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John Jacob Thomas: An Exemplary Trinbagonian

A lecture on J. J. Thomas by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
delivered at the Caribbean Leadership Seminar
hosted by NAEAP and COSTATT

Posted: August 21, 2005

"One way to destroy a personality is to cut out memory: one way to destroy a state is to cut out its history."

--Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English

This evening I want to talk about John Jacob Thomas, an exemplary Afro-Trinbagonian. I say exemplary Trinbagonian because many of us are not aware of this great man of the nineteenth century, a man of "pure African descent," as Donald Woods described him, and the contributions he made towards helping us understand ourselves at an important moment in the unfolding of our country. First, it is necessary to cite some biographical information about JJ Thomas. Born around 1840, two years after apprenticeship ended, Thomas rubbed shoulders with the newly freed slaves even as he began to carve the way for that first post-slavery generation.

Although things were bad for Trinidad economically during the 1840s, one good thing came out of the debacle. In 1848, Lord Harris, the governor of Trinidad, set up the Ward schools to educate the boys and girls of the island. Thomas was a product of that system. In 1858, he entered a Normal School that was designed mostly to train teachers for our schools. In 1859, Thomas was awarded a government scholarship that allowed him to teach in one of the Model or demonstration schools and by 1860 he became the principal of the Ward School at Savonetta. In doing so, he began a noteworthy tradition in Trinidad and Tobago in which the village schoolmaster virtually became the center of his community; the person who kept the community together and who was responsible for the intellectual and cultural well-being of the society. In terms of Afro-Trinbagonian social and culture development, the school master was an important personage. He stood at the beginning of a tradition that lasted well into the middle of the twentieth century when the schoolmasters of Trinidad and Tobago came together to elevate Eric Williams to the pinnacle of power in Trinidad and Tobago.

After teaching at Savonetta for five years, Thomas was transferred to Couva where he began his romance with his people and the language. Later, he was transferred to Cedros in the south of the island. Not satisfied with his work in these schools, Thomas sat the newly-instituted examination for the Civil Service, placed first in the examination and in 1867 was immediately appointed Third Locker Clerk in the Receiver-General's office. Two years later, Thomas found his métier when he wrote The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar. Wood observed that it "was in those villages that he began to develop his remarkable talent for languages. The mother tongue of the people in those villages was Creole. Many French speakers and a scattering of Spanish speakers could also be found throughout the island away from the main concentrations around St. Joseph and Arima." Gerard Besson claims that when Thomas became a schoolmaster at Savonetta, "a completely Patios-speaking village," he learned the language to provide better instruction for his students.

In Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, Thomas had more important fish to fry. Appearing at the very moment that the official powers were drafting the Keenan Report, a new educational system for the society and inaugurating a specific curriculum for our teachers, Theory and Practice of the Creole Grammar represented a challenge to a social order that was being inaugurated through this new curriculum. Thomas was more concerned about those who spoke Creole and who were being marginalized by the introduction of English into the society. Thomas writes that his study originated as a result of "considerations having a wider and more urgent importance, and bearing upon two cardinal agencies in our social system; namely Law and Religion. I might have added Education; but as I mean to treat separately of the nullifying effects of this patios on the English instruction among us, I shall say no more on the matter here." In his work, Thomas wanted to record the language of the lower classes so that they could be treated fairly by those who ran the official organs of the state.

The publication of The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar was a revolutionary act in that it sought to give respect and importance to the language of the common people of the island. In Trinidad, around that time, more that seventy percent of the people of the island spoke French or some form of patios. Therefore, to have published a book that memorialize that language and to allow the powers that an understanding of that language so that the people of the lower classes could be treated fairly was a revolutionary act in itself.

You may ask, how in heavens name the mere publication of a book can be a revolutionary act. Let me begin by telling you that in course of history many books make a tremendous impact on us and change how we see the world. For example, in 1776 when the founding fathers of America got together at the Second Continental Congress and agreed to dissolve the bonds that linked the American colonies to England, the mother colony, they did not only present a document, called the Declaration of Independence, to assert their position, they were also swayed by another book by Thomas Paine called Common Sense that was published in the same year. When this document appeared, many delegates to the Second Continental Congress (perhaps as many as two-thirds) were against any declaration of political independence. However, Common Sense changed all of that wavering. Professor Isaac Kramnick has said: "No single event seems to have had the catalytic effects of Paine's Common Sense. It captured the imagination of the colonists as had no previous pamphlet." So books can change the minds of people and the course of human history.

Now I do not want to suggest that the Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar had a similar impact upon the minds of the people or that it was even a run-away best seller as Common Sense was. However, it recognized that Creole was a language-it wasn't just broken or mispronounced French-and that it was "a direct descendant of French as spoken by African slaves, with additions to the vocabulary drawn from African languages and speech from those other groups who have influenced Trinidad-the English, Spanish and Amerindians."

Second, Thomas had to go through extraordinary trouble to construct his grammar. He noted: "I composed it [the book] under circumstances that most disadvantageous, having no other materials than a collection which I made of bellairs, calendas, joubas, idioms, odd sayings, in fact, everything I can could get in Creole. As regards French, I had but a few school grammars and two third-rate dictionaries, at whose mercy I stood for everything not within my previous knowledge. Such were my instruments for achieving a confessedly difficult undertaking, which, moreover, I could prosecute only at nights, since my days are taken up by far different occupations. From night to night, during nearly three years, I laboured almost unsuccessfully at my task; sometimes threading my way with confidence, frequently having to condemn or re-write whole pages, which a chance remark by a passer-by or closer inquiry had proved erroneous. Yet, though often baffled, I was never discouraged for I looked forward to the day when, respectfully submitting to the public this imperfect Work and its object, I could claim, if not the praise of successful authorship, at least the credit of having endeavoured, under great disadvantages, to supply a public want."

Now these last lines are important. He struggled under enormous disadvantages to supply a public want and that was the ability to give his people and ability to communicate with those who had to make serious decisions about their lives. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that the chronicling of this language also chronicle the emergence of a new identity of a people in a new land. As I wrote in another context, Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar represented "an attempt to codify and understand the emergence of a new form of social existence…the consolidation of a national community, a sense of self-awareness and self-consciousness that are indispensable for a national community."

The publication of The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar brought Thomas great honor. No doubt, he was helped by the interest that Governor Gordon took in him and the favorable mention that Charles Kingsley made of his work after his visit to the island in 1869. Wood noted that Kingsley "probably as a patron when Thomas visited England in 1873." In England, Thomas read his work at private and public assemblies and presented a paper, "On Some Peculiarities of the Creole Language" to a meeting of the Philological Society. A fortnight later he was elected to the London Philological Society, an honor that was beyond his imagination when he began his humble chores in Cedros years earlier.

After he returned from England, Thomas devoted himself to other tasks and involved himself in the educational system in the island. For a period he taught at the Borough School at San Fernando. However, failing health and problems with his eyes aggravated his condition. Taking a month's leave from his job, Thomas wounded up in Grenada from whence he tendered his resignation to the Borough School.

While he was in Grenada, James Anthony Froude, an Oxford professor, published The English in the West Indies, a book that vilified Caribbean people. In this book, Froude asserted his belief in "the natural superiority" of whites and their God-given right to rule Africans. He claimed that West Indian blacks needed a religion to keep them from "falling back into devil worship" since, in Haiti, "child murder and cannibalism have reappeared" in spite of the presence of Christian priests. Froude did not believe th at slavery was a bad thing. He said: "The Negroes who were sold to dealers in the African factories were the most of them either slaves already to worse masters or were servi, prisoners or war or criminals, servanti or reserved for death."

In February 1888, after the first copies of Froude's book reached the West Indies, anger and sharp editorials greeted it. C. S. Salmon, the president of Nevis, complained about the hurried nature of the book and the inadequacy of its research. N. Darnell Davis, an Englishman who resided in Guyana also repudiated "the rampant Negrophobia displayed by that gentleman." However, Thomas's rebuttal to Froude's work, Froduacity, was the strongest. He saw his task at that of self-vindication" and "patriotic duty" against what he called the "bastard philosophy" of Froude. In his critique, Thomas observed that Froude never visited the "the abode of any Negro" and that the Englishman's intercourse, "was exclusively with 'Anglo-West Indians,' whose aversion to Blacks he has himself, perhaps they would think indiscreetly, placed on record." While Froude concluded that West Indians were not capable of self-government, Thomas made it clear that the whole-population-white, black, mulatto and other island inhabitants-were an integral part of the movement towards self-government. As far as Thomas was concerned, the Europeans who lived in the West Indies permanently never made any complaints against the political ability of the blacks to control their lives.

In his rebuttal, Thomas saw that colonialism and "race madness" were the real enemy of the people. He took assumption that Anglo-Saxons "have a right to crow and dominate in whatever land they chance to find themselves, though in their own country they or their forefathers had had to be very dumb dogs indeed." As to the good breeding that slavery was supposed to have imposed upon Africans, Thomas concluded:
Granting the appreciable ethical value of hat-touching, smirking and curtesyings of those Blacks to persons whom they had no reason to suspect of unfriendliness, or whose white face they may in the white man's country have greeted with a civility perhaps only prudential, we fail to discover the necessity of the dreadful agency we have averted to, for securing the results of manners which are so warmly commended. African explorers, from Mungo Part to Livingston and Stanley, have all borne sufficient testimony to the world regarding the natural friendliness of the Negro in his ancestral home, while not under the influence of suspicion, anger, or dread.
Long before Eric Williams, C. L. R. James and Walter Rodney, Thomas offered a possible context of how Europeans acquired Africans to work as slaves in the Caribbean. From his childhood, Thomas mingled and conversed with island African ethnoi such as the Mandingoes, Foulahs, Houssas, Calvers, Gallahs and Congoes. He affirmed that not "even three in ten of the whole number [of Africans in Trinidad] were slaves in their own country, in the sense of having been born under any organized system of servitude." He was also aware of the work of Conrad Reeves, a famous Barbadian lawyer and Chief Justice of that country, and Frederick Douglass, the great Afro-American freedom fighter. He understood that that these men were products of a particular social and economic system. C. L. R. James would say of Thomas, that "his sense of history was strong and headed in the right direction, the direction which has strengthened and illuminated our finest Caribbean politicians and writers, the struggle for human emancipation and advancement." At the end of the nineteenth century, his "self-vindication" of Africans certain gave colonial people the breading room to assert their humanity against the negative philosophies of Froude, Kingsley and Thomas Carlyle.

Writing and publishing Froudacity were very important, though difficult, tasks for Thomas. He saw it as a part of his national duty to respond to respond to Froude who had acquired a reputation for arousing "furious protests in every colony about which he has written in his fitful rushes around the world." Although Salmon and Davis had responded to Froude, Thomas's response became the most celebrated. It was seen as "crowning the edifice of refutation…possessing greater weight and sounder arguments than the more hasty rejoinders elicited by Mr. Froude's fabulous collection of falsehoods, when it originally appeared." The editors of the New Era pointed out that Thomas himself enthusiastically into his project and produced a major work of scholarship. In September 1889, Froudacity "was launched to an ocean of publicity and pronounced a success" Yet, at the moment when Thomas should have reaped the rewards of his talent and industry he was called away by the Great Unknown. Faith Smith writes: "His books killed him; or that he paid a high price for producing them."

When the news reached Trinidad that Thomas had died rather suddenly at Kings College Hospital in London on September 20, 1889, the whole country went into mourning. They knew his death resulted partially from the arduous labors he had undertaken on behalf of his people and in his belief of the power of the intellect as a tool of liberation. On October 18, 1889, New Era wrote:
In August last year he came to England for the express purpose of dealing with the baseless charges made by Mr. Froude in his English in the West Indies against the Negroes of the islands and, in spite of tremendous difficulties, he succeeded in publishing Froudacity which is now going through a second printing. Mr. Thomas was an ardent champion of the rights of his race, and was constantly engaged in fighting the battle of his people. Indeed, he may have said to have died in the struggle for, no doubt, had he remained in his own warm climate, his valuable life would have been prolonged for a good many years, as he was only 49 when he died.
Thomas, the quintessential Caribbean scholar of the nineteenth century used his pen with skill and address. New Era emphasized that "his language, always forcible, becomes eloquent when the libels on his people induce him to expose the perversity and untruthfulness of their traducer." Thomas mastered several classical and modern languages "with no other assistance that a few text books and his own natural ability…and established his claim to be considered one of the first, if not the first, scholar of his race and country." James, a master thinker from our society, recognized Thomas's centrality in Caribbean letters when he asserted: "It was the Caribbean human condition which produced Jacob Thomas. To know him well is to know ourselves better."

Today, as we began to traverse the twenty-first century we should come to know Thomas and his work better, not only that we come to know ourselves better but because his life and work is an indispensable part of history. In his book, the Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg has noted: "One way to destroy a personality is to cut out memory: one way to destroy a state is to cut out its history. Especially when that history comes out of the native language."

Thomas tried to preserve out native language and fought vociferously to defend his people. Perhaps, his legacy should resolve around our ability to preserve our history, defend our people and make a commitment to the preservation of our people a part of our sacred pact with ourselves and our people.

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