A slaveowner fights against apartheid
The first civil rights case of the New World was not won in the United States, but right here in Trinidad, in 1829.
Doctor Jean-Baptise Philippe was born in the Naparimas in 1796 or 1797. Coming from the background of wealthy coloured sugar planters, his family was one of the many of the ‘free coloureds’ class, who had come to Trinidad under the terms of the Cedula of Population of 1783: they were catholic, had been granted land according to the number of slaves they owned, and had long since established themselves along with their white countrymen as subjects to the Spanish Crown.
In 1797 Trinidad was captured by the British. Besides the Cedula of Population, the Capitulation of 1797 became a most important document with regard to the situation of the free coloureds in Trinidad. In its 5th clause, it says that all foreign settlers and their offspring had the right to be admitted to civil service and to the militia, and in its 12th clause, the Capitulation expressively states: “the free coloured people, who have been acknowledged as such by the laws of Spain, shall be protected in their liberty, persons and property like other inhabitants.”
The first civil Governor, Sir Ralph Woodford, who assumed office in Port-of-Spain in 1813, was - inspite of the modernisations and improvements he implemented in Trinidad - not tolerant with people of colour. Free or not free, Woodford did not like to see non-European faces in the legal or medical professions, and he definitely did not want them to influence the economy as rich landholders and planters. Since he had no free hand to impose any discriminatory legislation, he passed some perfidious laws: he put a tax on property inherited by illegitimate children (which affected coloured children much more than whites) and he started to harrass several small free coloured land-owners with a strict Crown land policy. To enforce apartheid, coloured petitioners before the court had to state their colour on all legal documents, seating in theatres was segregated according to skin colour, as were ferry seats on the steamer between San Fernando and Port-of-Spain. Even the earthly remains of the dearly departed had to be buried in two different sections in the cemetery! Woodford stripped the coloured, educated gentlemen of their being addressed as ‘Mr.’ (which doubtlessly confused the employees at Government House tremendously) and so on and so forth. The man was a pain! But more than that - in his racist fervour, Sir Ralph infringed upon the written law of the Cedula and of the Capitulation, and this was to be his downfall in the end. But Woodford’s neglect of the law of the Cedula of Population did not go unchallenged.
Jean-Baptiste Philippe, who had meanwhile spent his teenage years in England and become a medical doctor, organised a non-violent opposition against Woodford. Quiet collections of signatures for petitions were not sent to the Council in Port-of-Spain, but directly to the government in England. In 1823, Philippe headed a two man delegation to London and presented the case directly to the Colonial Office, describing how the British governors from Picton to Woodford were abusing the civil rights of the free coloureds of Trinidad. He signed his petition not with his name, but with ‘A Free Mulatto’.
Supporting his cause, Jean-Baptiste wrote a book describing the case, entitled ‘AN Address to the Right Hon. Earl Bathurst’. It is not certain whether this book was actually published in 1824, the year that it was printed. The work might have been published for the first time in 1987 by a Trinidadian publishing company under the title ‘Free Mulatto’ .
The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Bathurst, might not have known of the book in 1829, but he knew of the elaborate petition that Jean-Baptiste Philippe presented him. And he ruled in favour of the thoroughly presented case by the doctor, condemning Sir Ralph Woodford for his actions.
Jean-Baptiste Philipe, however, was never to know that he had won the first civil rights case in the New World. Just before the decision of the Colonial Secretary reached him, he died in 1829 at the young age of only 33 years. Ironically, his adversary Sir Ralph Woodford died in that same year as well.