SENIOR MEMBER: Trade unionist John Hackshaw, a senior member of the Merikin community in Moruga.

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How the Merikins came to Moruga

By Louis B Homer

Next Year's bicentennial commemoration in the US of the War of 1812, is linked to an important part of Trinidad's history.

It was the engagements in the Atlantic States of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia, between the United States and Britain that led to the founding of the Company Villages in Moruga.

During the battle Britain lost to America, the black soldiers who fought against their ex-masters as Corps of the Colonial Marines in British service were later sent to Trinidad in companies where they became known as the Merikins.

The war that lasted for two years had developed a peculiar relationship between black American marines and the British. The Colonial marines who were former slaves believed the British King had come to free them, while the British saw the black American marines as a source of fighting power to curb American expansion.

After the war, Alexander Cochrane, Vice-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief in North America issued a proclamation in 1814 inviting those who may have been disposed to emigrate from the United States, to board a British vessel where they would be taken to one of Britain's overseas possessions and set free. An estimated 761 marines took up the offer and came to Trinidad in six batches or companies.

The first company consisted of 71 men who were settled in a place called Dunmore Hill and Mount Elvin, in Naparima.

The second company consisting of 72 men settled near Indian Walk, east of Princes Town, the third company of 70 men were settled at Mount Pleasant, east of Princes Town, the fourth company of 70 men was settled in Guaracara near Sherringville, north of Princes Town, the fifth company of 70 went to Lengua, south of Princes Town and the sixth company went to Matilda Junction, east of Princes Town.

John Mc Nish Weiss, who has done considerable research on the Merikins, recalled, "The first two lots comprising 140 civilian refugees were settled in Laventille and Caroni. A third group arrived from Bermuda on the HMS Carron, about a dozen landed in Port of Spain and 53 at Naparima."

Within weeks of their arrival in Trinidad, protests from estate owners in the Naparimas were sent to the Governor. He informed them later, "Naparima was the best place for them because of the superior fertility of the soil."

According to historian Father Anthony de Verteuil, "By May 1818 the refugees seemed to have lived very successfully. In 1825 they produced about 2,000 barrels of corn on the ear, over 4,000 barrels of rice, from a settlement comprising 187 women, 396 men and 300 children."

The Merikins were seen as model settlers for several decades. Of the hundreds who made the journey to Trinidad, most were urban artisans. Some were disappointed with the opportunities offered to them, with the result that many returned to the US. Those who stayed were granted 16 acres of arable land to hold in perpetuity and to grow crops that were needed for their survival.

"Each company village was under the supervision of a sergeant or corporal, recruited to ensure proper discipline among the refugees."

The refugees, being former colonial marines, were well acquainted with severe corporal punishment, and this system was practised during the early years of the company villages.

To get the Merikins started, the government provided shelter, tools, and some cuttings and seeds for planting. Some individuals also received an outfit of clothes, a blanket, and for the first few weeks a daily ration of plantain and salt meat. On arrival they immediately engaged in subsistence agriculture by planting corn, cassava, bananas, rice and other small crops that would provide them with food. Some worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons on adjacent sugar and cocoa estates. Others worked as woodmen felling trees for the new settlement and construction of access roads.

Essentially they were a religious people, involved in the Baptist religion practised in the southern States of America.

Local Baptist ministers who visited the villages from time to time reported that while the majority of the villagers practised some form of religion, no progress was made in Fourth Company settlement.

Some settlers were not satisfied with the area set aside for them. Historian and author Michael Anthony stated, "The Fourth Company regarded the land they were given consisted of poor soil and it was a hard bargain. After investigating their complaint they were settled in another area called New Grant."

K O Lawrence, commenting on the state of religious practices in the villages said, "Although there were no clergymen at the settlements there were among the settlers five men who were described as 'Anabaptist preachers' who held Sunday services with the settlers."

Historians are of the view that the Baptist faith was brought to Trinidad by the Merikins. John Hackshaw, a former member of the Merikin fraternity stated, "The American settlers brought with them the Baptist faith of the Second Great Awakening, and combined it with the Gullah culture from Georgia. With the coming of missionaries of the Baptist Missionary Society from Britain, the Baptist faith in the Company Villages declined, but despite the schism between the so-called London Baptists and the rest, the Baptist congregation of the villages retained little visible African influence in their practice."

Those that settled in the Company Villages were exposed to the Baptist Missionary Society's influence, those that settled in the North of Trinidad practised the beliefs they brought from America with the inclusion of African religious practices and beliefs and out of that came the "Spiritual Baptists" which contains both elements of Protestant Christianity and many African rituals unique to Trinidad and Tobago.

After a few years the Baptist faith grew among the settlers and a new spiritual movement called the Shango (Orisha) emerged. As the villages grew and rivalries between the different groups surfaced, new churches were built in each village. However, the dominance of the London Baptist church was evident and it became the main religion in the Company Villages.

From this group emerged two missionaries, Rev George Cowen, and Hamilton who were responsible for establishing the Cowen Hamilton Secondary School at Moruga.

At Fifth Company, Ebenezer Elliot, better known as Pa Neezer, a descendant of the Merikins, had established himself as a spiritual healer and one who possessed prophetic powers.

He was a direct descendant of an original settler called George Elliot who had arrived in 1816 from the Colonial Marines of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the main areas involved in the 1812 Civil War in the US.

He was also feared as an obeahman.

He was largely responsible for bringing African and Orisha worship to the village.

Pa Neezer, as a leading Orisha organiser, gave Moruga its obeah fame that still endures today.

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