The African name Macandal Daaga has evoked emotions ranging from abject fear to pride and elation from Haiti to Trinidad over the last 200 years. In Haiti, it was borne by a poisoner who was the harbinger of a revolution that overthrew European rule on that island in the 1780s.
In Trinidad, it was the name used by Geddes Granger in the Black Power uprisings of the 1970s and also by one Donald Stewart, or so he had been christened when he was baptised into the Christian faith. His real name given to him, in his African homeland of what is now Sierra Leone, was Macandal Daaga.
These are the circumstances that brought him to this island in 1837:
The high mortality rate being experienced by British troops stationed in the West Indies reached alarming proportions by 1795. Mostly the British soldiers fell victim to yellow fever. They also died of dengue and malaria, or of inebriation, overdosing themselves on ‘green rum’.
It was against this backdrop that a number of negro regiments were raised for service in the British forces. Five such regiments, comprising 500 men each under British officers, came into existence. During the American war of independence which commenced in 1776, a number of slaves had been formed into the Carolina Corps. These men, because of their loyalty to the British, were sent to Jamaica to settle on the land. Great objections were raised by the Jamaican establishment, who did not want ex-slaves, former soldiers who had fought their masters, to become landowners. That was bad for business! This point was also maintained by the governors of other territories in the British West Indies.
Thus it was decided to keep them in the army and send them in 1783 to Grenada where they formed the ‘Black Corps of Dragoons, Pioneers and Artificers’. These men were to distinguish themselves in fierce actions in Martinique, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe.
Another black regiment known as ‘Malcolm’s Rangers’, raised in 1795, was combined with the ‘Black Corps of Dragoons’ or ‘Carolina Corps’ to form Major Whytes’ regiment of foot. The regiment won battle honours at the battle of New Orleans in Honduras, Sierra Leone and in the Ashanti wars. This regiment continued until 1925. Their uniform was the most splendid ‘Zouave’ which had been appreciated by Queen Victoria at her jubilee parade in 1897.
Gertrude Carmichael gives an account of the mutiny of that regiment in her book ‘History of the West Indian Island of Trinidad & Tobago’. In it, Macandal Daaga played the leading role. Carmichael writes:
“In 1837, a detachment of the regiment was stationed at St. Joseph and amongst its recruits was Daaga, and African chief, who was a giant, standing six feet six inches without shoes. As the adopted son of the childless king of an African tribe, he had often made war in his own country against the Yorubas, selling his prisoners to the slave traders who brought many of them to Trinidad. He himself was captured by the traders after being tricked aboard one of their vessels and had been shipped in chains to Brazil. During the journey, the slaver was captured by a patrolling British cruiser, and Daaga was taken to Sierra Leone. Here, with other able-bodied men, he was drafted into the West India Regiment and sent to Trinidad, where he was baptized into the Christian faith and given the name of Donald Stewart. This stalwart and ill-favoured giant was unable to distinguish between the Portuguese who had captured him and the British who had saved him from slavery; he had been tricked of his heritage and his chieftainship and he wanted revenge. At the full moon in June, 1837, he led a mutiny of some 280 recruits. Shouting their war cries, they set fire to the barracks, seized arms and tried to overwhelm the garrison, their intention being to overcome all opposition and then to march back to Guinea. Their geography was as faulty as their competence with firearms, and the mutineers were soon overwhelmed, captured and court-martialled. Daaga and two of his followers were shot.”