Both parties, masters and slaves, were engulfed by the rumours of the impending emancipation. The rumours that the slaves were soon to be freed became more insistent as news from the antislavery lobby in England reached them.
Governor Sir George Fitzgerald Hill, Bart. (1833 - 1839) and the planters had made the strongest representations possible to London and to their friends in high places there. They insisted that any sudden freeing of the slaves would mean absolute ruin for the colony. Estates would be abandoned and, in the event of the slaves becoming violent, even the 19th Regiment and the militia would not be able to safeguard the population. The terrible events in Haiti, the revolution, the slave revolts, the massacres of the Europeans were still in living memory.
They claimed that in view of the acute shortage of slaves since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, it was to be anticipated that the Africans, when freed, would not return to work on the plantations. There would be no way of avoiding the complete collapse of the colony’s economy. The Europeans would go away, it was said, and the former slaves resort to savagery in the bush.
Emancipation in 1834, however, was one of those significant events that marked both an end and a beginning. In terms of race relations, it marked the end of a period when things were very clear-cut. It was also the end of clearly defined labour relations. Instead, social and occupational ambiguities would now enter the scene of things.
None of the terrible predictions of upheaval and bloodshed came to pass. Yes, plantations were ruined, fortunes were lost, lands changed hands. The labour shortage occurred, and less than 20 years later, fresh labour was found and fortunes were re-made.
In 1838, 20,656 slaves had been freed. Given the size of the island, this was not a large number, particularly bearing in mind the among of women, children and domestics amongst them.
One of the controlling factors of slavery was access to learning. At the end of the period of slavery, only the chosen few could read or write, perhaps no more than a dozen or so. The social, political, religious and emotional dislocation of the vast majority of the former slave population is hard to imagine nowadays - to describe them as ignorant would be to miss the point.
In the middle of all this, the Africans were not entirely unsought after. Rivalries between religions were as keen then as they are now and both the Catholics and the Anglicans vied with each other for converts. With the prohibition against giving education to the Africans gone, the offer of schooling was the attractive way to create converts. The British government also supported the possibilities of an education for the former slaves’ children - especially since they were French and Patois speaking and had to be taught English. The various denominations were encouraged to start schools. The quality of this education in those schools, however, has been described by historians as low.
As the result of the plantation system and society in the towns being dominated by the French creoles, French language and the culture of the south of France were endemic. Catholicism was entrenched, and the hierarchical structure of the society almost feudal. The British, on the alert, did not want the former slaves to coalesce even further with these alien French, formerly aristocrats of an overturned regime.
There was a political need to break this alliance of interest, formed of a shared alienation to the British Crown. British education was the answer. It would benefit the Africans, and it would serve to gain their loyalty. During the mid-19th century, the majority of the Africans who were socialised French was diluted by the influx of former slaves from other West Indian islands, many from Protestant cultures like Barbados. They came to work in the fields, however, they did not stay there long. Little by little, the process of segmentation of the Africans along denominational and cultural lines crept in - Catholic/French and Protestant/English.
When Lord Harris assumed governorship in 1845, there were about 54 primary schools in Trinidad, many of them organised by different churches. Lord Harris was an unusual individual for his time - he was interested in mass education and voiced the opinion that “education was essential for the lower classes in order to fit them for freedom.”
He felt that education should not be handed over to the denominations, but instead was convinced that these religious bodies were competing for increased numbers in their individual congregations. The pursuit of these various ‘gains of converts’ would only lead to the creation of deep divisions in the society. Lord Harris advocated a state school system, which was secular and in the hands of the government. In thinking this way, Harris understood the inherent problems of a society segmented in various ways - of which he had enough on his hands with the beginning arrival of Indians from the other end of the British empire.
The creation of the education ordinance in 1851 which established a school in every ward, free and secular under the control of a board of education with salaried inspectors, was a landmark event in Trinidad. Dr. Bridget Brereton writes in her book ...:
“Instruction was to be entirely secular, but each week at stated times the clergyman of the majority faith in the ward would undertake to teach religion, with parents free to withdraw their children if they wished.”
In Port of Spain, a ‘Normal School’ was to be set up to train teachers for the ward schools, with ‘Model Schools’ attached to them for the teachers in training to practice and to come to grips with the challenge of their calling. This was the foundation of the school system in Trinidad.
Notwithstanding Lord Harris’ laudable intentions there were problems. Too few new schools came into existence - only 30 by 1870. Language was a real problem. Since English was the only language used for instruction, it went over the heads of most pupils, who spoke only French patois in their homes and in their community. Within a couple years, the population became entirely bi-lingual. There was also the problem of properly trained teachers as well as a lack of motivation to teach in the inadequate and dilapidated buildings that served as schools.
Sir Arthur Gordon, who arrived in Trinidad as governor in 1866, made a decision to take up the challenge of education. Harris’ ward school system of the previous decade had served to lay the foundations.
The Catholic church had become stronger now, as its main adherents, the French creoles, had once more gained financial ascendancy. The Catholics took the view that only state-aided denominational schools would be acceptable to them. They felt convinced that state-run schools were essentially ‘godless’ and that they placed Catholic youths in mortal danger for their souls.
At Governor Gordon’s request, an Irishman, Patrick Keenan, was sent out to investigate. Keenan was an expert in the field of organised education, and he produced a landmark document in the history of education in Trinidad. He recommended that the church schools be allowed state aid under certain circumstances. This met the Catholic churches’ necessities. The education ordinance of 1870 put into place a dual system of state-supported church schools alongside government schools in the wards.
To what extent this beginning of an education system served to divide the emerging society in its lowest and most vulnerable levels is a topic that historians discuss to this day. In the chequered landscape of our society, with its bewildering collection of faiths and creeds did we get off to a bad start?
Next time you take a shortcut through Lord Harris Square in Port of Spain and walk past his missing statue, or stroll down Harris Promenade in San Fernando, spare a thought for a noble man who spared a thought for children.