The Merikins: heroes of the forgotten war

Two hundred years ago, a group of free black veterans of the War of 1812 arrived in Trinidad. In the island’s deep south, the villages they founded still preserve the traditions of the “Merikins,” as writer Judy Raymond and photographer Marlon Rouse discover — and still have much to teach their fellow citizens

A graveyard and old headstones: a typical scene around one of the many Baptist churches on the hills of the company villages. Photo by Marlon RouseCurwin Callender holds a saffron root, grown in his own yard. He is sitting next to a model of the heritage centre that the Merikin Heritage Foundation hopes to raise the funds to build. Photo by Marlon RouseAkilah Jaramogi (née Ayres), an executive member of the Merikin Heritage Foundation, and a descendant of Pa Neezer, originally from Sixth Company Village. Photo by Marlon RouseCurwin Callender’s collection of Merikin artefacts, which includes a coalpot, axe heads, hoe blades, and other implements, some thought to be over a hundred years old. Photo by Marlon RouseThe house on Happy Hill, the spot once inhabited by the first Samuel Elliott, the original headman of Third Company Village when the Merikins settled in south Trinidad two hundred years ago. Photo by Marlon RousePhilip Pierre, Jaramogi’s cousin, a descendant of Pa Neezer and, like him, a healer. Photo by Marlon RouseThe sun rises over a house at Fifth Company, one of the Merikin villages of south Trinidad. Photo by Marlon Rouse

The company villages perch atop the ridges of low hills in southern Trinidad — too low to offer panoramic views, but high enough to keep a lookout if you needed to. Their houses are almost all new or being renovated, with piles of sand or building blocks in many driveways. The old Baptist churches have all been rebuilt already. In the Mt Pleasant churchyard, some of the rails around the grave of Samuel Ebenezer Elliott (1901–69) have been knocked down by scaffolding and debris from the construction work. Further from the church, older, unkempt graves straggle down the hill into the bush.

Elliott’s disrespected grave and faded headstone are among the very few visible clues to what’s special about these villages. He was known to his friends and family as a healer; one of his protégés, American anthropologist Dr Frances Henry, called him, in a memoir, “one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever encountered.” Her book, He Had the Power, is subtitled Pa Neezer, the Orisha King of Trinidad. (Orisha is a syncretic Yoruba and Christian Caribbean faith; but Elliott was also a devout Baptist.) To the rest of the country he was known as an obeahman, with spiritual powers he could use for good — or possibly, some believed, for evil.

But, the question of his mystical abilities aside, Pa Neezer’s surname is significant in itself. The Elliotts were one of the free black families who were settled south-east of what is now Princes Town, two decades before slavery ended in the Caribbean, during the time of Governor Sir Ralph Woodford. Pa Neezer was named after his forefather Samuel Elliott, who was among the black soldiers who fought for the British against the United States in what is now aptly called the Forgotten War, from 1812 to 1814. In return, the soldiers were relocated to the British colonies of Nova Scotia, Bermuda, or Trinidad, where each family was given their freedom and sixteen acres of land. In Trinidad, because of their origins, they became known as the Merikins, and this August they celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of their arrival and of a proud heritage of freedom.

 

Many of the soldiers had been among four thousand runaway slaves from plantations in Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, and South Carolina. They were encouraged to abscond en masse, providing valuable information to the British and disrupting the local economy when their disappearance caused a shortage of plantation labour. They were recruited into a British battalion of Colonial Marines, and after the war, when they were given land in Trinidad, each village was made up of men from one of the six companies, and some of their families. Official accounts put the number of settlers between four hundred and eight hundred. (No one knows what happened to Second Company: rumour has it they were lost at sea.) Some of the villages have since been renamed: Indian Walk, after the First Peoples who passed through it regularly, because it was on the route to one of their sacred sites; Hardbargain, because the discharged soldiers weren’t satisfied with the first settlements they received; New Grant, after a better agreement was reached.

“My father’s father was from the Congo region,” says Philip (Elliott) Pierre, a healer and a descendant of Pa Neezer. “They were not slaves. They were buffalo soldiers, fighters. They came down here as soldiers.”

His cousin Akilah Jaramogi often says the same thing: “We didn’t come here as slaves.” Jaramogi is Pa Neezer’s great-niece, though she was born an Ayres, from Sixth Company, the biggest village. She has helped forge an alliance between the Merikins and the Maroons of Jamaica, Suriname, and elsewhere in the region, peoples who escaped from slavery and lived more or less independently of colonial rule.

That independence is still clear in the Merikins’ traditional way of life, much of which continues unchanged. People move away or migrate, but some return. Up in the company villages, everyone knows each other, and who’s related to whom. While the T&T government faces a recession and urges everyone to grow food, the Merikins already do. When they first came to Trinidad, they were given rations for a few months until the land they had planted started bearing. Now, where you might expect a lawn, the sloping garden behind a house will be covered with the wide heart shapes of dasheen leaves, or plants used as seasoning or herbal remedies. Merikin families also have land scattered throughout their villages, parcels of the original sixteen acres that have been divided and passed down through generations.

No doubt the Merikins were thrown on their own resources at first because of their isolation (Trinidad’s roads were scarce and notoriously bad when they arrived; the people they met here spoke French patois, not English; and were Catholics, not Baptists). It’s still a self-sufficient community, and even now many Merikins are self-employed. They’ve always fed and clothed and equipped themselves, and sold the surplus to buy what they couldn’t make or grow. They didn’t go to doctors, but treated themselves: Philip Pierre speaks knowledgeably of the uses of black sage, rabbit grass, monkey step, malomay, sarsparilla root.

Similarly, Curwin Callender, one of Jaramogi’s co-directors at the Merikin Heritage Foundation (MHF), regularly makes what health buffs would call a green smoothie, blended from ingredients grown in his yard: parsley, celery, pawpaw, mustard leaf, lettuce, sweet potato, green tomatoes, mango, cinnamon, pineapple, and saffron root.

Callender likes to collect things, and is one of few people to own what may be original Merikin artefacts, possible exhibits for a future museum: blades from hoes and an axe, the head of a sledgehammer, a short cutlass with a guava-wood handle, horseshoes, an implement for pressing together lengths of wood for ply. Jaramogi says the original Merikins brought carpentry and other artisanal skills with them and passed them down: “These were not weaklings who came, these were strong, skilled people.”

Callender also has a model of the headquarters the MHF hopes to build, housing an office, a meeting room, and a library for students. More research needs to be done. Several books have been written about the Merikins — including one by Alfred “Boysie” Huggins, a Merikin and father of Hazel Manning, a former government minister and wife of former prime minister Patrick Manning. But although Huggins’s 1978 Saga of the Companies was reprinted in 2013, even in Trinidad and Tobago many people know nothing about them, and their story isn’t taught in schools.

 

So Jaramogi, who joined the MHF six years ago, is working to raise the group’s profile, and her people’s. She was brought up “knowing we were Merikin,” but left the company villages at sixteen, rejecting the Baptist faith, the celebration of Columbus’s 1498 discovery of Trinidad at Moruga (“I knew there were people here thousands of years before”), and even her name: “They were slavemasters’ names. People might feel they were family because they had the same last name, but it meant in fact only that they had come from the same American plantation.”

Her mother wasn’t happy; but Jaramogi’s free spirit is typical of the Merikins. She lives now in the Port of Spain suburb of St Ann’s, where for thirty years she’s run a reforestation project, often on a shoestring budget, and raised her six children after their father died. Her resourcefulness and resilience obviously come from her roots in the company villages. They are still home: she comes down from the city about twice a week, and as she drives visiting journalists, it’s clear how well she knows these winding roads. There are visits to historical sites, such as Happy Hill, where the original Samuel Elliott’s house once stood. She drops in to see Cousin Philip; Cousin Sheila Sandy and her daughter Marva, a co-director of the MHF: Callender, also of the MHF; another Cousin Sheila — another healer; and Jaramogi’s mother, Vera James, needs to be taken home to dress for a funeral. Jaramogi is hailed out for a chat by the blue-eyed Neville Floyd, age ninety, and father of twenty-two children, who’s out for a walk. In between, every few minutes there’s a conversation with a passerby she knows or is related to.

The way of life she recalls from her childhood here died out decades ago in the towns and cities. “We used to live off the forest,” she remembers, “and my grandmother [‘Tanty Lou’] grew sorrel, peppers, pigeon peas, corn . . .”

The rest would be sold in the San Fernando market. “On Fridays I had to walk to Sixth Company to collect baskets of christophene, eggs, and passionfruit from one cousin, then go by another for eggs, dasheen . . . During the week, if we were lucky, we could sit in the bullcart — it was posh to have bison and a bullcart — to go and collect yam. Other people would have dried saltfish, corned pigtail . . . On Friday we would begin to bag and bundle it, and on Saturday at 4 am they would go to the market.”

Other people raised pigs, goats, ducks, and geese. “They would sell some of the meat to restaurants and hotels, and keep some to make tripe or black pudding and share it with their neighbours. So we always had meat. Feeding children was never a problem.” (Merikins had big families; Jaramogi is one of eight, and can’t count how many cousins she has.)

Now she sees the company-village lifestyle changing, and not for the better. “People are buying food instead of growing dasheen or green fig or ochro. Some of the traditions are being lost, the skills not being passed on. Other people have moved into the area, and the forest is being cleared. They cut down trees and don’t plant them back. People pave their yards instead of growing food.”

So she wants to take what she’s learned in the city back to her people. Environmentalism — born of growing up in the forest — is one of her passions. Encouraging tourism is another, and she believes the villages could combine both — for example, through re-enactments of customs she remembers from her childhood.

“I want to go and raise awareness about forest preservation, grey water management . . . Farming is important, too — we could be the food basket of Trinidad. We could have Merikin retreats into the forest, with bush tea and bush baths.

“Merikins can really give back to this country: environmentalism, agriculture — we practise it. The Merikins have a lot to contribute. We’re waiting for someone to invest, someone with a level of respect and appreciation. We’re a group who have contributed over the years, if given the opportunity.”

Jaramogi is good at getting a lot done with a little, but she and the MHF are hoping to get support from the wider community to rekindle the Merikin spirit. It may help that the area MP, Lovell Francis, is a Merikin, and Franklin Khan, another government minister, grew up in Sixth Company.

If it’s not fostered, it’s just a matter of time before the company villages and the Merikins who live there lose their unique identity.

“We need to keep that sense of goodness, of being different. It will empower the young people,” urges Jaramogi. “If the children of the community don’t reclaim their legacy, their sense of pride will be lost.”

 

The war of 1812–1814

The British and Americans went to war in 1812 over a number of causes: the Americans were trying to invade Canada; the British were pressing American merchant seamen into serving in the navy to fight Napoleon; they blocked America’s east coast; and on the western frontier they were aiding Native Americans to push back. At one point the British even invaded and burned down Washington, DC. But the war — also known as “The War of Faulty Communication” — ended in stalemate in 1814.

 

The proclamation that brought the Merikins to Trinidad

By the Honourable Sir Alexander F.I. Cochrane, KB, Vice Admiral of the Red, and Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels, upon the North American Station.

Whereas, it has been represented to me, that many Persons now resident in the UNITED STATES, have expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom, with a view of entering into His Majesty’s Service, or of being received as Free Settlers into some of His Majesty’s Colonies.

This is therefore to Give Notice, That all who may be disposed to emigrate from the UNITED STATES will, with their Families, be received on board His Majesty’s Ships or Vessels of War, or at the Military Posts that may be established, upon or near the Coast of the UNITED STATES, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE Settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with due encouragement,

Given under my Hand at Bermuda,

this 2nd day of April, 1814,

ALEXANDER COCHRANE.

By Command of the Vice Admiral
WILLIAM BALHETCHET.

GOD SAVE THE KING

 

Some Merikin bicentennial celebrations, 2016

January: Street procession to Fourth Company Baptist Church, Williamsville

February: Celebrations at a secondary school in Princes Town

March: Thanksgiving ceremony

April: Exhibition of memorabilia at the National Archives

May: Merikin Jubilation, a show at which young people modelled African wear and answered questions about the African countries their Merikin ancestors originally came from: “Our history didn’t begin with slavery,” Akilah Jaramogi points out

June: Delegation to an annual fundraiser held by West Indians in Brooklyn, New York: Merikins planned to distribute foundation membership forms and raise awareness

August 18: Symposium in Matilda, Princes Town, on the Maroon legacy

August 20: Annual nighttime procession and church service

August 25: youth leadership convention, gala dinner, and awards by the Merikin Commission

October: Merikin delegation to attend Suriname festival for the Maroons of the western hemisphere, taking stickfighters, drummers, a book display, and re-enacting a baptism

Longer-term plans include a heritage village and even a heritage month like Tobago’s, in which traditional rituals and customs are re-enacted. Also, “In the company villages we hope to promote cultural caravans — invite drummers, moko jumbies, stickfighters, so that we can build up to taking part in [the] Best Village [competition], showcase our Merikin calypsonians like Gypsy and Lady Adanna,” says Jaramogi.

 

A visit to the Merikins in 1831

The young German Friedrich Urich worked as a clerk in his uncles’ store in Port of Spain in the early nineteenth century, but also sometimes visited the estates they owned in south Trinidad.

In December 1831 the sociable Urich recorded in his diary a visit to a Sergeant Howard, who lived in a company village “two hours from Matilda Estate” (the original Matilda was a Merikin through whose land Indian Walk ran). His account of the visit shows how Merikin traits have persisted.

Urich wrote, “Howard is a good-looking mulatto who fought on the side of the English in the American War of Independence [sic]. His wife is a gaunt-looking negress. They gave us a warm welcome and we spent a much pleasanter evening with them than we had expected. Howard has great pride . . . Mrs Howard is very well-mannered.”

  • James Atkinson

    Fascinating! I passed along this article to a few of my Trini relatives – they were pretty amazed – they were never told about the Merikins in school.

    Thanks!

    • piper60

      Of course, the actual Americans call them “Tories.”

  • Christopher Marsh

    Applause

  • TattooMan404

    I’m proud to be an ancestor of a Merikin. That’s where our family name is from.

  • paul murray

    Hehehe, I got “A” in O-Level and A-Level History without ever learning any if this. How is this possible, Trinidadian educators?

  • IP_BBB

    This scratched the surface of my curiosity. As a child growing up within the Orisha faith I felt isolated as I couldn’t relate anything to friends and to some extent family, reading this warms my heart as I’m not alone or rather my immediate family. I will love to meet and develop a sound relationship with the Merikins, unfortunately ill have to do so through a visit as there isn’t any contact information.

  • bruzote

    Good stuff. At least these slaves didn’t die during the war.

    • piper60

      And the British didn’t sell them back into slavery after Yorktown!

  • B.Murphy-Bridge

    What an informative article – just loved it !!

  • Ta Hesi Maat Ras Terah

    A few years ago the New York Historical Society had an xhibit on American history. Part of the xhibit dealt with the war of 1812. There on a list of names were the former captives who were sent to Trinidad by the british as reward for fighting against the americans. My father came from the companies. It was a revelation to me. Like many of you, this info was not part of my education in Trinidad. So we seriously hav to question the purpose of an education. Giv thanks for an informative article.

    • piper60

      Nor did the Brits give them smallpox infected blankets or plant them in yellow-jack country!

  • Rik Penn

    Our history is like a puzzle that collects missing pieces and these stories that help to fill in the blank spaces. Each part equals to new revelations that reflect more light on a hidden past!

    • piper60

      Provided they don’t detract from the primary agenda of sneering at the Americans!

  • Sea Stories

    Fascinating. The author should consider expanding the information and putting it in book form, even if fiction. This history is far too important to be potentially forgotten. Self-publish! I’ll buy it. Assuming the author of this article is the same person who has had “The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery” published, I assume they’re no stranger to the industry.

  • piper60

    Some of our cousins would do well to remember that the current major election issues didn’t magically appear the day before yesterday!We’ve been arguing about them for years now-and its become abundantly obvious that our “political class’s so fond of them that they’d rather not do anything sensible about any of them-and will use their influence with the media and the donor class to make sure nobody else does, either. Hence the general revolt against the party leadership and the Thought Police of political correctness!Representative constitutional republics aren’t supposed to promise, lie, do nothing snd then hold their breaths until they turn blue to preventavailablesolutions to a phony energy shortageor maintain excessive regulatory bureaucracies that stifle the economy the premise that a committee of lefties sitting around a conference tableare so brilliant and prescient that they can legislate even the possibility of any inconvenience out of the realm of possibility with a wave of their magical pens!The possibility that a politician espousing the ideas almost everyone knows are likely to be helpful-and NOTYbetray the electorate the morning after the elections is very attractive after what we’ve been having to put up with these last eight years.You’allmight as well stop the gleeful sneering about anyone you don’t like being racist-It won’t change a damn thing:we’ve already heard enough of it from OUR demogogueswithout the euro-weenies adding the dead weight of their ignorance to OUR private business!