware of the many kinds of discrimination faced by free non-white people in his native island.

The governor, Ralph Woodford, was bitterly hostile to the whole free coloured community, and under his regime (1813-1828) discrimination and persecution against it mounted. Philip began to collect documentary and oral evidence about these grievances, and despite his youth, he became the leader of a small "civil rights'' movement based in southern Trinidad, involving educated (or at least literate) free coloured men.

In 1823, encouraged by the British Parliament's decision to work to "ameliorate'' (improve) slavery with a view to its eventual abolition, the free coloured leaders decided to send two men to London to argue the case for ending all legal discrimination against free non-whites. One was Philip, and he was the main author of the Trinidad free coloureds' 1823 petition to the British government calling for legal equality with whites.

But he did more: he wrote a book-length statement of the free coloured case. It was privately printed in London in 1824. Addressed to the Colonial Secretary, it was stated to be by A Free Mulatto of the Island. Though Philip's name does not appear on the title page, no one could doubt, in Britain or in Trinidad, that he was the author. The book is written in a high-flown, "literary'' English which reveals that the young man had absorbed much of the literature and the intellectual traditions of Britain and Europe (where he had travelled in 1815-1816).

This important book, which has been re-issued in modern editions under the title A Free Mulatto, is one of the foundational documents of Trinidad's political, social and cultural history. It argues that the island's free coloureds had enjoyed special social and civic privileges during the last years of Spanish rule (1784-1797) but that these had been gradually eroded or abolished under British rule between 1797 and 1824.

Woodford's regime was particularly attacked for the many ways in which he had sought to humiliate and oppress free coloureds, including those who were well educated and property-owning "gentlemen'' and cultured and respectable "ladies''. This, of course, was the group to which Philip's family belonged. Lengthy appendices to the main text detailed particular grievances and narrated stories of discrimination and oppression.

It should be noted that A Free Mulatto does not call for the abolition of slavery. Philip's family owned many enslaved labourers in 1824, though he himself may not have. Instead, it made an impassioned plea for full legal equality with whites for the free coloured community.

The British government was sympathetic to the free coloureds' case—it had received similar petitions from their leaders all over the British Caribbean in the early 1820s. In 1826 Woodford was instructed to revoke the most outrageous examples of legal discrimination against them. Finally, the government in London issued a law (March 1829) which abolished all "Disabilities to which His Majesty's subjects of European birth or descent'' were not subject.

This was the grant of full legal equality between whites and free coloureds which Philip and his colleagues had struggled for. In the words of the historian Carl Campbell, it was their "new charter of liberty''. It arrived in Trinidad in July 1829, just two weeks after Philip died, still in his early 20s.

Jean-Baptiste Philip was an important figure in early Trinidadian history. He was the first Trinidadian to publish a book, and the leader of his community's successful campaign for civil rights and legal equality. Despite his early death, Philip was a foundational figure in the Trinidadian literary and intellectual tradition, and in the island's struggles for political and civil freedoms.

Like Jonas Mohammed Bath—though in very different ways—he asserted a claim to equality and freedom for the people he represented and led. They both helped to shape Trinidad's post-emancipation society.

• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History and has

studied and written about the

history of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean for many decades.