It was a difficult decision. Long, however after her mother’s childhood, when Christians opened hundreds of schools in British West Indian colonies, and when the Moravians introduced education to Tobago, my grandmother made up her mind. In Moriah, her home village, life revolved around the church sited, as if to remind villagers of its role, on a hill between the school and the cemetery. Grandma questioned that role. Recognizing how her relation to the church limited life choices available to her daughter, she broke with tradition. Throwing discretion to the winds, she left the Moravians for a new American church that promised a better life.
Grandma was an optimist, her life a constant struggle for improvement. She gave me the name of the man she married more than half a century before I was born. Horace Maximillan (1879-1925) lived in a society where the authority of public office was reserved for men from Britain. Nevertheless, as a colonial subject he was an authority figure in the colonial service, serving as the Warden responsible for forestry and education, among other matters in Tobago. Then early, fatal illness ruined whatever prospect of improvement marriage offered to Grandma.
Hindsight suggests that while Horace Maximilian held office in Tobago, my grandmother took a precautionary step. In 1921, as her expectation of happy married life began to fail, she gave up traditions represented by traditional religious faith. By joining a strange, American church then beginning to establish itself on the island, she chose an alternative path to what she hoped would be early improvement, if not for herself, then for her daughter.
Adventism was strange for a reason explored in this blog. In Trinidad and Tobago, it mirrored competing patterns of thought at the church’s headquarters. At Battle Creek, Michigan in the United States, preachers believed Armageddon posed an urgent threat and sensed that they were short of time for preaching to save lives. Therefore they avoided “wasting time” on the schools a few of their enlightened peers insisted on opening.
Pro-school and anti-school mindsets clashed during the first decade of local Adventism. Rachel Peters from Antigua, a teacher trained at Battle Creek opened a primary school at Couva, central Trinidad. Three years later, an industrial farm school opened not very far away. Within a further three years however, leaders at Battle Creek, overruled the initiative, ordering disposal of land purchased in Trinidad for establishing a model farm school. Ironically, the clash of mindsets slowed establishment of Adventism as school provision began to expand as never before in the British colony.
Slowing of Adventism fit into traditional slow growth of schooling in Trinidad. There, colonial officials introduced tuition-free primary education in 1902. This was available in one hundred and fifty denominational schools funded in part by the state. Above the primary schools were four grammar schools, known as colleges: the secular Queen’s Royal and church-run St Mary’s for boys, St Joseph’s for girls and Naparima in the South.
As an alternative to the grammar schools, between 1905 and 1915 private individuals founded secondary schools offering education “without the frills.” More affordable than the colleges, these private schools proved academic success was possible “without expensive buildings, good furniture or teachers with university degrees… without nuns and priests.”1
Parallel to growing private provision in Trinidad, access to schools improved in Tobago. Here, thanks to the effort of two booksellers from Jamaica, Adventism played a key part. As one historian put it, “a handful of… youths converted to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, were drafted into formal or informal institutions, and given a start on the road to upward social mobility.”2
Thanks to a “cocrico” (as in photograph), Tobago shared in education “without the frills.” Effort spurred by the owners of that bird made it possible to open a primary school that anticipated ending of a century of low access to schools in the British West Indies. A new school at Glamorgan predated eventual expansion of denominational, private and finally also, government schools. Together with the larger expansion of education “without the frills” in Trinidad, this Tobago initiative led to a comprehensive census of local education in 1936.
The census showed eighty-nine primary schools in the private sector, fifty-five of them located in urban and twenty-nine in rural Trinidad. Beside its thirty denominational primary schools, Tobago had five private schools. All were owned and operated by Seventh-day Adventists.3
This expansion of schools started after Grandma’s marriage to Horace Maximillan and my mother’s birth. It meant that leaving the Moravian for an American church was not a matter of chance. Adventists worried about the end of time. Uniquely however, they encouraged Tobagonians to educate their children.
Grandma took time to observe a ”newfangled” Adventist school that opened in Moriah. She decided to leave my mother at the well-respected Moravian school she was attending. However, Grandma refused to allow her daughter to gain “experience” by accompanying older classmates to the headmaster’s home to launder his clothes. She did not see her daughter as a washerwoman in the making.
There was no way to avoid tough times, and Grandma’s decision left my mother facing harsh reality. Time spent acquiring literacy and numeracy was well invested. Nonetheless, the reality of colonial life hit home when she finally left elementary school, aged seventeen. Since Isabella did not want to be a cook, washerwoman or other domestic worker, the only employment available to her was in agriculture. Therefore she spent her days attending to a tract of woodland owned by Grandma.
Isabella took care of a parcel of land with orange, mango and other fruit, but mainly cocoa trees, her work being to keep the land free of bush. Her wages came from harvesting, and meticulously preparing the cocoa beans for market. With no other means of transport to take the crop to local agents, Isabella would walk from Moriah to Scarborough, balancing a bag of cocoa beans on her head.
Backbreaking work that included regularly carrying bagged cocoa beans seven miles to Scarborough left Isabella with the superb, upright posture she maintained well into the twenty-first century. Not in a classroom, but in the “school of hard knocks,” she learnt lessons never forgotten. From bitter experience in the 1930s, she understood that it was crucial to get perfect, dry product to the cocoa agent. If, for any reason the agent refused to accept the bag of beans as she presented it, the alternative was loss of months of painstaking work.
None too soon however, the treks to take bagged cocoa beans to Scarborough ended. A young man began to court Isabella. Nonetheless, when Grandma agreed to marriage for her daughter, hard work did not end. Isabella could not forget cocoa beans despite circumstances in which, strangely enough, her future husband was attending college in Trinidad.
When Alphaeus Scobie left elementary school, he apprenticed out to learn trades that included making and repairing shoes. He also had to “work land” in similar, back-breaking conditions as his future wife. It was inconceivable for him to attend the Catholic, or the government college in Port of Spain. Nor could he think of attending the Presbyterian college in San Fernando. He had no money even for “no frills,” lower-cost schooling at a private secondary school nearer the remote village of Cumana where he lived.
Fortunately for him and Isabella however, there were enlightened Adventists who revived the initiative of thirty years earlier to establish a farm and industrial school in Trinidad. East Caribbean Training School opened in 1927, demonstrating an approach to education tried and proven in America and based on agricultural work. Sited on a 246-acre estate, the model school held avocado, breadfruit, mango, lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, Mamie-apple, Brazil nut and even cedarwood trees. Beside, it held 400 coconut, 2,000 tonka bean, 5,000 banana and – bittersweet in mother’s memory, but vast in potential – a stock of 20,000 mature cocoa trees.4
Soon renamed Caribbean Training College (CTC), the new institution pivoted on people such as my mother and father, who “worked land.” Grandma’s decision to affiliate to Adventism began to pay dividends as my father moved beyond primary school, thanks to the Adventists who shifted concern from Armageddon to the reality of cocoa beans.
I belong to the Mossi people of Burkina Faso in West Africa, brought to the Caribbean in years when Tobago changed hands as many as thirty times among rival European states. The reason for that rivalry was obvious. My ancestors were taken to Tobago to work for Scottish planters primarily. They grew cotton and sugar cane, generating wealth legendary in Edinburgh and London at the end of the eighteenth century. I am also the product of circumstances described on a "mystery" tombstone in Plymouth, on the western side of Tobago. It reminds readers of the nameless mother held in a relationship like one in my ancestral line that left me with the Scottish name, Scobie. Those were the years when samaan trees first stood distinct on the Tobago skyline as Moravians and long after, Seventh-day Adventists made schools so much a part of everyday life that islanders began to see education no longer as a privilege, but as a right.
Writing Through the Cracks