The esteemed ancestry of Bishop Rawle Douglin

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 24, 2023


Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoePhilip Henry Douglin, grandfather of Bishop Rawle Douglin, took up his clerical duties at the St Clement’s Parish, St Madeleine, in 1887. Coming out of a slave past, having done missionary work in Africa and having been associated with some of the distinguished scholar missionaries of his day, Douglin was very conscious of Africa’s place in the world and the problems that beset his people.

Although there were objections from many of the white and coloured members of the congregation to a black man taking up such an important position, Bishop Richard Rawle fully supported his protégé. The San Fernando Gazette remarked: “The encomiums of His Lordship, however, on the merits of the Revd. Gentleman, the just tribute of praise, paid by the highest Church functionary in the diocese, to the learning, piety, self-abnegation and preserving zeal of this servant of the Great Master, causes us to pass over in silence the marked and studied indifference of those who ought to fraternise with one, who, from his birth and education is their equal.”

Rev Douglin discovered there was a yearning among the African population to know something about their ancestors. The jubilee celebration of Emancipation brought the question of slavery back to the forefront of public discussion.

On August 1, 1888, the 50th anniversary of the emancipation of the enslaved people, Douglin was supposed to have offered a Jubilee Sermon of Emancipation at the Trinity Cathedral in Port of Spain. Unfortunately, he missed his train to Port of Spain and was unable to deliver the sermon. Fortunately, the San Fernando Gazette printed his sermon in its August 11 issue.

It was a masterful discourse on the origins of slavery, in which he made two very important points: that slavery had a calamitous psychological effect on the colonised and that the latter had the responsibility to produce his/her own freedom; second, he asked Africans to be proud of themselves and to be the agents in their psychosocial transformation. It is a point that Franz Fanon would make almost one hundred years later in his psychoanalytical studies.

It was clear that Douglin was influenced by the ideas of Edward Wilmot Blyden, the author of Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. He also founded the Sierra Leone Journal “to serve the interests of West Africans and the race generally”. In 1884, the West African Reporter described him as “one of the most thoughtful Negroes alive”, while Leopold Sedar Senghor, former president of Senegal, saw him as being “virtually alone in West Africa in terms of his intensely held Pan-African vision and his strong literary interests”.

Douglin also acted as a community leader. In 1891, he established a Friendly Society, the virtual forerunner of village councils, at St Clement’s Anglican School. The San Fernando Gazette reported: “There was a very large attendance, and the result of these deliberations was the formation of a society called, ‘The Hand of Justice’ to be conducted on undenominational and unsectarian principles. A Friendly Society is much needed in the district.”

Douglin also promoted free primary education for students when our grandparents had to pay to go to primary school. On October 6, he wrote a letter to the Board of Education, objecting to “the reduction of teaching units” that were being proposed by the Board of Education. He also proposed that “all pupils, pupil teachers and candidates for certificates should be examined in a new subject, viz. General Knowledge”.

Douglin also had views on the use of capital punishment. On October 6, 1899, he wrote in the Mirror, “It is hard to understand why a Christian and a progressive nation like the English should be so slow to abolish such a savage custom as taking the life of a man who killed another. They have abolished that part of the lex talionis still retained by savage nations, which sanctions ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound’, but they have jealously kept the very worst feature by judicially murdering all who murder.” He ended his article by saying, “Capital punishment is a blot on civilisation—it does not do the good it is meant to do. The thing has been weighing on my mind for some time.”

Douglin, however, was at his best as an activist when Sylvester Williams, the father of Pan-Africanism, and a Trinidadian, returned to Trinidad to encourage his people to become active in the Pan-Africanist movement that called for the liberation of black people throughout the world. The first Pan-Africanist conference was held in London, in which scholars such as WEB Du Bois, the great American scholar-activist, participated. They were, in a way, the forerunners of the African liberation movement.

Douglin continued to work tirelessly. However, he never recovered from the disease he contracted when he worked in Western Africa. On June 30, 1902, he breathed his last. Bishop Hayes, clergy from many parts of the country, and a large number of fellow citizens attended his funeral. Significantly, Masonic rites were said at his funeral.

An obituary in the Mirror described his life and contributions as follows, “Canon Douglin was a Negro, proud of his race and was ready to associate himself with any cause having for its object the upliftment of the people and holding himself as a pattern…. In his death, the Church has lost a hard-working member, and the Negro Race, a staunch and sympathising friend.”

Douglin was a remarkable man in many ways. Scholars such as Eric Williams, CLR James, Sylvester Williams and Walter Rodney were heirs of his insights. They explored and developed these with more sophistication, but he remained an inspiration to their work.