By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 25, 2013
On July 17, Professor Bridget Brereton wrote in the Trinidad Express that Cyrus Prudhomme David was the first black legislator to sit in the Trinidad and Tobago Legislative Council. This is not true. It is the repetition of a position that Brinsley Samaroo articulated in his pamphlet, “Cyrus Prudhomme David: A Case Study on the Emergence of the Black Man” (1970). It needs to be laid to rest for the fiction it is.
The year was 1836. Slavery had formally come to an end (although, in reality, it would not end until 1838), and black folks recognized that a new social order was emerging. The suppressed African element began to assert itself and make demands upon the society. The Colonial Office, seeing the turmoil that was taking place in the other British West Indian islands, recognized the need for the planter class to loosen its grip upon the society.
In August 1836, Governor George Hill informed Lord Glenelg, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, that he planned to replace Robert Neilson, an unofficial member of the Legislative Council (or the Council of Government as it was called then) with John Losh, an unofficial member of the Legislative Council and a wealthy merchant. Lord Glenelg responded by suggesting the governor should hold his hand and consider appointing “some gentleman of African descent, by whom the duties at the Council Board could satisfactorily be discharged.”
Lord Glenelg assured him: “I should be well disposed to approve of your nominating him [a person of African descent] to this or any future vacancy as I view it of great importance that some members of this class should have a place in the Colonial Legislature, which is now the case in almost all of the West indies.”
By 1837, things were changing dramatically. There can be no doubt that Daaga’s mutiny caused the Colonial Office to have second thoughts about the half-free, half-slave limbo (called apprenticeship) in which the ex-slaves had been placed. Under these circumstances, Lord Gleneg’s mandate to Governor Hill assumed greater urgency.
On July 25, 1838, when Thomas Blight Darracott, an unofficial member of the Legislative Council and son-in-law of Neilson, objected to placing Trinidad under the administration of the Governor General of the Windward Islands, a short-lived experiment, he was fired immediately by Murray Macgregor, the acting Governor of Trinidad. Dr. St. Luce Philip, “a respectable gentleman of color,” was appointed to replace Darracott thereby becoming the first black member of the Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago.
On the day he was appointed, Dr. Philip made a motion that ended apprenticeship in Trinidad. On August 7, 1838, M. Murray, the Chief Stipendiary Justice, informed Lord Glenelg:
“I have no doubt that this will be amongst the first intelligence which reaches you, that on 25th July a motion was made in the Council of Government by Doctor Philip, one of its members, for the total abrogation of the apprentice system, and that an act was passed to that effect. The whole was dissolved on 1st August and instead of riot and disorder, apprehended on the people, had the apprenticeship system been continued and enforced upon them.”
Professor Bereton also credits David with leading the fight for representative government. In this context, it is worthwhile to note that on July 8, 1839, a group called “Persons of African Descent,” a label with which Dr. Philip and his class defined themselves, sent an Address to the Queen. They alleged that although they constituted four-fifths of the island’s population they were not adequately represented in the legislature or in government jobs. They made it clear they preferred “a system of government founded on the principles of the British Constitution, of representatives voted by the great mass of people.”
They were also incensed that they had no say in how their taxes were being spent. Like the British people, they could not say that “through their representatives they commanded their own purse. Our purses have too often been forcibly drawn upon in a reckless manner and for unwarrantable purposes.” As the majority population, “the taxes fall most heavily upon ourselves” (See the “Address of the Persons of African descent, natives and residents of the Island of Trinidad,” July 8, 1839).
For fourteen years Dr. Philip studied medicine in Europe and, with his family, owned three plantations in South Trinidad. He was the first black legislator of Trinidad and Tobago and the person who was bold enough to say that apprenticeship should be ended.
No one should minimize the contributions that Cyrus Prudhomme David has made to the advancement of a people’s democracy in our island. However, to argue that he was the first black legislator in our country falsifies history. It is about time that we liberated ourselves from that fiction.
Professor Cudjoe, a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, is writing a biography on William Hardin Burnley, the biggest slave owner in Trinidad during slavery.