Dr. St. Luce Philip: The First Black Legislator of Trinidad and Tobago

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 25, 2013

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn 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.

2 thoughts on “Dr. St. Luce Philip: The First Black Legislator of Trinidad and Tobago”

  1. I noticed that there is no response to this article (before mine), which I believe is not in the same lane as the bacchanal that is embracing the nation called the “Jack and Kamla Show”, which supposedly is about representative politics and playing with the future of the lives of the nation’s 1.3m people. My take from this article is that it is important to have representation (which may or may not be political) in nature but one that acts as an axis for guidance, truth and verification. Professor Cudjoe rightly points out that Professor Brinsley Samaroo and Professor Bereton made efforts to put the historical advent of Blacks in politics in a perspective that from their learnings represents what they conceive as the truth. We (as blacks) cannot blame them for bringing into fore, their knowledge of the history that has been taught to them. This brings me to what I think is lacking in the black Trinidadian’s knowledge of “self”. It is evident in our culture to see, watch and read about individuals who are presented to us as intellectuals and people of high learning, who really know nothing about us even though they look like us. In this respect while the names of people like Selwyn Ryan, Andy Johnson, Lennox Grant et al may be prominent in today’s media, we are not anymore enlightened than if Panday were to write literature about us blacks. The writings of most of these black columnists are not barrier breaking. They verge on peripherals of the black experience and concentrate on seeking “fairness” rather than truth.
    In furtherance of culture, we need the story tellers and in telling those stories we must be fortnight with truth and visionary in perspectives, in this way we pass on knowledge from one generation to the other. In literature we’ve had people like CLR James, Eric Williams, Learie Constantine and others who can relate their personal accounts of history that can be inspiring and producing a narrative which can be built upon to pursue a greater platform for our culture. There are currently people like Holly Betaudier who have interesting and pertinent stories to tell us that our youngsters can use as reinforcement to their meager current knowledge of self. Professor Selwyn Cudjoe thru this article is acting as a wedge, to correct the malignancy of the stories being told to us by those who do not necessarily share in the experience. To bolster my point, in the U.S when an academic speaks of “black history” it usually starts with slavery and probably ends with the “civil rights” movement. Did black life start with slavery? Will end with Martin Luther King? If we have to endure and produce a narrative of our existence we must inculcate every aspect of our experience and relate the relevance of the things that made us survive the worst horrors that emanated from the Europeanized views of who and what we are as a people.

  2. Thanks,Professor Cudjoe, for a very informative article.
    Have you considered doing similar articles on African Trinidadian medical pioneers like Dr. Arthur McShine, Dr. James Waterman, Professor Knolly Butler, Dr. Halsey McShine and others?

Comments are closed.