We’ve had our big party, our celebration of the second time we obtained our independence from Great Britain.
But another party, this time at the farthest corner of the Caribbean, will take place in the not-too-distant future to mark the first time black Americans obtained their independence from us.
|A descendant of the Merikins, refugees from the Chesapeake region, |
celebrates almost 200 years of freedom in Trinidad.The Trinidad Express.
It’s a little-known but dramatic story about slaves who, during the War of 1812, stole away from plantations all up and down the Chesapeake Bay. Many of them fought for the British against their former masters, and then, with their families, were relocated to distant British territories.
A history-minded reader after last week’s story about the so-called Corps of Colonial Marines, wondered how they could have fared in places where brutal slave conditions still existed. After all, Britain didn’t abolish slavery for two more decades.
Well, they fared quite well, apparently, despite the odds.
The escapees were trained at the south end of Tangier Island and proved themselves in numerous engagements, including the sacking of Washington.
After the war, the British refused to let them fall back into slave-owner hands. They transported the men and their families to Bermuda and then to Nova Scotia, where the climate, as well as the local reception, was more than a bit chilly.
Some wanted to go home, despite the consequences. But more than 700 of these “Merikens,” as they called themselves, clambered on board six British ships and set sail for Trinidad, a journey of over 2,000 nautical miles. This flight of blacks 50 years before the Emancipation Proclamation is unparalleled in history – and all but ignored.
The reader was right. Trinidad was still in the depths of slavery. Of 17,000 people living on the island in 1797, 10,000 were African slaves, toiling, and surely dying, in unspeakable conditions on sugar plantations.
What I’ve gleaned from excellent histories published online by Trinidad Express was that British knew this, and knew there was no way these people, led by trained freedom fighters, were going to fit in with that culture.
“The last thing the planters wanted was for these proud African-Americans, with a military past, to be in close contact with the enslaved people on the plantations.,” one of the stories says.
They landed on Aug. 15, 1816 at the remote south end of the island in an area now know as Princes Town, and formed separately named Company Villages. Each family unit was granted 16 acres, and they immediately began planting and harvesting basic foods – corn, cassava, bananas, rice and other small crops – for survival.
Some worked as blacksmiths, carpenters and masons. They labored as woodmen, felling trees for the new settlements, and built access roads. And they stayed away from the slave plantations.
“The Company Villages developed as self-contained communities of families, who were very proud of their American origins, their army history, and the fact that they had come to Trinidad as free people,” the newspaper adds.
Today there are thousands of descendents of the Merikens on the island. They recently mounted a first-ever exhibit at the National Museum in Port of Spain. Last year they celebrated the 195th year of their arrival.
Just think what the 200th will be like in August 2016.
Some of the Merikens have long since left the island. Tina Dunkley, director of the Clark Atlanta University Art Gallery, is a descendent of some who migrated back to America.
“We in America are most familiar with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” she wrote. “But to excavate yet another epic saga of people who chose to relieve their souls on fire by escaping during a war, and taking up arms against their oppressor is just a story that must be shared.”
It’s a long way from Tangier Island to Trinidad, but it seems to me that telling the story might shorten the distance somewhat.