Monday 9 July 2012

The Company Villages

People of African descent came to Trinidad and Tobago in various ways. Some arrived in Spanish times as slaves; however, because there was hardly any industry, these early arrivals were distinguishable from their owners only by their colour and lack of freedom, in that all were more or less equally impoverished.
With the French colonists came some 10,000 slaves. It has been said that the majority of these were creoles, that is, born in the Caribbean. Slaves out of Africa came in considerable numbers from 1783 to 1807. During this period, free black people with wealth, education and slaves of their own arrived as well. Under the aegis of the Cedula of Population, they enjoyed significant rights and privileges unknown to blacks in other islands in the Caribbean. Other freed men came to this island: men from disbanded West India regiments who had served in the Ashanti wars and in the Gambia were given lands at Manzanilla and Sangre Grande.
During the period between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and emancipation in 1834, disbanded regiments from the American Wars arrived here. However, tens of thousands of West Indians, by far the majority of any other group of Africans, came to Trinidad from the first decade after emancipation down to the present. The other interesting migration of people of African descent came about as the result of the British taking slaves off of Portuguese slavers in the mid-Atlantic in the 1850s and bringing them to Trinidad and Tobago, where they lived in freedom. The subject of this article is the penultimate category, the Americans.
Heading along the swift highway, the Northern Range, behind you fading to a paler shade of blue. Going beyond San Fernando always makes one feel that Trinidad is larger than it is. Over to the east, the Montserrat Hill with Mount Pleasant and Mount Kelvin. See it 185 years ago, thick virgin forest, as impenetrable as the Amazon's, crowded with wildlife, a world unknown. In the world outside, significant events were taking place. In Europe, Napoleon's doomed army was invading Russia. The Duke of Wellington, Britain's greatest general, was at the start of the Peninsular Wars to liberate Spain and Portugal from the French stranglehold. On the other side of the Atlantic, the young nation of the United States of America declared war on Britain and had invaded Canada. The war at sea saw three American frigates, the "Constitution", the "United States" and the "President", designed to outclass all other frigates and to outrun England's ships of the line, for a time get the upper hand. On land, the British army marched into Washington, which was defended only by a small force of militia, some of the British officers arriving in time to eat a dinner at the White House that had been prepared for the President and Mrs. Madison.
In the south, an army of frontiersmen, led by tall, long-haired Andrew Jackson, wearing his old leather cap and patched blue cloak and oversized unpolished boots, defeated the British army under General Pakenham at New Orleans, giving rise to the song:
"We fired one round and the British kept a'coming,
there wasn't as many as they were a while ago,
we fired another and they began a'running
from the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico".
Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this extraordinary and unnecessary war was that the peace treaty between England and the United States was signed in Europe before the Americans signing the treaty got the news of Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans.
During this was, as in the previous war for independence, many men of African descent fought for the British and many also fought for the Union. Their pay was always the same, freedom. As this war in America wound down, black soldiers in British regiments were offered the opportunity of settlement in Trinidad. Several companies set out to an unknown island in the distant west.
The island was passing through a difficult period of adjustment. Its laws and institutions were Spanish. The British military administrators had imposed martial law for some 18 years. The landowners were a mixed group of Spanish, English and French. There were black families who had very big estates run by slave labour. These formed a separate establishment. All these people had very mixed loyalties. When we see huge crowds today filling the stadium of thronging the streets at Carnival time, it is difficult to believe that in 1811 there were only 8,455 free people, white and coloured, in Trinidad, and the total population, slaves included, was only 30,742, about the size of a crowd at the Oval when it is filled to capacity.
The sugar cane had been introduced by refugees from Santo Domingo; the Otaheite variety by M. St. Hilaire Begorrat who owned a plantation in Diego Martin.
The soil was fertile. Governor Woodford, the first British civil governor who took office in 1813, declared in a dispatch in 1824 that "in other islands, the planting of canes is attended with great bodily exertion to the labourer—with all this trouble, the canes do not rattoon or sprout afresh for above one or two seasons after the first plantation, when the land must be again enriched and replanted.  In the new lands of Trinidad, it is sufficient to clear the surface and to lay the cane in the soil where it will for 18 or 20 year throw out fresh canes. The cultivation of cocoa, of which there are 101 plantations established with 1,622 slaves of all ages producing 1,166,224 lbs of cocoa or 719 lbs per negro, forms a very distinguished feature in the agriculture of the colony".
But only a small part of the land mass was under cultivation, only about 44,000 acres out of the 1.5 million! The island was short of people. Indeed, shortages of labour is one of the salient features of the history of Trinidad throughout the whole of the 19th century. Such is the background. Now we must link the war between the United States of America and England with the newly conquered British colony of Trinidad, which was short of people.
Some of the free Africans in the United States joined the British forces and fought for them against the Americans. At the end of the war, groups of these people were brought to Trinidad. A party of fifty arrived in 1815 and in the following year, 34 men, 15 women and 17 children were brought in. Other followed. All of these "Americans" were finally settled round about Savanna Grande (now Princes Town). They did not want to become tradesmen. Land was to them a symbol of security and of liberty. They all wanted to settle on the land to own it, cultivate it and be independent.
By and large, the "Americans" were members of the Baptist church, and so in 1843, a Baptist missionary began to work among the men and women who settled around Savanna Grande. Other mission stations were established as well at the first Company Village, at Mount Kelvin and in the third village at Mount Pleasant, where the settlers were part cultivators and part hunters.
It is said that the second Company Village was never founded because the settlers were lost at sea. The descendants of these brave men and women are now woven into the colourful quilt of this the most cosmopolitan island of the Caribbean. They have become another element of the overall African diaspora in the Western World.

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