DR CLAUDIUS FERGUS
The High Court of Australia and the government of New Zealand recently determined that the State must apologise and pay monetary compensation to the indigenous peoples for the “spiritual harm” inflicted upon them by predatory, racist, land-grabbing British colonisers going back to the 1840s. The agreements also obliged the governments to institute measures to restore the pre-colonial status of indigenous deities.
Although Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley did not use the term “spiritual harm” in his recent address to the Spiritual Baptists at Sixth Company, Moruga, the principle is certainly implied in his reference to the ruthless enforcement of the racist, unconstitutional Shouters Prohibition Ordinance, 1917.
It is significant that the PM chose one of the Company villages to make his first public justification for reparations for European enslavement of Africans, while committing the State to a measure of compensation to the Spiritual Baptists.
It is well known that the Company villagers or Merikins were the first Baptists in Trinidad. Sources also indicate that Third Company was the birthplace of the sect that would eventually be known as Spiritual Baptists.
Prohibition ordinances uniquely prejudiced Spiritual Baptists (then known as Shouters in TT and Shakers in St Vincent). Pukumina and Zionism in Jamaica escaped prohibition in 1903, when a select committee of the legislature rejected the bill because it clearly violated British religious toleration law.
Although the administrator of St Vincent and the governor of TT allowed their prohibition ordinances, it was the Colonial Office in London that put prohibition on the statute books by sanctioning them, even after acknowledging that prohibition of religion was unconstitutional.
In the context of the British constitution, prohibition was more than religious persecution: it was a crime against humanity for which the British government owes at least a formal apology.
The constitutional provision most relevant to the Spiritual Baptists is the Places of Worship Registration Act, 1855. Contemporary exchanges among Colonial Office officials while reviewing the St Vincent ordinance offer indelible evidence of Britain’s criminal complicity in prohibition.
Perhaps the most significant precedent for the unconstitutionality of the colonial prohibition ordinances is the UK case R v Registrar ex parte Segerdal (1970), in which High Court judge Lord Denning proclaimed: “The purpose of the 1855 act was to grant freedom of worship to all, regardless of social or educational background.”
More recently, but no less significant, is the UK Supreme Court ruling in Hodkin v Registrar, 2012, in which the law lords’ reference was also the Places of Worship Registration Act, 1855.
As our PM affirmed, his government’s intervention to secure a modicum of reparatory justice for the spiritual damage inflicted on the Spiritual Baptists is not new. One recalls former PM Basdeo Panday’s grant of 25 acres of land in Maloney for “an African spiritual park.” Was Panday ahead of his time?
Rowley also acknowledged that the promised cathedral could be traced back to the George Chambers’ regime in 1985.
Thirty-four years earlier, during the debate on the repeal of the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance in 1951, the representative for St Joseph constituency, Chanka Maharaj, solicited chief minister Albert Gomes to “grant the Baptist people money, as other denominations, to run their religion.”
Maharaj recognised that without spiritual reparations the Repeal Act would not erase the injustice of decades of persecution, stigmatisation and cultural stagnation.
Rowley has much more power than Gomes could have ever mustered. Therefore, one would expect swift and decisive action from his government in the months ahead.
Personally, I think the PM needed to be more explicit in linking the promise of lands and a cathedral to the Caricom movement for “reparations for our ancestors who were enslaved,” as he puts it.
It should be noted that all enslaved Africans suffered irreparable “spiritual harm,” the effects of which have proven scientifically to be transgenerational. One self-repair strategy was the creation of African Christian movements, of which there were many in the Caribbean, including Pukuminia and Zionism in Jamaica, Shakerism in St Vincent, and Shouterism in Trinidad.
Prohibition ordinances targeting these movements insidiously crystalised the objectives of slavery-era regimes.
Therefore, it is incumbent on the PM to make a personal commitment to actively work with the TT National Reparations Committee, mandated by Caricom and set up by Cabinet; otherwise his public recognition of reparations as historical justice would be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.