As Trinidad and Tobago approached independence, effort by the state to extend access to education created problems for the leading state school, Queen’s Royal College (QRC). To assure education for children of diverse religions in the country, the state relied on a non-denominational approach pioneered a century earlier at QRC. It commandeered key members of staff at QRC to lead new government secondary schools. Meanwhile, religious schools continued to dominate local education, the idea of non-denominational schooling still taboo for a notably religious population. State-run QRC represented godlessness, a label no one wanted to risk acquiring, except in the case of two magnificent moves, from state to glebe and college land.
Precedents for “Godlessness”
The pattern for non-denominational schooling in Trinidad emerged in what, at the time seemed a scandalous move to open a University of London. Enlightened founders of that institution promised “higher education free of religious tests… with teaching organised upon professorial lines.” Deliberate distancing of the new university from religion drew a hostile response. Three years later, in opposition to the initiative leading national figures moved
to establish on Christian and constitutional principles a great metropolitan school to be called ‘King’s College,’ reasoning that ‘with such a seminary in a prosperous position, there will be neither motive nor excuse for any parent to inflict upon his offspring the disgrace of education in the infidel and godless college in Gower Street.” 1
The “godless college in Gower Street” grew steadily in the face of entrenched opposition. By modelling what earlier seemed to be absurd improvements in education, it influenced traditional institutions to abandon selection based on religious tests and at the same time, to broaden their curricula.
Across the Atlantic, success followed similar effort to improve education in the 1830s. Horace Mann, first Head of the first American Board of Education led an unpopular campaign. In the state of Massachusetts he directed an initiative to train teachers and fund non-sectarian state schools open to all children. Against persistent hostility, primarily from his fellow Christians, the initiative spread nationwide. Mann would be recognized much later as the Father of American Public Schools. 2
In South America, the fight for independence grew into a struggle to modernize new states. These needed, more than anything else, to create a literate citizenry. An overview of that struggle outlines decades of controversy with the established church. This ended with states ending church monopoly and secularizing provision of schools. 3 States then created non-sectarian schools accessible to all children.
Poised, midway between North and South in the Western Hemisphere, between Anglo and Latin America, Trinidad and Tobago finds itself caught between and tradition and modernity. This Caribbean state offers a live example of controversy surrounding attempts to move from traditional, state funded church schools for the few, toward non-sectarian schools accessible to all children.
Conditions in Trinidad (Tobago was still separate) virtually invited non-sectarian initiative. Half a century after Britain seized the island from Spain (after Spain seized it from France), two thirds of the population were Catholic. One islander only in four belonged to the Church of England, which traditionally managed schools in British colonies, as Catholics did in non-English-speaking America. Unusually then, as the first historian of these matters noted, English-speaking officials in Trinidad aided “an irregular system” of some forty Spanish religious schools, where the common language was French. 4
Circumstances unknown in England demanded an approach that seemed absurd in England. On the ground in Trinidad, officials faced the challenge of devising a scheme to prevent establishment, “for the mere purpose of rivalry” of several denominational schools, “all claiming and all receiving the aid of Government.” 5 An extraordinary initiative followed.
Unexpected Move, and Countermove
George Harris had no particular reason to counter what, for him was a natural religious tradition. Educated privately by a member of the clergy and at Eton College, he graduated from Oxford University. Harris won public recognition of work done for the Church of England before serving as Governor of Trinidad. Soon to be married to the archdeacon’s daughter in colonial Trinidad, he had ample reason to strengthen the position of the Anglican church. Nonetheless, Harris moved to accomplish what, until then was unthinkable.
A year after arriving on the island, Harris announced his intention to introduce “a system of general instruction ‘to carry out nothing more than what is generally termed secular instruction.’” In the following decade, strict regulations covered creation of a groundbreaking scheme of thirty non-denominational rural ward schools. Port of Spain, the capital held model boys’ and girls’ schools and a teacher training school. Above this and the primary schools was a college – among the first such English-speaking state institutions outside Massachusetts.
Within four years, Trinidad acquired the equivalent of London’s King’s College. For understandable reasons in the colony, as the History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago put it, the majority Church denounced an initiative
opposed to the convictions of all Roman Catholics who cannot admit to be beneficial to (sic) any system of education which is not founded on religion. The Roman Catholics kept their children away, and instead, by public subscription, organised a college of their own in 1863 which they entrusted to the Fathers of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, and which they call the College of the Immaculate Conception [CIC]. 6
A Groundless Move
From the time it opened, the Queen’s Collegiate College, forerunner of Queen’s Royal College was a potent symbol. It represented an official effort to integrate colonial Trinidad that happened to benefit English public servants employed in the colony. A snapshot of enrollment at QRC and CIC in 1869 clarified the benefit: six sons of public servants of unspecified religion attended CIC alongside some 111 Catholic boys. In contrast, the QRC enrolment of sixty-eight was more integrated, sons of public servants amounting to twenty-eight, eight of whom were the (non-fee-paying) sons of deceased Catholic fathers, these eight counted among seventeen Catholic boys at QRC. 7
That snapshot of enrollment revealed the complex challenge facing QRC. It was designed by ranking British officials with their own sons in mind. Nonetheless, it was non-denominational in years when high status corresponded with affinity to the established Church. At the same time, it failed to reassure the majority population of “Roman Catholics who cannot admit to be beneficial… any system of education which is not founded on religion.” 8. Low enrollment reflected parents’ outright refusal, on their particular terms, “to inflict upon… offspring the disgrace of education in the… godless college.” Williams quoted a general observation made by the official investigator:
The people flock to the non-endowed college (CIC); not because its education is better than that which the Queen’s Collegiate school affords, but because the principle of its foundation – the introduction of the religious element – is more acceptable to them. 9
Given its questionable position, the state-endowed college failed to measure up to an optimistic view that it provided sons of members of the Civil Service with “a most excellent education.” As its Head reflected, QRC offered “education” with “no classrooms, no library, no playground, no cricket field, nothing we could call our own.” 10 For four decades, “every possible adjunct of a school” was missing. Since extraordinarily, the college had no fixed address, the unexpected, unconventional move by Governor Harris was groundless.
Lack of land was the basis of a groundless QRC, support for schools in British colonies normally coinciding with support for religion through a detail arranged at establishment of the Church of England. Beside the parsonage and churchyard, the British Crown gifted “glebe land” to parish priests for their personal support. 11 The tradition transferred to colonies such as Bermuda and Barbados where the word glebe still exists, and also to New England.
James Edghill, a leading educationist in nineteenth century Barbados outlined the coincidence that followed between Church and school. He wrote of denominationalism “maintained and secured” on land set aside, as a benefit of office, for Church of England clergy. School buildings were thus to be found “on the glebes of Ministers of religion,” often “in contiguity, or at least in immediate proximity to the different places of worship.” 12 Therefore, with few exceptions, schools were inseparable from clergy disposed, in the course of Church work, to make land available for a building in which children were taught.
Accordingly, glebe land was the link without which the system of instruction Harris introduced to Trinidad was not viable. Eric Williams noted how that system fell apart. Within two decades, official investigation found seventeen of the schools in rented buildings “which would… discredit… any country that recognizes civilization as a principle of Government.” 13
With reason, the investigator urged officials to leave the matter of schooling to members of the clergy. Not only did clergy manage “introduction of the religious element.” They alone were able to make glebe land, or its equivalent available for school building. In these circumstances, it took time and a new decision-maker to end the landless state of Queen’s Royal College.
A New Glebe
Two decades later, Sir Clement Knollys had less reason than George Harris to ignore English public school tradition. He was the son of a parish priest in the Church of England. After receiving his education at Oxford, Knollys served as the colonial secretary and also as a member of the Barbados Assembly, before acting, from 1898 as Governor of Trinidad and Tobago. Knollys supplied the link missing in Harris’ non-denominational project.
The groundwork appeared in the Genesis of St Clair, as local historian Angelo Bissessarsingh described the evolution of a private sugar estate into an elite Port of Spain suburb. First, it changed hands to become a government-owned stock farm. On removal of the farm, it grew into a “preserve exclusively of the uppercrust of the ruling classes where elegant mansions were set in extensive grounds.” 14 Knollys saw this last phase about to unfold as owners of lucrative cocoa estates planned magnificent homes in the new St Clair sub-division.
A Magnificent Move
As Acting Governor, Knollys reserved a block of that prime sub-division for what, at the time still was “the Royal College of Trinidad.” He laid the foundation stone of a building erected at the same time as Killarney, or Stollmeyer’s Castle. Patterned on a wing of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, this was the first home built on the western side of Queen’s Park Savannah. Thus, the QRC building stood unique among The Magnificent Seven, as buildings fronting on the Savannah would come to be known.
The College was distinct for more than its Westminster-style turret clock that rang the quarter chime. Between it and Stollmeyer’s Castle were several homes. The furthest was the residence of the Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain; the nearest belonged to the Anglican Bishop. In this configuration of forces that would influence the future of the colony, QRC stood independent. It occupied an entire block.
Again, Queen’s Royal College was a potent symbol of independence. Earlier, government relied on clergy to provide faithful churchgoers with “a rudimentary education.” 15 By affirming Harris’ initiative to provide “secular instruction” in schools, Knollys now made room for training in the new duties citizens would assume in the twentieth century. As time would prove, locating a non-denominational Queen’s Royal College in a glebe all on its own was a magnificent move! However, it hardly was the first such move.
The American Precedent
What Harris failed to finish, and Knollys moved to complete in Trinidad, the Senate did in exceptional circumstances in the United States. There, initiatives to democratize educational provision took shape in law. Insightful individuals moved to preserve select land from normal business, private interests and even from the whims of public officials. Not only did they set aside land for establishing colleges. They allocated acreages sufficiently large as to allow for sale of sections of that acreage and for investment of the proceeds to ensure the principal would remain unimpaired forever, provided that money so invested constitute a perpetual fund, the capital forever undiminished, the interest inviolably appropriated by individual states
By law, an inviolable gift of federal land favoured establishment of state agricultural and mechanical (A&M) colleges. These institutionalized a nationwide shift from the traditional curricular concerns of colleges founded for religious study. To sustain such a radical break with tradition, the new colleges were autonomous in funding and management. This move strengthened nearly twenty institutions founded earlier. Within ten years, fourteen new colleges and universities opened. Nationwide, more than sixty state universities developed out of the land initiative to educate large numbers of students. 15 While QRC remained landless, the United States created a new glebe, irrevocably gifting state land for the purpose of secular education, as college land.
As in London, Latin America and elsewhere, it was never easy to take such a radical step. In the United States, timing of the Morrill Land Grant Act speaks for itself. President Lincoln signed it as the United States approached the centenary of its declaration of independence from Great Britain. Congressional agreement came fourteen months into a four-year Civil War.
Summary and Conclusion
Unique circumstances in the colony motivated British Governors to entrench secular schooling in Trinidad and Tobago. Decades before a Ministry of Education existed in Britain itself, they chose to create a groundbreaking institution, and sited it strategically on prime land, to signal its leading role in the British West Indies. Uniquely, as the twentieth century got under way, Queen’s Royal College represented progress. It was the earliest symbol of autonomy, and remains the ultimate icon of state rule in Trinidad and Tobago.
The sequel, after their departure suggests that the effect of a rare initiative by colonial administrators was less successful than hoped. Half a century later, a Property and Real Estate Services Division (PRESD) in a new Government Ministry of Public Administration and Communications cites “settled policy for… allocation of the State’s limited property resources.” This view informs decision-making on use of College land, not by school governors or even direct stakeholders but ironically, in the twenty-first century, by the country’s Cabinet.
“Settled policy” intrudes not only on Queen’s Royal College. Applied from the highest level of government, it is inseparable from questions of autonomy and progress in Trinidad and Tobago, and throughout the former British West Indies. It mutes the legacy of an old, magnificent move from state land, and glebe, to college land.
1 Evans, Sydney, “Theology,” The University of London and the World of Learning, 1836-1986. ed. F. M. L. Thompson (London: Hambledon Press, 1990), 148. 2 See Life and Works of Horace Mann, ed. Mary Mann (Cambridge, MA: 1867). 3 Joseph S. Szyliowicz, Education – Migration and the Brain Drain: Latin America, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 4 Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (New York: Praeger, 1962). 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid. 10 Dumas, Reginald, “March 24, 1904: (QRC, Trinidad and Sir Alfred Moloney),” QRC 2004. ed. Garth Alleyne, (La Romaine, Trinidad and Tobago: QRC 2004 Committee, 1991) 87. 11 https://www.churchofengland.org/clergy-office-holders/pastoralandclosedchurches/pastoral/parsglebeman.aspx and http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/adios-landed-clergy (3 Feb 2017). 12 Report of Bree Commission on Education in Barbados (1894-1896), 56. Reprinted in Teachers’ Bulletin, III, i January 1956). 12 Williams, History of the People. 13 Joan Brathwaite, ed., Handbook of Churches in the Caribbean (Bridgetown, Barbados: 1973) 26. 14 Bissessarsingh, Angelo. “The Genesis of St Clair.” Trinidad Guardian 11 Sep 2016. 15 Morrill Act (1862), Chap. CXXX. Donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Sec. 4. 16 Committee on the Future of the Colleges of Agriculture in the Land Grant University System, Board of Agriculture, National Research Council, Colleges of Agriculture At the Land Grant Universities: A Profile, (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995).
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.
QRC I: Unwrapping a Christmas “Gift”