LANDS CONFERRED BY THE BRITISH
The story behind the arrival of the Merikins in Trinidad goes back to the American War of Independence, 1775 – 1783 when runaway slaves were first encouraged to join the British fighting forces. A major enticement for their enlistment was the promise of freedom by Lord Dunmore, the then Colonial Governor of Virginia. At the end of the war these ex-soldiers were granted their freedom and taken to Nova Scotia in Canada, Sierra Leone, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
During the War of 1812-1814, known by some historians as “The War of Faulty Communication”, the British made similar promises of freedom to slaves who joined their naval or military forces. These black soldiers were told that at the end of the war they would remain free men and earn 16 acres of land per head of family.
Historians document that these black soldiers/marines were runaway slaves of the American slave owners who made up the British army and that they were recruited into a total of six (6) military companies. They were recruited mainly from Chesapeake Bay, shores of Virginia and Maryland, as well as from the coast of Georgia.
The following Proclamation was made:
By the Honourable Sir Alexander F. I. Cochrane,
K.B. Vice Admiral of the Red, and
Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Ships
and Vessels, upon the North American Station.
Whereas, it has been represented to me, that
many Persons now resident in the UNITED STATES,
have expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom,
with a view of entering into
His Majesty’s Service, or of being received as
Free Settlers into some of His Majesty’s Colonies.
This is therefore to Give Notice,
That all who may be disposed to emigrate from
the UNITED STATES will, with their
Families, be received on board His Majesty’s
Ships or Vessels of War, or at the Military
Posts that may be established, upon or near the
Coast of the UNITED STATES, when
they will have their choice of either entering into
His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being
sent as FREE Settlers to the British
Possessions in North America or the
West Indies, where they will meet with due
Given under my Hand at Bermuda,
this 2nd day of April, 1814,
By Command of the Vice Admiral
GOD SAVE THE KING
TRINIDAD IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Trinidad in the early 1800s was described as a “melange of ideologies, cultures, colour and status.” It was different from most West Indian islands in respect of the high proportion of free coloured people. Notably, when Britain took Trinidad in 1797 there was already a large intermediate group of free coloured people, in the middle of the ruling white elite and the growing number of slaves.
The following British figures played a significant part in the arrival and success of the Free Black Settlers:
Sir Ralph Woodford
In 1813, Sir Ralph Woodford arrived as governor. In 1815, he acknowledged the chief obstacle to the development of Trinidad was “the want of a labouring population." He was responsible for the introduction of the Colonial Marines/ex-soldiers and ensured the establishment of the Company Villages in South Trinidad, in spite of opposition from wealthy Naparima planters.
Mr. Robert Mitchell
Governor Woodford credited much of his success to Mr. Robert Mitchell, a Naparima planter who handled much of the operation of settling the ex-soldiers and their families. Mitchell's reports documented the progress of each village and he petitioned for needed resources, such as supplies for the women and children, during the times the men were forced to leave the villages to work on other farms.
Governor Lord Harris
Lord Harris served as Governor from 1846–1854. He was instrumental in improving the infrastructural development and was sometimes described as being too “Planter friendly”. His vision was described as an economic one by author Mr. Michael Anthony. He felt that the success of the estates was essential for the prosperity of the whole island.
Lord Harris’ support of the Merikin land settlers’ petitions resulted in them eventually being given deeds to their lands with the proper titles, some twenty years after their arrival in Trinidad. These Land Deeds clearly stated:
- The name of the original settlers
- The number of acres granted
- Established the fact that the lands were also granted to the heirs of the settlers for the “time in perpetuity”
FREE BLACK LAND OWNERS
These ex-slaves, ex-soldiers, now land owners, spoke an abbreviated version of the language, which was attained by either dropping the first letter or two, or the last letter off words. The word American went through a similar mutation; they meant to say that I am American but instead they said I am “Merikin”. To the Merikins, their plots were “Blood Lands”, that is, allotments earned by military service.
Corn, potatoes, bananas, cassava and rice were the crops planted. Rice was especially valued for its durability, because it could be stored all year round without losing its nutritive value or taste. It is said that these Free Black American settlers brought rice to Trinidad for the first time. Thus they added to the diversification of the economy and gave the island a valuable staple crop.
The ten years between 1817 and 1827 were successful years for the company villages. These Merikin settlers worked both their own lands, and on neighbouring estates, during crop season from January to April and it is said that by 1825 they were producing 2,000 barrels of corn and over 400 barrels of rice.
The total number of Merikin settlers who arrived in Trinidad between May 1815 and August 1816 was approximately 781 men, women and children, out of which 574 were the disbanded ex-soldiers. The men outnumbered the women.
Each ship delivered a number of ex-soldiers and their families, each showed that there was a great imbalance. The following is an example.
||Many in this batch were recorded as aged or infirmed
They were settled in the South of Trinidad, in the Naparima District/Savanna Grande (now Princes Town). Many of the “Merikin” Company Villages have completely changed their original names with the exception of Fifth (5th) and Sixth (6th) Companies. It must be understood that geographically the areas also overlap each other.
Originally called Grant because it was the area of land granted to the first settlers and it was rich soil. Since this was a heavily populated and farmed area, an application was made, and government granted new areas of land adjacent to the old, hence, the new name “New Grant”. First Comapny land also covers the area called Hindustan. Famous areas include: Cane districts La Cabee, La Retreat and La Resource. Many of the streets were named after settlers, such as Jackson Block and Lewis Trace.
Many stories are told about this company. It is said that the ship never made it to Trinidad, that in one case the passengers drowned and in another, they were blown off course to Jamaica. Other authors/researchers, such as Hackshaw, Brewer and Atwater, attest to the fact that this company did arrive and were initially placed in Laventille and Caroni. This company is now known as the Petite Café and Matilda Boundary areas.
Usually referred to as “Indian Walk” and has an interesting story. It got its name from being the pathway of the Guara-joon Indian who came from Venezuela through Moruga to trade in the Mission known as Princes Town. Example of street names include Loney Road, Sampson Ridge and Lengua. Significant areas include Fort George Road that is named after an old Fort, remains of which are said to be still visible.
This area includes Sherring Place, Hard Bargain or Williamsville. There is a story that the early settlers bartered their wives for much needed horses in order to work their plantations. Streets named after settlers include Williamsville and Gobin village. Significant area: Piparo Mud Volcano.
Retained its original name. It is well known for its rich agricultural land and oil bearing areas. Streets or areas named after settlers include Mitchell Block, Weston Road, Mother Kelly, Brankar Trace, Teesdale Road and Samuel Cooper Road.
Also retained its original name. It is famous for its mixed farming and large virgin forest areas such as Cata Hill.
OBSTACLES ENCOUNTERED BY THE MERIKIN SETTLERS
Many obstacles were encountered by the Merikin settlers of these remotely located company villages. These included:
- Administrative (few resources plus the inability to read and write, no schools and worship buildings)
- Physical (poor access roads, no animals to farm or transport, etc.)
- Social (where the men outnumbered the women)
Both the British and the Merikin settlers worked relentlessly to overcome the obstacles by:
- Supplementing the low ratio of women with liberated African women from French slave ships and other islands.
- Petitioning for the much needed tools, clothing and rations for the women and children left behind when the men went out of the villages to work.
- Cooking in a hole in the ground, lined with leaves.
- Making soap from ashes.
- The “Batelle” invention, which was a tub made by burning and scooping out the inside of a log – used to wash in, when no streams were available for laundering.
- Increasing skills in preparation of herbal remedies
Even with the lack of proper building materials, animals, equipment and proper roads, the settlers who had the experience of building shelters for themselves in Chesapeake were able to construct rudimentary shelters which saw them through the rainy seasons.
The Merikin settlers had difficulty identifying with the surrounding population, which was mainly French-speaking and Catholic, since they were English-speaking and Protestant. As a result, they developed a strong sense of group identity. They also felt a marked pride in their freedom and in their independent status.
Dr. Brewer noted in his thesis that these settlers experienced success in spite of several upheavals: (i) the flight from slavery; (ii) then military service with limited resources (iii) little time to recover physically and psychologically in order to adjust to their new situation in Trinidad.
SOME NOTABLE MERIKINS
- William Richardson
- Samuel Webb
- Amphy & Bashana Jackson
- Augustus Lewis
- John Milton Hackshaw
- Arthur Sampson
- Ebeneze Elliot (Papa Neezer or Neza)
- William Hamilton
PAPA NEEZER (1901–1969)
Born Ebenezer Elliot, he was more popularly known a Papa Nezer or Neza. He was a direct descendent of original Merikin settlers George Elliot, on his father’s side, and George Blackwell, on his mother’s side. Described as a dynamic person, he was well known for his prophecies using the ‘Obee Seed’ and bible passages (especially the Psalms), from which he would prescribe according to his revelations.
According to Huggins, he had good religious training and was a devout member of his faith from the time he was baptised and accepted membership. He had a special liking for Shango religion, and became an accomplished drummer and adherent to the religion. He later participated in his own meetings.
He is said to have special powers to heal the sick, cast off evil spirits, which attracted many from the neighbourhood and region.
He was a family man, who was sociable, charitable, very approachable and because he established undying friendships and acquaintances, he became known as ‘Papa’ or ‘father’. He did much to promote his religion and was very influential in the construction of a modern church in his community.
According to Ms. Leonis Roberts, his granddaughter, he was not an Obeah man, but a helper and healer. "Obeah" is not about doing bad from the long time point of view but it was about helping people. He never took money, was not about the money."
One Merikin descendant, who still has the 16 acres of land which was granted to his original ancestor, remembers his father (who died in 1954) and his grandfather, as cocoa planters.
According to another female descendant, her father owned a horse, donkey and a mule and he would use these animals to transport his produce to Port of Spain to be sold. In addition to being a cocoa farmer he was also involved in the official construction of the Moruga Road, he was employed as a road builder.
Merikin descendants were also involved in sugar cane cultivation on a smaller scale as well as other forms of agriculture. Dudley Bobcombe’s father, Ruben Bobcombe, and Annie Saunders Missette’s father, John Saunders, were just two (2) of the sugar cane farmers from the villages.
Dr. Eric Williams said of Trinidad in 1911, “Cocoa was the reigning queen, sugar the ex-king and oil the future emperor.” In light of that, those with ownership of land in oil producing areas were able to benefit from oil rights and lease rents. Hillary Bobcombe, son of Egbert Bobcombe, is of the view that the American ex-soldiers played a very important role in the promotion of Trinidad’s indigenous economy. As subsistence farmers they were pioneers in the growing of short-term crops. One can still find descendants of these ‘Merikins’ peddling provisions they had planted on Sunday mornings, the big market day, at Princes Town. Mr. Bobcombe is also of the opinion that ‘Merikins’ displayed a high level of fierce independence and this, he says, they carried through all walks of their lives.
They brought this “each one, help one” system which was observed in house and church building, cultivation and reaping of crops and the burial of the dead.
They had a special art of “Bush medicine” preparation, which they applied for almost every complaint and felt that the cure for disease lay in the application of herbs which possessed special medicinal properties – leaves, flowers, bark and roots.
The ‘Obeah man’s’ business was a most important practice to the Company Villages and profitable trade which supplied a lucrative source of income.
THE MERIKIN BAPTISTS - INITIAL STANDARDS
Dr. Brewer indicates that, "In daily life ‘the cross’ translated into a moral and behavioural code so strict, that strong spiritual justification was needed to make it acceptable. This code required total abstinence from extra-marital sex, unswerving execution of domestic duties, no consumption of alcohol, no self-adornment or secular entertainments. Modesty in dress respect for elders, economic self-sufficiency, intense piety and total participation in rituals of worship where the required standards”
THE MERIKIN BAPTIST - CHANGES
“The older immigrants were Baptists, and their children remained loyal to the Baptist profession. They elected their own pastors and maintained some sort of Church life. But gradually old African practices and beliefs crept back, so when these villages were visited by Mr. Cowen, there was probably little more than the practice of adult immersion to mark them as Christian communities.”
THE MERIKIN BAPTIST
According to Rev. John Bramble, Merikin Baptist settlers’ genesis is in the Orthodox Baptist denomination and was evangelical in nature. Dr. Brewer states that the Merikins arrived with their Baptist faith, and he notes that in their recruitment places of origin, such as Virginia and Georgia, the evangelical Baptist denomination was the major religion.
Once in Trinidad, one of the major groups who worked with the Merikins to raise their standard of living was the English missionaries from the Baptist Missionary Society, named the ‘London’ Baptists. Other influences included African tribal beliefs, which Dr. Brewer indicates may have mostly been introduced by African slave women who were sent to marry the men. According to Mr. John Hackshaw immigration also contributed to the variations in their religion. Rev. Anslem Warrick reminds that the American missionaries also played a fundamental role, whilst Dr. Brewer’s research shows that as literacy increased so too did the empowerment of the spiritual leaders and the Merikin community.
Variations in these Evangelical Baptists include:
- The London Baptists
- The Independent Baptists
- The Fundamental Baptists
The church, along with the Merikins' military training, influenced the structure of the villages. Upon arrival churches were formed and a leadership structure set up, including pastors, preachers and deacons, and elders. Much more needs to be explored with regards to the rich history of the Merikin Baptist.
EARLY CHURCHES BUILT
- St. John’s Baptist Church (1845)
- Third Company Baptist (previously in existence in since 1840, official building constructed in 1850)
- Fifth Company Baptist (1843)
MERIKIN INSTITUTIONS TODAY
One of the many strong institutions today is the Baptist Union of Trinidad & Tobago (B.U.T.T.) which governs the London Baptist Churches. The following progress has been made:
- Three (3) Primary Schools: (i) Marac Baptist Primary School (1952), (ii) Fifth Company Baptist Primary School (1967), (iii) Webb Memorial Baptist Primary School (1958)
- One (1) Secondary School: Cowen Hamilton Secondary School (1962)
- One (1) Senior Citizen Home: Mary Jenny Poole Senior Citizen’s Home
- One (1) Princes Town Early Childhood Centre
- Vocational Training Centres
- United Baptist Theological Institute
- Camp Site: Camp Ebenezer, located in Piparo. It is in close proximity to the now famous mud volcano. Construction of this camp began in 1993, on a ten (10) acre parcel of land acquired from Texaco. It currently has a main hall and women’s dormitory, with future construction plans.
MERIKIN CROCK OF GOLD
Lands that lie fallow do nothing for anyone
Lands that lie fallow do not add to the economic fabric of the nation
We need help to burnish our thoughts
How to develop the lands to which our forebears were brought
Agriculture as an industry we must be made to see
Is the activity that will bring wealth for you and me
16 acres of land were given to the head of each household
Together with freedom that was their crock of gold
The history and the land are the legacies
Left by men who built villages called the Companies
A Heritage centre, a Replica Village and Museum
Will be fitting tribute to hallowed ground
The role of the Merikin Diaspora is the cornerstone
In the development of this land we call our own
Tourism is another industry that can easily flourish
In a region blessed with scenery and virgin forest
With it must come the essential infrastructure
That will make tremendous changes in scenic Moruga
It’s the oil in the soil our famous bard did claim
That lies in the South from whence the Merikins came
Men of the Diaspora what ideas have you
To revive the economy and bring life anew
Our forefathers fought for freedom and liberty
Let us roll back the evils of ignorance and poverty
Men and women of the Merikin Diaspora
Their Excellencies from America, Britain and Canada have come together
To wreak change in the land of our forefathers
Sleeping giants just dream a while
Of the things that are possible and wake with a smile
Their Excellencies have conspired and touched base after 200 years
Merikins let us stand up and say three cheers
By Augustus Lewis
© The Minister of Quarrel 2007
I AM CARIBBEAN
I am Caribbean can’t you see
Fellow man that’s my ethnicity
I am Caribbean through and through
Compatriot on that score, how say you
About 1200 miles from north to south
Caribbean in content that’s what we are about
As slaves the Middle Passage was a horrible experience
And is the legacy of men who caught and sold us without conscience
As Indentured Labourers we kissed this shore
That changed us from untouchables forevermore
We have evolved as Trinbagonians with a new identity
No more mother Africa no more mother India for me
Lebanese, French and Spanish too
Are important ingredients in this callaloo
The blending agent in this unique dish
Is the catalytic action of the English
As we move forward and upward as a nation, there will be growing pains
Something we will experience as we break the chains
As Trinbagonians we have a duty
To love and care for our country
And know our rights and responsibilities
In order to develop our country
Protect zealously our heritage
And guard against wanton theft and wastage
Be on guard for distorters of history
Who for selfish reasons will sell out this country
Rather than share with our brothers in the Caribbean
Some of the wealth that was bestowed on this nation
Let us bring economic relief
To compatriots North, South, West and East
By: Augustus Lewis
© The Minister of Quarrel
Caribbean woman how do you do
Caribbean woman I’m in love with you
An amalgam of different groups
Caribbean woman that is your roots
Evolution has played its part
To make you temptress of my heart
Caribbean woman I watch you sway
As you walk down the street from day to day
Long hours and toils around the great hall
And labour and toils around the great hall
Your compañeros in the cocoa plantation
Also made a sterling contribution
In every walk of life you played a part
From the cradle to the grave you were the spark
Caribbean woman you bear no hate
Woman of the year we appreciate
On islands between Cuba and Trinidad
You display qualities that make me glad
Caribbean woman I salute you
In Cuba, Jamaica and Guadeloupe too
Islands all nestled in the Caribbean Sea
Islands that share a common history
Caribbean woman you are the beacon
With which a people’s destiny has to recon
Light your lights for all to see
As you sail the Caribbean Sea
Tell us stories about unity
And the importance of integrity
Oh Sepia woman of seas so blue
This sepia man is in love with you
By: Augustus Lewis
© The Minister of Quarrel
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