Unlike other colonies, Trinidad saw after the abolition of slavery in 1837 the emergence of a black and coloured middle class
A look at the composition of post-emancipation society in Trinidad reveals that black didn’t just mean black. As a person with African ancestry, you could have found yourself in different strata of the society, with different challenges and opportunities. The black and coloured middle class rose from several groups:
Firstly, from the small group of families of mixed African and European descent, who were the descendants of the free, slave-owning and land-owning people of colour, and who had settled after 1783 mainly in the Naparimas according to the terms and conditions of the Cedula of Population.
Secondly, from the group of descendants of ex-slaves, or of freed African immigrants, that is Africans taken by the British on the high seas from Portuguese slavers, bound for Brazil, and set free in Trinidad and Tobago. This group also comprised descendants of immigrants from other Caribbean territories and of Venezuelan immigrants with Spanish-African-Amerindian ancestry. Those people were self-made, that is, they worked in white-collar jobs which they got mainly through their command of the dominant British culture. Members of this group were both coloured and black.
In the fifteen years after the settlement of Trinidad by both white and coloured French Creole settlers in 1783, the whites and the free coloureds entertained much more cordial relationships than after the British conquest of the island in 1797. In their retention of culture, in their nostalgic cherishing of the past, in their manners and customs and in their catholicism, white and coloured French Creoles were very similar. When the British imposed their rule, however, white French Creoles tended to distance themselves from their coloured countrymen and -women, many of whom they were related to by blood. They stuck with the new rulers and tried to form the exclusive local white landed upper class. Notwithstanding that, many positions were closed to even the whitest of locals: only the English could hold the highest offices like governor, colonial secretary or chief of police. This concept of the foreign master was bitterly felt by all Trinidadians and Tobagonians up to the very last days of Crown Colony rule, as a speech from the 1930s by Captain A.A. Cipriani shows:
“A little country like ours would never become a piece of American territory either by sale or by barter; we will never become a Canadian provice, and thirdly and lastly, but by no means least, we are not going to carry on as at present under this iniquitous and mischievous form of administration known by Crown Colony Government.”
Middle-class status was reached when members of the family - men, to be specific, since women had no prospects of a professional career in the 19th century - started to work in white-collar occupations, such as in the law, in the teaching service, as a clerk in trade or in the government. The path to that was education, and schools were mostly to be found in the towns. Unlike other tropical colonies, over a quarter of Trinidad’s population were urban-dwelling by the 1870s.
Among the families of French free coloured origin, there were the Romains, who produced the first Mayor of San Fernando, and the Philips, whose Jean-Baptiste won the first human rights case in the New World for the free coloureds in 1829. St. Luce Philip became the first coloured unofficial member of the Legislative Council. Michel Maxwell Philip became Solicitor-General from 1869 - 1888. He also was the first non-white Mayor of Port-of-Spain. The Saturnins were another prominent middle class family. They produced a doctor as early as 1838, when they were able to send one of their sons to the University of Paris. The Maresse family produced vocal, anti-clerical men and women who wrote letters in French and English to the newspapers, condemning the churches’ influence in schools.
The Angeron and Montrichard families, the Beaubruns and the Regis families - all of those were respected and educated coloured families of the Naparimas. Many of them faced economic desaster after 1838 and much like many of the white planters, were squeezed out of the sugar production.
For the second group within the black and coloured middle-class, upward mobility began after the removal of slavery.
“Numbers of ex-slaves and their children became petty traders and artisans after 1838,” writes Dr. Bridget Brereton in ‘Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad’. “They were better off than estate labourers, more mobile, and more ambitious for their children to go to school. They formed a ‘respectable’, ambitious, potentially mobile working class, and their children might well achieve the climb to middle class status. Most of these men were professionals, teachers, civil servants or clerks; a few were planters: even fewer were in business.”
The Brown family, descendant from a Vincentian coloured immigrant, Joseph, who was a merchant, was one of those exceptions. Joseph’s three sons all became professional members of the black and coloured middle-class: Vincent and Lionel were barristers (with Vincent even rising to the office of Attorney-General), Leopold was a surveyor. Another lone coloured merchant was H.B. Phillips, coloured native of Barbados, who served as Mayor of Port of Spain. But other than that, the large commercial firms were dominated by white families at that time. Black and coloured men owned only small businesses: W.B. Laurence had a bookshop, L.O. Innis ran a pharmacy, and Joseph Lewis, William Herbert and Samuel Carter owned printeries and produced newspapers.
Access to capital was difficult for black and coloured people. If one had not inherited land or wealth, it was almost impossible to become a planter. Amongst the few coloured planters were Nicholas Brunton of Diego Martin, who ran successful sugar and cocoa estates. M.M. Philip bought Phillipines sugar estate, and Joseph Brooks, son of a black soldier of the West India regiment, owned at the time of his death several cocoa estates in the Arima and Guanapo district.
“Most middle-class and coloureds, then, were employed in white-collar jobs; the majority were involved neither in agriculture nor in commerce. They were teachers, journalists and editors, lawyers, doctors, civil servants and clerks.” (Bridget Brereton)
To become a primary school teacher was the ultimate goal for many black middle-class aspirants. This respectable occupation gave one the status of an authority, but it required no university education like becoming a lawyer or a doctor. J.J. Thomas was probably the most outstanding self-made teacher of the last century. Others were H.A. Nurse, the son of a Barbadian ex-slave, as was Henry Sylvester Williams, who also became a succesful teacher and later founded the Pan-African Association in London.
For those who were black but could somehow get a tertiary education at a British university, medicine and law became the favoured professions. Brilliant Stephen Laurence won a scholarship to QRC and an island scholarship to Edinburgh University, where he qualified as a medical doctor in 1888.
But, as the list shows, the legal profession was the one most open to black and coloured middle-class men.
“John Joseph and Jean Pierre, said to be ‘of pure African descent’, were among the first three men to qualify as solicitors under a new Ordinance permitting solicitors to qualify in Trinidad instead of having to go to Britain.” writes Brereton. “Increasingly, America came to be seen as a land of opportunity for young blacks, because it was far easier to support themselves while at a university there than in Britain, and because it was easier to enter an American university.”
Only one or two men became clergymen. P.H. Douglin, for example, was ordained in 1887. There was a common prejudice, however, against people of colour from both the side of the churches and the side of the congregations, who preferred white priests.
Trinidadians of the black and coloured middle class adhered feverishly to European values, that is, they were often better mannered and educated than their white counterparts or the black lower classes. As Brereton puts it:
“They attached so much importance to culture because they had no other valuable and valued possession to hold on to. (...) But they possessed one attribute which the mass of the population did not have, and which the society, as a whole, valued: and that was cultural and intellectual skills. It is not surprising, therefore, that members of the coloured and black middle class often took the lead in literary or intellectual activities.”