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Heirs of African-American freedom fighters revisit their roots
« on: October 23, 2011, 06:23:32 PM »
Heirs of African-American freedom fighters revisit their roots
By Nazma Muller - August 5th 2011 7:09 PM

‘Merikin’ descendants tell story of Company villages Almost every saturday afternoon these days, a small group gathers at the home of Augustus lewis in Gopaul lands, Marabella. They seem like ordinary folks, and they are, to some extent, but the reason for their gathering is quite unique. They are the  read more…

‘Merikin’ descendants tell story of Company villages
Almost every saturday afternoon these days, a small group gathers at the home of Augustus lewis in Gopaul lands, Marabella.
They seem like ordinary folks, and they are, to some extent, but the reason for their gathering is quite unique.
They are the directors of The Merikin Project, and they carry the genes of five companies of African-American soldiers who were brought here by the British from the United States in the early 1800s.
These men, who called themselves Merikins, earned their freedom from slavery in the US by escaping from their slave masters and fighting for the British in the 1812-1814 war. They and their families settled in what is known as the Company Villages in southeast Trinidad, along the Moruga road.
Today, the directors of The Merikin Project are one step closer to their mission to commemorate and create awareness of their ancestors, as they prepare for the first-ever exhibition on the Merikins at the National Museum in Port of Spain, which will run from August 17 to September 30.
The long-term goal of the non-profit organization, however, is to create a heritage site that will improve life chances for the residents of the Company Villages.
After a meeting between UNESCO officials and the directors, they decided to create a non-profit organization called the Foundation of the Devil’s Woodyard Volcano Heritage Sites Company of T&T. They hope to receive 97 acres of land on which they can provide “sustainable development and advancement” of the villages and Merikin descendants.
Such a heritage site would be a tourism attraction that would also protect and maintain endemic and native species of flora and fauna, while showcasing the traditional agricultural practices handed down through generations of Merikins.
Some of the surnames of the original Company soldiers include Ayres, Cooper, McNish, McLeod, Samberry, Loney, Elliot, Fortune and Dunmore.
Merikin descendants recall enchanting childhoods spent in the villages, where everyone knew everyone, and life was tough but sweet.
Fruit trees were abundant, and their parents worked hard to mind their many children. One of the directors, Akilah Jaramogi, drew on her childhood experiences in Sixth Company Village, Moruga Road, in her lifelong struggle as an eco-warrior and head of the Fondes Amandes Community Re-forestation Project. It was from her grandmother that she learned traditional African ways of planting and harvesting crops, especially ground provisions, which were brought by the original settlers who hailed from the southern states of America.
They were part of a great yet little-known AfricanAmerican emigration to the West Indies.
The Merikins of the Company Villages had been the Corps of Colonial Marines. They were garrisoned afterthe war in Bermuda for 14 months, then disbanded in Trinidad in 1816 to form a new free black class of small landowners.
According to research by British anthropologist John McNish Weiss, these former slaves became a disciplined military unit.
Recruited mainly from the states of Maryland and Virginia and later, Georgia, they were highly praised for their courage and discipline.
“During the War of 1812, Black aspirations and White fears gave the British a special weapon in fighting the Americans,” writes McNish Weiss. “Concerned southern slaveholders, recollecting Black success in Haiti and viewing the final 1804 massacre there as instigated by the British, might have agreed with advice received in London that with British aid the states of Georgia and the Carolinas could turn over into Black republics.”
This fear was heightened by Haiti’s bloody revolution and resulting independence from France. The Corps of Colonial Marines were trained to unleash hit-and-run amphibious assaults up and down the Atlantic coast.
With the British arrival in Chesapeake Bay, and instructions from London that any slave who reached British posts and ships were free, thousands of slaves made a desperate dash for freedom.
“Most of the refugee body met hostility and unsatisfactory conditions in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” continues McNish Weiss, “but most of those who settled in Trinidad between 1815 and 1821 found themselves well-established on rich soil in what was, by comparison with Nova Scotia, a land flowing with milk and honey. Over five hundred of these Trinidad settlers achieved that conclusion as Colonial Marines and their families.”
Still underdeveloped, Trinidad’s need for new labour coincided with the opportunity to introduce a free class of black yeoman farmers.
On arrival in Trinidad waters on August 15, 1816, the men of the Corps of Colonial Marines and their families were sent in two parties to Naparima (now San Fernando) and formally disbanded near the Mission of Savanna Grande (now Princes Town) on August 20. They were organised in villages in their military companies, each under the local supervision of an ex-sergeant.
Each household in the settlements was given 16 acres – following the previous Spanish rule for persons of colour — and as much more as they could cultivate.
This didn’t sit well with the resident French planters, and it took some 30 years before confirmation of absolute title was given to those remaining settlers who claimed it.
The soldiers were mostly Baptists, the remainder Methodists.
An 1824 report mentions 20 Muslims, presumably among the small proportion of the settlers born in Africa within the group of 100 who were from Georgia.
These would have been the first Muslims recorded in Trinidad.
The traditions and survival strategies of the Merikins still live on today in their descendants, who believe that these African-American farmers and landowners have much to teach the people Trinidad and Tobago.
And the first lesson is about how history has overlooked many of our heroes.
For more information about the merikin exhibition at the National museum, which runs from August 17-September 30, and fund-raising efforts, please call Akilah Jaramogi @ 689-7794, Augustus Lewis @ 658-3367 or Kenneth Phillips @ 364-0450
« Last Edit: February 14, 2012, 04:23:56 PM by E-man »