Jean-Baptiste Philippe and the 1820s Campaign from the British West Indies
19 February 2019
Signing his documents as “A Free Mulatto,” Jean-Baptiste Philippe spent much of the year 1823 in a labor of lobbying for his kindred population on Trinidad. In a petition and a 300-page address that he delivered personally to Colonial Secretary of State Lord Bathhurst in London, Baptiste argued that whatever the British Empire's policies in its other Caribbean possessions, Trinidad was governed by Spanish precedents that placed non-enslaved black men in full equality with whites. In an earlier, sweeter time, when governor Don Josef Maria Chacon ruled the island (1784-1797), free men of color moved freely and equally among whites in military and civilian matters. (The island still had a slave population, and slavery did not end legally until 1833 as elsewhere in British West Indies.) Baptiste reminisced over that golden age: “His ear was open to every complaint, his arm extended for the support of every feeble petitioner.” British conquest of the island never upended this arrangement, as the 1797 surrender agreement continued earlier policies. Yet as merchants and slaveholders migrated from other Caribbean islands to Trinidad, they tried to bring white supremacy with them. Baptiste and his compatriots wanted none of it, and sought statutory guarantees against the racists' plans. Traveling to London to present his petition to Bathhurst, Baptiste asked the Secretary and the Commission on Free Enquiry for the British West Indies for statutory relief for Trinidad's population of “free coloured” and “mulatto” men.
Baptiste's appeal for complete racial equality focused on Trinidad alone, vaunting its distinctive legal history in the region. Yet as Baptiste surely knew, his appeal was by no means politically unique. In 1823 and 1824 alone, the names of thousands of free Caribbean men of color appeared on memorials to island assemblies, to the Colonial Office, to King George IV and to Parliament, calling for new statutes guaranteeing civil and legal equality between free men of color and whites. No official was more commonly the recipient of these petitions than Bathhurst himself. Black and mixed-race memorialists heavily emulated one another's claims across island politics. Newspapers throughout the British Caribbean reprinted these petitions and followed their progress. Slaveholders in the Southern United States anxiously watched these Caribbean black petitions, warning their state legislatures of the need for countermeasures to combat free black movements. Not unlike a tropical storm, this wave of black memorials for legal equality swept the Gulf of Mexico, extending from Trinidad through the Virgin Islands and Jamaica to Saint Augustine, Florida and beyond. In its path, the black petitioning wave of the 1820s left not destruction but disrupted hierarchies and by 1830, new protections for black liberties.
The records of the Commissioners for Free Enquiry do not include collective petitions from free women of color. Where free women of color signed petitions in the British West Indies, they tended to do so individually. The culture and institutions of petitioning among free women of color in the Caribbean constitute an important subject for future inquiry.
Amidst all this fury of commissions, memorials and counter-memorials, Jean-Baptiste Phillipe's argument for Trinidad might have seemed indistinctive. Yet Philippe's address and memorial (the latter written with the mixed-race lawyer John Congnet) cut a remarkable and influential profile in the 1820s Caribbean. Philippe was a physician, and he rendered an extended complaint about statutory burdens that suffocated the careers of the most educated men of color. For presenting this case, Philippe selected as his audience not Trinidad's assembly (which had become increasingly hostile to free people of color), nor the Commissioners of Free Enquiry, but Lord Bathhurst himself. Bathhurst was an Oxford-educated Tory and a civil servant in a system that increasingly prized demonstrable merit and training, at least for high positions. He tilted conservative on economic issues (opposing the Reform Bill in 1832) but generally favored liberalizing colonial laws. He would have known that opportunities were closing for men like Philippe in England. Philippe's argument stood out for a number of reasons, one being the forceful rhetorical tools developed in England, another the plausibility of Trinidad's distinctive history as one in which free people of color had in fact experienced liberties in the late eighteenth century that their counterparts elsewhere in the Caribbean had not. After Chacon's rule (1783-1797), Sir Thomas Picton ruled Trinidad with a combination of vengeance and tyranny, while Governor Sir Thomas Hislop's harsh reaction to the free petitioners of color in 1810 had quieted political activism. Philippe's overtures came at a low point in the experience of Trinidadian free men of color, and his petition (which preceded the published address) was followed by other petitions from free men of color.
Baptiste's work points to the dual political innovation among Caribbean free men of color in the 1820s. The first came in the admixture of different tools of politics into a novel democratic repertoire that included large meetings of free men of color, petitions with numerous signatures, and a delegation of lobbyists to visit London or colonial officials traveling in the Caribbean. In the context of whites' fears of uprisings, free people of color courted evident risk when they met in larger numbers, even as they visually remapped black assembly and its implications. The fact that these meetings produced petitions meant both that the meetings left a granular record (with individuals who had attended) and endowed the proceedings with greater political legitimacy. Compared to earlier efforts, the “coloured petitions” of the 1820s also targeted a broader set of venues, stepping outside the hierarchies and official complaint channels of the colonial Caribbean. And as with Jamaicans' delegation of representative functions to a makeshift embassy of free men of color the same year, Philippe and Congnet had formed something of a petitioning lobby in 1823. The in-person presentation of petitions to the Colonial Office and to traveling commissioners became more systematic than in previous appeals. Among non-white peoples in North America, only John Ross and the Cherokee had created tools of organization that were as refined and institutionalized.
Professor Daniel Carpenter is the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government and the Director of the Social Sciences Program in the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
He is the Principal Investigator for the Digital Archive of Native American Petitions in Massachusetts, the Principal Investigator for the Digital Archive of Massachusetts Antislavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions, and a Member of the Provost's Advisory Council on Native and Indigenous Issues at Harvard University