My great-grandfather’s legacy

Reginald Dumas -
Reginald Dumas -


TOMORROW is the 200th birth anniversary of my great-grandfather, Norman McNeil. According to the February 1822 Annual Return of Plantation Slaves, he was born on the Dunvegan Estate, in the Whim district of Tobago, on July 3, 1821, to a mother simply called “Cathrine” (sic). In the column headed “Colour,” he is listed as a “mestee,” which in the Tobago of the time usually meant the child of a white man and a mulatto woman.

Plantation master/slave liaisons were common in those days, not only in the Caribbean, and it was also common for the mixed-race offspring of those relationships to be later employed in white households. If the mother was black, she would have to continue her toil in the fields. Child would now think itself superior to parent – it was an early manifestation of the skin-shade prejudice that bedevils us to this day.

McNeil the mestee appears, like others of his kind, to have benefitted from physical appearance: we find him as a teenage butler in the Whim great house. Slavery in the British colonies is finally abolished in 1838, when he is 17. The next year, he is no longer on the plantation: the 1839 Tobago census records him as an “apprentice” in Scarborough. Apprenticed to whom? In what area of activity? I don’t know. Three years later, in 1842, he is back in Whim, headmaster of the Estate School. At 21!

But where and how, as an enslaved person (even if mestee), did McNeil learn to read and write? He must have been essentially self-taught, but he was fortunate in being from the Whim/Dunvegan area. In 1829, the Whim estate proprietor (of whom I shall speak again) became the first planter in Tobago to start a day school. There was a Sunday school as well, and I expect McNeil attended both.

In addition, he was probably helped by the efforts of the Moravians, who ministered to congregations in Whim and elsewhere, and who were the Church in Tobago that really taught the enslaved and newly free the essentials of literacy. During the 1840s, they also set up a lending library in Montgomery, which McNeil may have used to help him in his classroom work.

That McNeil should have risen so fast cannot in my view, however, be attributed to skin shade alone, or principally. I expect that played a part, but what I have read of him suggests that two factors in particular, generally intertwined, influenced his outlook on life. He seems to have been very intelligent. And he was clearly ambitious, but ambition without vision and focus is an irrelevance, and he had both vision and focus to spare.

The first factor was secular education. He was not alone, of course, in recognising the centrality of such education, especially for those recently manumitted. But while there were others in Tobago of like mind, I find the comparison with Booker T Washington in the US irresistible. Both men were of mixed race, but neither considered that fact a reason to claim special privileges for himself. Rather, both saw themselves as black people born enslaved, and consequently as having a duty to work for black upliftment.

Both saw education as the way out of deprivation: McNeil became a school headmaster at 21; Washington, born 35 years after him, was, at age 25, appointed head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now Tuskegee University.

led his school for over 30 years; McNeil led his for over 50, until the year before his death in 1897. Remarkably, his school, differently located, still survives, as the Whim Anglican Primary School. Both men faced immense difficulties, particularly suspicion and hostility from their respective white communities, but McNeil’s problems were more profound.

Washington had at least gone to a school for freedmen – the Hampton Institute in Virginia – whereas McNeil had to have been largely an autodidact, with limited formal schooling, whatever may have existed in Whim. There was no secondary school for him to have attended. I accept there was, when he was already an adult, a library in Montgomery, but I assume its stock was predominantly religious.

There was no teacher training college. But there were – and this brings me to my second factor of influence in his life – the religious principles and teaching of the Anglican Church to which he belonged, and of which he was a committed and involved member. Here too, unfortunately, there were difficulties.

To be continued on Saturday


"My great-grandfather’s legacy"

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