HISTORIC FIND: Historian Louis Homer, right, and Arthur-Chris de Wilde in 2001 on the tomb of Louis Bicaise at Hermitage, Phillipine, San Fernando.
A Trinidad slave trader
John Nelson Bicaise...
Louis B Homer
FOR almost two centuries, images of the notorious Atlantic slave trade remain embedded in the memories of millions around the world, as the largest single enforced movement of people against their will.
The brutal packing of Africans below deck, the manacles and chains — all remain as potent images of a horrific past.
Buying and selling of the Africans was a lucrative trade that spanned almost four centuries, involving all the major maritime powers and states of Europe and the Americas.
In memory of the tragedies of enslaved Africans who were victims of a system that had no parallel in history, the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has set aside August 23 as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its abolition.
Many Africans who were shipped from West Africa may well have been bought there and sold in the New World to the highest bidder by Trinidadian John Nelson Bicaise, formerly of Hermitage village in South Trinidad.
Bicaise’s involvement as a slave trader in West Africa is not well known.
The Express, in its weekly column Remembering the Past, reflects on a Trinidad slave trader who made millions out of the slave trade but, unfortunately, died as a pauper and was buried, not in Trinidad, but on the banks of the Rio Pongo in Africa.
Bicaise’s slave trading activities flourished well into the 19th century, after Britain had long abolished the slave trade and slavery itself, in 1807 and 1838, respectively, in his homeland of Trinidad and other parts of the British empire.
Human bondage continued uninterrupted in other parts of the non-British world and Bicaise profited.
The story of Bicaise and his father, Louis Bicaise, had its beginning in the 19th century when most of the larger estates in Trinidad were owned by French Creole planters who came to Trinidad from Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Vincent during the 1783 Cedula of Population.
From St Vincent came Louis Bicaise around 1811 with his wife Mary Rose, and two slaves. His departure from St Vincent might have been hastened by a number of earthquakes which posed a threat to life and property on the island.
On arrival, Bicaise purchased 250 acres of arable land from Palmiste Estates Ltd, and named it La Ressource Estate. Within a short time Bicaise became a prosperous planter in south Naparima, all because of his hard work and diligent administration of his landholdings.
Over time, Bicaise and his wife were blessed with ten children, six daughters and four sons. One of their sons, John Nelson, though not the first, was his favourite. At age 13, Nelson was sent to England to further his studies.
He was not academically inclined, and after completing his studies he left his place of learning and went to work with a notorious slave trader named Michael Proctor, son of a clergyman.
On September 13, 1838, at the age of 62, the elder Bicaise died in Trinidad and was buried on a hillock on Hermitage estate. The tomb in which his body was interred was covered with a large white marble slab at the top with salutations in French, which, when converted to English, read:
“Louis Bicaise, Native of St Vincent, Died in Trinidad on the 13th September 1838 at the age of 62.”
He was a good son, good father, good brother, good kinsman and good friend.”
At the time of Bicaise’s death, his son Nelson was living in England and had lost touch with his father, as he continued to make a name for himself in the notorious slave trade.
The story of the rise and fall of Nelson was told in 2001 by Chris-Arthur de Wilde, a professor at a university in Belgium who had visited Trinidad in search of Bicaise’s tomb which he hoped would unveil the secrets of Nelson, Trinidad’s only known slave trader.
During his visit, he held several meetings with Fr Anthony de Verteuil and historian Louis B Homer, and together they went in search of the tomb, which was found abandoned at Hermitage, Phillipine, San Fernando.
De Wilde research on Nelson’s activities as a slave trader revealed that “Nelson had arrived in Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1833 where he worked as a clerk with Michael Proctor in a factory in Rapas in West Africa.
In the course of his trading in slaves he (Proctor) became friendly with Elisa Faber, daughter of Mary Faber, an American slave who was shipped to Freetown. Proctor eventually got married to Faber and within a few years after the marriage Proctor died suddenly from malaria at Rapas.
Faber then took over the slave trading activities and ran it with help from business partner Nelson. Nelson acquired millions from a trading station at Rio Nunez.
After a few years of joint operations, debts and quarrels started between Nelson and Faber, which hindered the growth of the venture. Consequently under the management of Nelson, the business fell into ruin following the death of Faber.
As luck would have it, further fortunes came the way of Nelson when he became involved in a contract to control the ports on the West African coast.
Relations between Nelson and the Belgian colonial officials continued to flourish to the extent that Nelson soon became known as the uncrowned “King of the River Nunez”. He also enjoyed great popularity at Rapas.
Nelson continued to expand his merchandising business and exporting a considerable number of slaves to different countries where slavery still existed.
Disaste struck for Nelson in 1857 when his slave trading station at Rapas was attacked by two French naval boats that devastated it and took many Africans as hostages.
Nelson passed away, not as a millionaire but as a decrepit old man, dying in a rundown hut with a debt of 10,000 French francs and with one remaining wife, a teenager called Mamery.
Locating Louis Bicaise’s tomb in 2001, amidst rubble and overgrown bushes at Hermitage village provided de Wilde with further information about Nelson.
When the tomb was found, an ecstatic de Wilde said “This is what I have been looking for all these years.”
De Wilde studied history at university in Belgium. He had already made five trips to West Africa in search of Bicaise’s tomb, which served as important material to assist in the preparation of a comprehensive book on John Nelson Bicaise, the slave trader from Hermitage village, South Trinidad.