Relying on the liberality and candour so prominently distinguishing Your Lordship's character, and on that calm and moderate spirit which has ever persuaded all the actions of your life; I have presumed to address you on a topic of consummate consequence to a remote, much injured, and considerable portion of His Britannic Majesty's subjects."
With these opening words Jean Baptiste Philippe set into motion a sequence of events that has unfolded over the centuries even to this day. J.B. Philippe was born in 1796 in Trinidad.
His family was among the wealthy elite coloured sugar planters of the Naparimas. At an early age his father, Louis, brother of Judith Philippe of Petite Martinique, had noticed that his son was remarkably bright for his age and that he had the potential for a university scholarship. Concerned however in educating the boy to the point where enlightenment might work against him in the context of the slave society in which they lived and where prejudice may be directed at him by ignorant Europeans, he was hesitant to send him abroad. The boy's mother, a free negress, herself unable to read, was the one who convinced her husband, Louis, to send Jean Baptiste to England.
He may have arrived there around 1808 and prepared himself for university. He was regarded as very bright. He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1812. Prof. Carl Campbell in his paper ‘Man from the Naparimas’ remarks:
“Fortunately for him there were at that time no regulations governing the age of entry."
Jean Baptiste remained there until 1815 when he graduated as a doctor at the youthful age of about 19 years. He had written his thesis in Latin, on the subject ‘Hysterical Moods’.
He toured Europe and attended lectures at Montpellier and at Leyden. He had a strong personality and attracted several bright young rich people. He met a beautiful European woman and fell in love with her. But he heeded the advice of a friend who warned him of the impolicy of taking a white wife back to Trinidad. Campbell comments:
"It is not known what degree of racial mixture Philippe represented, but it appears that he was sufficiently removed from white to be easily recognised as a man of colour."
When he left England, the island of Trinidad, freshly conquered from Spain, was still a free-wheeling frontier town. Men carried swords and pistols. There were duels; matters of honour were settled in public, Governor Picton burnt, hung, exposed the heads of the decapitated in public places - he did this to slaves as well as soldiers from the Duchy of Hesse who were under his command. There were men who walked the streets who had been present at the massacres of the French royalist in other islands. Child prostitutes lived with men old enough to be their grandfathers. The noblemen cultivated Epicurean taste in their octaroon mistresses.
Upon his return, life was becoming settled. Neapolitan Harps had become popular, duels were outlawed and the public executions were now private. The French creoles in perpetual pursuit of pleasure still kept mistresses, although, for the first time the question was being raised as to the propriety of giving the result of these liaisons their illustrious last names, in some families anyway.
Generalised lawlessness was giving way to institutionalised colonial prejudice under the governorship of Sir Ralph Woodford (1813 - 1829). The free blacks, slave owning, plantation possessing, educated, began to feel the pressure of British crown colony rule. Gone were the days where atrocities and ‘sad depredations’ were visited on everyone, black as well as white, bringing comfort in the thought of misery shared. Now it was a one-way street.
The most common Europeans had the rights and privileges of the high born educated upper classes when it came to dealing with free blacks. Woodford stopped them from being called ‘Mister’ and refused their commissions. They were not allowed to practice their professions. They may not inherit land. For the family of Philippe, land was vital; the ownership of land defined their personalities. J.B. Philippe did not lose much time. He returned to England to fight a landmark case in the highest court of the Empire. He won it. Prof. Carl Campbell makes these remarks in the end:
"There is no mistaking the heroic quality of the life and achievement of Dr. Jean Baptiste Philippe. There was youthful intellectual talent; a providential appearance when needed by an underprivileged social group; courage in the face of dangers; sacrifice of a professional career which could have supported a quite financially rewarding life; a book mature beyond the years of the author, as a personal testament to a principled struggle, and finally an early death at about age 33 just before the moment to triumph. Philippe died two weeks before the proclamation of the law granting full civil rights equality to free coloureds. His entire adult life was consumed by the free coloureds' struggle. He did not live long enough to disillusion his admirers; or to sully his record by immersion into politics of conversion of paper rights into actual reality. Even so the issue of slavery, the fact that his family owned slaves as well as he himself, the absence of a clear call for the abolition of slavery from the man who saw the injustices done to his own social group - this, slavery, was the first major stumbling block to his acceptance as a hero to blacks and coloureds, especially the former, who had been slaves during the time of Woodford. Whatever explanations were offered in the post-emancipation period to mitigate Philippe's personal involvement in slavery were probably less important as a healer of wounds than the passage of time itself. As slavery became more a memory than the actual experience of many living persons the conditions were created for the commencement of a more generous estimate of the work of the Naparima doctor. No monument was built in his memory as was suggested by a sympathiser in 1842, but some 30 years later there was a torch light procession to his grave in San Fernando, and speeches in praise not of a leader of the free coloureds, but of a hero of the underprivileged people.”