Thursday, 11 August 2011

J.J. Thomas

Born around 1841 in San Fernando, John Jacob Thomas was perhaps the most learned and erudite Trinidadian of purely African descent in the last century.

J.J. was noted for his intelligence at an early age. He went to one of the first primary schools inaugurated in 1851, and in 1858 he was selected for special training to become one of the first qualified teachers. In the following year, Thomas was awarded one of the six places at what was called the ‘Model School’ - the teachers’ training school.

In 1860, John Jacob Thomas took up his first appointment as schoolmaster at Savonetta. The young schoolmaster had to teach himself patois, since inspite of the introduction of English as the official language in 1814, Savonetta was still entirely patois-speaking. Being a perfectionist, Thomas subsequently published a book called ‘The Theory and Practise of Creole Grammar’, which was until a few years ago the only publication of its kind.

In 1866, Thomas was appointed to the office of the Receiver-General, and three years later he was sent to Cedros as a Clerk of the Peace. It was around Christmas of 1869 that J.J. was introduced to the world-famous writer Charles Kingsley, whose visit to Trinidad had been immortalised in his book ‘At Last - A Christmas in the West Indies’. Kingsley had been a guest of then Governor Sir Arthur Gordon, and since the Governor admired J.J. Thomas a lot, he introduced Kingsley to him. The writer was very impressed with Thomas, and shortly after their encounter Sir Arthur appointed Thomas as secretary to the Education Board and to the council of Queen’s Collegiate school, which was inaugurated in that year.

The pinnacle of Thomas’ accomplishments came in 1876, when an Englishman by the name of James Anthony Froude published a scathing attack on the black population of the West Indies in his book ‘The Bow of Ulysses’. Thomas replied with a spirited attack on Froude and his odious opinions, and he published his rebuttal in a book entitled ‘Froudacity’. The book attracted international attention, and John Jacob established himself as an author of exceptional scholarship and ability.

In 1879, the brilliant Thomas was forced to retire from the civil service due to poor health. Confined to bed and inspite of failing eyesight, he translated Gustave Borde’s book ‘History of Trinidad Under the Spanish Government’ from French into English. Fortunately, Thomas recovered in 1883 enough to assume the headmastership of the San Fernando Borough High School. He didn’t stay long in that post, however, and in 1888 went to England to see about his failing health and about new editions of his two books, ‘Froudacity’ and ‘Creole Grammar’. It was in England that he died in 1889, only 48 years of age.

The figure of John Jacob Thomas looms large to this day, challenging the stereotype of the ‘Little Black Boy’.

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