Biography: John Jacob Thomas

By Akins Vidale
Published: July 08, 2005

Creole Recitations: John Jacob Thomas and Colonial Formations in the Late Nineteenth-Century Caribbean (New World Studies) by Faith Smith
Creole Recitations: John Jacob Thomas and Colonial Formations in the Late Nineteenth-Century Caribbean (New World Studies) by Faith Smith
The nature of the mind of the post Emancipation African, particularly the intellectual, is an issue which has been characterised by both conjecture and suppositions. Did this individual abandon all that was known before the middle passage and totally assimilate or did resistance continue even after the formalisation of institutions of subjugation? Selwyn Ryan writing on the period 1838 - 1919, thinks that 'generally, the aim of the coloured strata was to penetrate as far as possible into the white society. They disparaged their ancestral past and strove to eliminate or conceal all evidence of their negroid origin.' This 'penetration' is differently worded by CLR James; he surmises that 'they showed a remarkable capacity to adapt themselves to the demands of a new civilisation... he set out to do that, to master not only the language but to master the elementary necessity of filling the posts that an underdeveloped country required.' No matter what the position taken by scholars of the period they all have to agree that the progress made by the race in the Post Emancipation period was astounding. In fact the period is punctuated by individuals whose achievements earned them international acclaim. The most prominent of them, in the nineteenth century, may well have been the Trinidadian intellectual John Jacob Thomas.

Michael Anthony, in 'Heroes of The People', described Thomas as 'one of the most remarkable figures of the nineteenth century'. He is one of the finest examples of a self educated man, who had risen above adversity to achieve not only individual success but who had inspired a race. The difference between Ryan's and James' analysis lies in the realisation a shifting of focus from self to perceptions of collective success. More so, all in Trinidad in the 1840s, whatever their social position or race, all had to come to terms with the novel implications of legal freedom for the majority of the population.

The Trinidad chronicle in June 1871 underscored the achievements of Thomas and the circumstances which he endured. Although Trinidad had supplied him with "rudiments of mental training" he had in fact done most else on his own. "His is that hungering and thirsting after knowledge which would not be satisfied with the bare rations served out at Woodbrook; his is also the patient toil and the unremitting efforts to which were needed to convert a village schoolmaster into a thinker and philologist" and thus "he who is in such a place, trains his mind and stores in such a way as Mr Thomas has done, deserves the pre-eminently the honourable and misused title of self-made man."

Thomas' early life for the most part is unknown. In fact Donald Woods describes his early life as being 'as obscure as his reputation among his countrymen in the twentieth century.' In 1884 Thomas stated his intentions to write an autobiography. He had promised to write this autobiography in instalments, which were to appear in the San Fernando Gazette. The intent as he put it was "to dwell on the inward life of a true lover of learning, who yearns for the advancement of others in the same pursuit." This never materialised and as such biographers of Thomas face a daunting task of reconstruction of his personal life. Fortunately his outstanding achievements placed him in the public light sufficiently enough so that his public life after 1850 seems well documented. This is even evident in the fact that "Creole Recitations", the first full length study of Thomas, also has very little on his early childhood period and author Faith Smith relies heavily on the documentation of his public activities and correspondences.

Thomas was born in the year 1841 in South Trinidad under humble circumstances, only a few years after the end of the period of apprenticeship had ended in the British West Indies. Thus his experience of plantation life was limited to the shared experiences of others. His most impressionable years were spent among those who themselves had known the indignities of the servitude and the excited hopes of emancipation, and some of these in their memories could reach back to Africa. In Froudacity, Thomas states that he had been "familiar since childhood with members from every tribe in Africa" This is important in understanding and accounting for his race consciousness.

As one of the foremost champions of the African race in nineteenth century Trinidad, John Jacob Thomas was acutely aware of the fact that the values of black inferiority had to some extent been internalised by African Trinidadians. As CLR James notes ' many people believe that (and you will find this nowhere more clearly stated than in the famous report of Lord Moyne in 1939) the blacks who came to the Caribbean brought nothing with them, no hint of their language, religion or of their social experiences in Africa . What the Africans lacked that the Indian Indentured labourers exhibited was the structural organisation of these elements.

Tantamount to assessing the magnitude of the achievements of John Jacob Thomas is the brief examination of Trinidadian society at this time. Firstly the question of the middle class must be examined. Linked to this is the importance of notions of race and the implications of a hierarchical colour strata and the reason for the society having such a strong French influence, in spite of never having been officially French. The realisation of emancipation, the formal end to the institution of enslavement, in 1838, saw the rise of a black and coloured middle class in Trinidad. This group developed at a tempered pace, as it did elsewhere in the British West Indies as a whole. Trinidadian nineteenth century society (a society pervaded with racism), from which this class emerged, was one in which Europeans and White Creoles dominated economic, social and political life. The middle class' origins lay in the 'free persons of colour' and 'free blacks' of slave society (there was a white middle class but by virtue of their race both groups are distinct). Middle class status, in Victorian Trinidad, seemed to depend on two criteria: an occupation which involved no manual labour, and command of European, or British culture, especially the ability to speak and write correct English.

The interesting thing to note here is that in spite of being a British colony the island was culturally French and Spanish. This came about due to the proposals submitted in a memorandum to the King of France on 20 March 1777, by Roume de St Laurent, a French Planter from the neighbouring island of Grenada. The proposal was for the migration of French Planters with their slaves, from the neighbouring islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada. This would manifest as the Cedula of Population released by the King of Spain on the 20th November 1783. Its enactment translated functionally into the development of a Spanish Colony economically and socially dominated by French Planters and their workforce. The French Creoles were also the dominant group among the White Creole elite, which is not at all surprising. They formed a closely united elite, racially exclusive, and imbued with aristocratic traditions. When this is compared with British who were regarded by the society 'as birds of passage', men who stayed a few years, earned salaries and then moved on (J.J. Thomas said that these types were Froude's ' Anglo West Indians' ), the island could not help but to be anything other than French. It is however this very singular peculiarity which throws Thomas into the spotlight initially.

The capacity of the Africans, to not only adapt to but, to master the languages with which they came into contact, was nothing short of a remarkable linguistic feat. Furthermore in instances where they could not easily adapt themselves to the language, they took aspects of the language and fused it with their own and created Creoles. The strong French influence discussed resulted in the development of a French Lexicon Creole also known as Patois. The Keenan Report on Education of 1869 pointed out that often teachers could not understand the language of their pupils; but what was a stumbling block for some, proved to be a stimulating challenge for Thomas. Without any formal tuition, he mastered French and Creole, and possibly started to learn Spanish in Cedros. Recognising this disparity between the medium of education, that is English, and the first language of the students, Patois, he wrote Creole Grammar in the 1860s. He himself had stated that ' ... it can be proved that disproportion between the Education imparted and received, and the time, labour, and expense devoted to those proposes, is occasioned mainly by the exclusive prevalence of the Creole in most of our primary school districts.'

As stated before, none were exempt from having to adjust to the shift in relationships upon the Emancipation declaration. The changes did not only occur between the Europeans and those they had formally enslaved but even among the Europeans themselves. Rifts were widening between those of British backgrounds and those of French descent, the tolerant peace of the earlier years between Roman Catholics and Protestants of all backgrounds was degenerating into suspicion and bigotry. The equalisation of the Imperial Sugar duties in the sacred name of Free Trade lessened the planters' hopes of competing in their essential market with foreign sugar. This was compounded by a weakened economy (which of course was the foundation of most relations) brought about by the fall out of a fluctuating British economic situation.

In these distressed circumstances the then Governor Lord Harris' had to forego his far sighted plans for the regeneration of Trinidad. One, however, did bear fruit, though not on the scale he had hoped. In 1851 a system of free secular primary education was set up in the newly instituted Wards and this was to be crucial for the career of J.J. Thomas. Since the Ward school system and the Boys Model school, as indicated, were created in 1851, it stands to reason that Thomas would have been educated elsewhere prior to entering this institution. Faith Smith suggests that it is very likely that he would have attended a denominational school previously. In fact she cites one of his obituaries which mentions 'early instruction by a Presbyterian Minister'. Smith like Anthony and Wood does not state clearly which one of these Ward schools he attended. It is known however that 1855 he tied for first place in a writing competition put on by Governor Harris, for students of the Ward schools.

Another part of the Governor's plan, the real foundation of modern education in Trinidad was a Normal School which was set up at Woodbrook, then an estate on the outskirts of Port of Spain, to train teachers and to improve general education. A significant number of the island's primary school teachers, in the latter half of the century, were educated in government or assisted primary schools and then went on to be trained at this school in Woodbrook. Nearly all were black. Bridget Brereton in Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad (1870 – 1900) uses an excerpt from the Chronicle to underscore the quality of some of the intellectuals who began to be noticed. Writing in 1869, the Chronicle indicated that their ability 'would have been deemed incredible, and – if admittedly possible- dangerous in the "good old days" before Emancipation'. They were men 'whose [excellence] put to shame the efforts of many young men of the more fortunate and more favoured races'.

From 1858 to 1860, Thomas was student at Woodbrook enrolled and paying fees. His progress was rapid; in early 1859 he was awarded one of six places by the government, with an allowance of £20 - £40 a year, to render teaching services, while he was still at the training school. Based on what Smith has written it is likely that he supported himself during the first year. His crowning achievement for that year being the promotion to assistant master while still being a student. This naturally translated into an increase in his stipend. Then in early 1860 Thomas was given his first job. He taught for five years in country primary schools at Savonetta and Couva. It was during this period, starting from 1866, that the research was done for 'The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar', which would be published in 1869. Although Thomas had ceased to be a teacher he continued to remain active intellectually, being involved in debating clubs, writing letters to the Press, and by generally engaging in other literary activities.

In the year Thomas arrived in Savonetta, 2,739 people lived in the Ward, including 958 East Indians. The overwhelming majority were illiterate agricultural workers and their families; the only people, apparently with any real education apart from Thomas himself were a civil servant, two clergymen, three clerks and 24 planters and managers. It was from villages such as these, the homes to Trinidadians whose mother tongue was Creole, that Thomas successfully abstracted the syntax of a language, which was rarely, if ever, written down, based on his daily interactions and dialogue with the local people. What made the publication even more remarkable was the fact that it had been done by a man with no formal training in linguistics. Linguistics itself would not see great intellectual advancement till the Twentieth century. To simply recognise and discern order and structure in the speech of the villagers, who were supposedly butchering the standard dialects, was nothing short of a fine intellectual achievement. Thomas had jumped way ahead of his time and he did so competently.

While the main focus of his research had been Creole he displayed an unrelenting enthusiasm for the 'classics' denied to him at the Ward school and later at Woodbrook, and a similar aptitude to master them. He spoke French and Spanish "with fluency and general correctness," had translated a great deal of Golondi, Tasso, Petrarch, Politiano'" and other Italian authors, and had produced "a small treatise" on Italian verbs. German "was acquired by him entirely from books" and had so far been "confined to" to Schiller and Lessing.

This denial of "classical learning" which had to be rectified through self determination was cognisant of the times in which Thomas lived and should not be overlooked. His education was in keeping with what was available to those not of pure European heritage. This attitude towards education would harden in the years to come with the establishment of the state-funded Queen's Collegiate College (1859) and the Catholic's St Mary's College (1863). The control of who had access to these institutions was controlled by "rules against admitting students whose parents were not married" and by categorically exempting those of the working classes, that is, if ones parents earned a living through manual labour. This prejudice was not limited to education but was an intrinsic part of everyday life for Thomas. His was a "pursuit of knowledge under extraordinary difficulties". He would be given a chance though to match wits with those who had supposedly gained a 'superior' education to his own.

During this period, the civil service was also a part of the racist environment and it carried even into the twentieth century. There were instances of "whole departments (being) set aside (solely) for white people". Patronage and family connections were more influential than talent in admission to civil society ranks and even more so in promotion from the most junior posts (of course there is evidence to show that this practice was not merely a showing of nepotism but practiced racism). Governor Arthur Gordon attempted to address this situation by following the precedents of England, and instituting competitive examinations. Thomas was one of the first Africans who was allowed to compete. He placed first in the examination (Dr Martin notes the abandonment of this new 'goodwill' when the Africans started to dominate the exams). His reward was a minor post in Port of Spain. He was appointed as Third Locker Clerk in the Receiver General's office on 22 July 1867. He had remained in Port of Spain up until 1869. In December of that year he was transferred to Cedros in the improved position of Clerk of the Peace. In the same year 'The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar' was published. Not surprisingly the intellectual achievement which 'The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar' represented was better appreciated by philologists in England and Europe than by the general public in Trinidad.

The reduced reception in Trinidad was due not only to language attitudes, but also to the acculturation of his local peers. In the midst of racist ideology and practice the only thing Thomas and others had available to them, as an equaliser, was education. Education afforded an otherwise low class to gain a semblance of social mobility through scholarly achievement. This sentiment resonated in the reaction to his appointment as Clerk in the Receiver General's office. Wood in his discourse on Thomas, also addresses this, quoting from an article which appeared in the October 9th issue of the San Fernando Gazette.

'This appointment gave the coloured Negro middle classes much satisfaction; this self made man of strong and indomitable character was presented with a congratulatory address with ninety- two signatures'.

Hence the actual publication was not celebrated for its content but for the trials of the author to have achieved it. Another similar attitude was exhibited later on in an 1874 article intended to praise Thomas' appointment as acting stipendiary Justice of the Peace in Cedros. Instead it was condescending when addressing the content of Creole Grammar, "Mr Thomas is the author of the learned and very amusing "Creole Grammar" published in 1869; on a visit to England in the course of the summer, he became an object of marked and unremitting attention by the learned of the Philological and other Societies, and the members their families."

This use of the phrase 'learned and very amusing' shows that the value of the study itself was undermined. The wider society was still more concerned with the Europeanisation of the 'peasantry', and as such an attempt to qualify their language as being just as legitimate as the classics would not have been taken seriously. The problem was one of consciousness.

On July 1 1870 Governor Arthur Gordon appointed him Secretary to the Board of Education, and also named him Secretary to the Council of Queen's Royal College (an institution which was at the time being inaugurated) at a salary of £200 a year (This is almost ironic in that if the school had been opened a few years earlier Thomas would not have qualified based on its entrance requirements). The highlight of his tenure as secretary to the Board of Education was the Education Ordinance of 1870, whereby church schools received government assistance and all teachers could sit a series of examinations for increments and promotion.

In Port of Spain during the early 1870s J.J. Thomas exhibited unrelenting tenacity in his new task trying to raise the intellectual presence in the city. Thomas was highly critical of the education system. It was doubtful if any one in the Eastern Caribbean could talk with so much authority about the manifold problems of West Indian Education. He was secretary of The Trinidad Monthly, the first literary journal in the colony, which appeared sporadically in 1871 and 1872 before it failed for the want of subscribers- and contributors. A little later in 1872 a literary society, The Trinidad Athenaeum, was organised through his exertions. It met on Wednesdays for discussions and lectures, only religion and politics being barred. Quite possibly it was named after the literary magazine, The Athenaeum, which had been the first to introduce his book to the English public. Citing his achievements The Philological Society invited him to England.

Just before he went to England, though, he had passed a few weeks in Grenada on sick leave. The holiday both restores him and left him with an affection for Grenada, but it was portent of what was to come. Thomas would eventually visit England on leave in late 1873. While there he was invited to public and private assemblies and on November 7 1873 he read a paper on Some Peculiarities of the Creole Language to a meeting of the Philological Society. A fortnight later he was elected a member; Thomas had received the recognition of the most eminent learned body in his field in the English Speaking World. Upon his return, except for a temporary appointment as Stipendiary Magistrate at Cedros in 1874, he stayed tied to the Board of Education for the rest of his career in the Civil Service.

By early 1879 he was ill again and this time he was unable to carry on with his duties. Something was wrong with his eyes and he was becoming crippled by what diagnosed as rheumatism. Later in that year he was forced to retire from Civil service with a small pension and then for some years he was bed-ridden. For much of the time he could do nothing but lie in his house in Clarence Street, Port of Spain. During these years of ill health and near poverty he nevertheless continued his studies. At some point he learnt Greek and Latin, and always he kept up his researches into Creole. In fact having mastered French he set out to translate Gustave Borde's Histoire de l'isle de Trinidad sous le Gouvernement Espanâol (History of the island of Trinidad under the Spanish Government.) Unfortunately was never published. Thomas did not resume active life until 1883, when he was appointed the headmaster of the San Fernando Borough School. A 'protracted quarrel' led to his resignation in 1885. This seemingly disagreeable outcome would set him on a path to produce his 'famous polemic against European psuedo-scientific racism'; Froudacity.

At the end of October 1887 Thomas departed for England but before the ship had left West Indian waters he was back in Grenada after a severe attack of 'rheumatic paralysis'. He decided to recuperate in St George's throughout that winter and postponed his trip to England till the following year. Hence Thomas was residing in Grenada when Froude's book appeared. He was engaged with his compatriots in Grenada's in preparatory plans for the jubilee celebrations. He wrote two letters entitled 'The Pioneers and Champions of Negro Emancipation," where he noted that that long before Wilberforce, the Quakers had been hostile to slavery, as had Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson, and a host of others. This vein seemed to be the line of his focus at the time. It appears as though Thomas had been set to produce substantive literature on the abolition movement. The English in the West Indies seems to have interrupted this process.

Froude's book was published in London in the first week of 1888 and the first copies reached them in February. The publication successfully managed to arouse more anger than any other in the West Indies for its superficial and incorrect observations, its patronising and contemptuous tone, and its insulting prophecies about their future if decolonisation were to occur, citing Haiti as the inevitable negative out come. For, him, one suspects, the Caribbean was still the scene of the stirring exploits of Raleigh and Drake against the popish galleons of Spain; but now, to use a phrase from a letter of his in 1887, ' the islands becoming nigger warrens' were in danger of lapsing into barbarism, of turning into Haitis.

Really no one ought to have been surprised at the treatment that the West Indies were to receive from the hands of Froude. Like Kingsley before him, Froude regarded the Caribbean as the primal scene of England's naval and political glory. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries England had proved itself supreme among the European nations in Caribbean Waters, winning battles and territories from French, Spanish and Dutch competitors. As well read products of their country's most prestigious public schools and Universities, Kingsley and Froude read and re read texts recounting the exploits of the English adventurers and offered their own celebratory readings of the Elizabethans: Froude had won public admiration for his studies of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, while Kingsley had paid tribute to the defeat of the Armada in his novel Westward Ho! As Froude travels through the Caribbean he visits Barbados, St Vincent, Grenada, Tobago, Trinidad, St Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, he pronounces these territories to be in bad or worse state based on the relative prosperity of the numbers of whites or blacks. No one was better fitted than Thomas to answer Froude.

Thomas at once hit back at what he called Froude's biased and outrageous comments on African people in the West Indies. From 24th March in the St George's Chronicle and Grenada Gazette he began a series of articles entitled "Mr Froude and the Negroes of The British West Indies". There were fifteen and they ran until July; they proved to be the first draft of Froudacity. It is not certain when he realised that he had the makings of a book or whether from the first he had in tended write one. But before he left Grenada on 22 July it was known that he would revise these articles for publication.

'Froudacity' begins with an explanation of why the book was necessary, that is to say that, Froude's attempt to "thwart political aspiration in the Antilles," an attempt "thinly draped with rhetorical flowers" required a response. 'Froudacity' generated a considerable amount of interest in Britain, and it was reviewed in several English papers, the review being printed in the New Era they were generally favourable. While 'Froudacity' was obviously reactive to the fallacious claims of Froude, it was also an attempt by Thomas to address issues which his health restricted him from addressing as he would have liked. It represented a desperate attempt by Thomas to also incorporate a much needed history of slavery and emancipation.

Throughout 'Froudacity' Thomas shows his concern for the progress of blacks in the non-British Caribbean and in the U.S. His lengthy discussions of the history of Slavery, the impact of the slave trade on the African continent, comparative social relations in the Caribbean and North America, the Caribbean judiciary, and the role of the church indicate that in responding to Froude he gave himself the opportunity to discuss a range of subjects that he had obviously been thinking about for along time. After all, 'educated and enlightened blacks had special duties and obligations to their race'. His position was clear. It was time for New World Blacks to occupy themselves with matters of racial importance. There were individually brilliant blacks, but there had to be 'some potential agency to collect and adjust them into the vast engine essential for executing the true purposes of the civilised African race'. In other words Unity of Action was necessary to carry out the upliftment of the race. He grasped with absolute clarity the need to go back to the roots, to Africa and its history, culture and genius, in order to create a future for the 'extra-African' black people.

It would probably be true to say that he accepted European culture as the highest form of civilization. But Thomas was acutely aware of his African heritage. He was intensely concerned for his fellow blacks, in Trinidad, in the Caribbean, in the World. He followed the progress of the race in Sierra Leone, Liberia, the U.S., Haiti, and Brazil. Thomas shows himself to be a keen student of the Civil War and the progress of prominent African Americans. He showed little of the excessive loyalty towards the Mother Country typical of educated 19th century colonials. He was as informed as was then possible about Africa. He perceived the unity of the Afro-America. Above all, he was dedicated to the 'upliftment' of the race; through mastery of European culture and technology, educated and privileged blacks would raise up their fellows in the New World and in Africa.

In 1888 he was forced top go to England for treatment. He spent the winter and the following spring living in Guildford Street, off Russell Square and within easy reach of the British Museum, and area of London to become so familiar to later generations of West Indian students. It was at this point having conquered Froude as it were that Thomas turned his attention once again to the Creole Grammar. The enlarged second edition was to be called Gramme Creyol: Being the Theory and Grammar of Creole Grammar. It was to include an entirely new system of spelling, an historical and philological survey, more proverbs and examples of Creole from Haiti and New Orleans, Martinique and Mauritius. He never completed it. He was admitted to King's College Hospital and diagnosed with tuberculosis. He died the same year. Thomas was 49.

By any standard the achievements of John Jacob Thomas were remarkable. Given that he was self made and had taken the rough road by design, he can only be described as the one of the most phenomenal intellectuals ever to be born in Trinidad. His work on Creole showed a determination and clarity of vision towards building nation. The language was seen as intrinsic to accepting the people who came as the people who belong. The imposition of the imperial tongues, while they were necessary for trade should not be adopted at the expense of the Creoles. He goes further to show his patriotism and love for his people in Froudacity. There can be no denying that he was the pre-eminent Trinidadian scholar of the nineteenth century.