Black American Lives Have Always Mattered…

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 29, 2020

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeAbout one hundred yards north of Whitehall, there is a short street, Maxwell Philip Street, that is located between Prada and Scott streets, in St. Clair, Port of Spain. It is no more than 500 yards long. Although it is located in an affluent part of the city, it commemorates the life of a very important member of our community.

Philip, one of the most respected and accomplished Afro-Trinbagonians of the nineteenth century, might be little known to our contemporaries. However, given the impact that Black Lives Matter (BLM) is having on the present era and the interest it has generated all over the world, it might be wise to become acquainted with Philip, his importance in our history, and the enduring connection of the BLM to Afro-Trinbagonians.

Philip came from a long-line of freedom fighters that migrated to Trinidad from Grenada shortly after Fedon’s rebellion in 1795. He was a descendant of a family that included Jean Baptiste Philippe, author of Free Mulatto (1824) and Dr. Luce Philip, proprietor of several large estates in Naparima and a member of the Trinidad Legislative Council during the administration of Lord Harris.

Philip was born in Cupar Grange Estate, Napararima, on October 12, 1829. He attended the Public School of San Fernando after which he was sent to St. Mary’s Catholic College, Blairs, Scotland where he received a classical education. He returned to Trinidad in 1849, attached himself to Henry Hart Anderson, solicitor-at-law, to prepare for legal studies in England.

In 1851 he returned to London where he entered Middle Temple and was called to the bar in 1854. During that period he wrote Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), the first novel that was published by a person from the Anglophone Caribbean. It was republished in 1893 and later in 1997 with an afterword by yours truly.

Philip wrote his novel in sympathy with the exploitation and cruelty African Americans were undergoing particularly in light of the Fugitive Slave Bill (1850) that allowed white people in the northern states to snatch black people anywhere and return them to their slave owners in the South.

He noted that his novel was written “at a moment when the feelings of the author are roused up to a high pitch of indignant excitement, by a statement of the cruel manner in which the slave holders of America deal with their slave-children.” He could not imagine how slavery, that dissolver of natural bonds, could “shade over the hideousness of begetting children for the purposes of turning them out into the fields to labor at the lash’s sting,…picking cotton under the spurring encouragement of ‘Jimboes’ or ‘Quimboes’ on his own father’s plantation.”

Philip’s solidarity with his African American brothers was not unusual for Afro-Trinidadians. In 1847 Frederick Douglass, the great African-American liberator, commemorated the abolition of slavery in the West Indies in one of his many speeches on the issue. Embracing formerly enslaved West Indians as “our brothers and sisters” Douglass declared West Indian emancipation as a “splendid achievement, a glorious triumph of justice, love and mercy, over avarice, pride and cruelty.”

Douglass likened August 1, the date of West Indian emancipation, to “a city set upon a hill” and treated emancipation day, “as more sacred than the Fourth of July,” which he never celebrated. It is no wonder then that Afro-Trinbagonians in their continuous struggle for freedom against their former slave owners such as William Hardin Burnley, serialized Douglass’s Narrative in the Trinidadian in 1850.

In 1851 the San Fernando Gazette published a review of William Wells Brown’s Illustrated Edition of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown. It noted that after his escape from slavery, Brown lectured to many audiences in the United States and London on the “heart-rending and cruel traffic of the American slave trade.” In 1853 Brown published Clotel, the first African-American novel to examine the destructive role that slavery played on the African-American family.

Both Emmanuel Appadoca and Clotel examined the problems of enslaved children, their abandonment by their wealthy white fathers, and their mothers’ despair. Each novel advocated the use of force to gain one’s freedom. Both Philip and Brown would have welcomed the BLM’s struggle for justice.

Philip returned to Trinidad in 1855 and died in 1888. During that period he devoted his life to public service. He served as inspector of schools, mayor of Port of Spain, unofficial member of the legislative council, solicitor general, and on seven occasions as acting attorney general. In 1879 he was offered the Chief Justiceship of Ghana but turned it down because of his unwillingness to start over at his advanced age. In 1887 he piloted the bill to annex Tobago to Trinidad. To his chagrin, the Trinidad government refused to confirm his position as the attorney general because he was black.

Philip died at his residence in Maraval. Sir Conrad Reeves, the black Chief Justice of Barbados called him “the most accomplished orator these West Indies ever produced. He was a great honor to Trinidad.” L. B. Tronchin,” one of the most distinguished scholars in Trinidad at the time bemoaned that “his raciality [sic] as a Creole and his being a descendant from the African blood were formidable obstacles in the way of promotion.”

Afro-Trinbagonians have always been influenced by the struggles of African Americans a vice versa. Let us take down Columbus’s statue if we must. However, it should be replaced with heroes with whom we identify. Let us know and honor them after the enthusiasm of BLM abates. Even Eric Williams, one our most illustrious historians, mistakenly described Maxwell Philip as “an Englishman” in his History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago.