In a previous post, I made the point that rescuing long dead persons from the “oblivion” of history depends on the survival of sources about them—usually written documents, once they lived too long ago for anyone now alive to remember them.
The reason that we know about Maria Jones is that the Baptist Mission in Trinidad published in 1851 a short account of her life and her conversion. This brief but precious document, preserved in the archives of the Baptist Missionary Society in Oxford, England, has been fleshed out in a paper by my colleague, Brinsley Samaroo.
The account, of course, was published in order to celebrate the achievements of the Baptist Mission—Maria was one of their success stories. But there is enough to reconstruct the story of a rebellious spirit, who accepted Christianity at least in part in order to claim her full humanity.
Born in West Africa around 1780, she was enslaved and transported to St Vincent at the age of 7—one of the many children caught up in the transatlantic slave trade. Even in the stilted language of the missionary we can sense her vibrancy:
“She had a very high spirit, which was not easily subdued; and indeed, was never entirely tamed, till it was humbled by the grace of God. All through her life of slavery she showed much strength & independence of mind, and would often utter sentiments and feelings which proved that she did not willingly submit to the yoke imposed upon her.”
Enslaved persons were worth much more in rapidly developing Trinidad than in St Vincent in the early 1800s, especially after the abolition of the transatlantic trade in 1806-07. This is almost certainly why she was sold to a Trinidad planter, though the account says it was because she was an “unprofitable slave”. She laboured as a field worker on two estates in different parts of Trinidad.
When full emancipation came in 1838, Maria was attached to an estate near Arima. The Mico Charity, an English foundation which ran schools in several Caribbean colonies around this time, opened a school in Arima. Maria, nearly 60—really old in a slave society—insisted on going, not just to the evening and Sunday classes meant for adults, but also to the day school for the children.
She learned to read, and came under the influence of the teacher, who was a member of the Scottish Presbyterian church which had just been established in Port of Spain (Greyfriars Church). Maria joined this church, and was married to the man “with whom for years she had lived as wife, according to the Negro, or rather, slave custom”. That these were empowering events for her is suggested by this passage:
“She soon informed [the minister] of the change that had recently taken place in her condition, remarking at the same time, with evident pride, that now “she called Mrs Jones, and not Maria, as before time”. This she said, purposely, in the hearing of several other females present…She seemed to move among them like a queen, as though conscious of some superiority over them in point of character”.
Next, Maria met George Cowen, the pioneer English Baptist missionary to Trinidad—the Cowen-Hamilton secondary school in Princes Town is named for him, and for Hamilton, a “Meriken” Baptist leader. She joined his church and received baptism by total immersion, the custom of the Baptists. According to the missionary account, after the ceremony she declared:
“I batize four times now, but only one time right! ‘Fore dem tief me in Africa, dem priests dere do somtin for batize; when me come to buckra [white man’s]country, dem catholic priests do what dem call batism; dem put oil on me head, salt in me mout, and make cross on me face; but now me read bible for me own self, me no find dis dere. When me join Cotch [Presbyterian] church, dem take me ‘gain and prinkle water in me face for batist, but neder dis right, when me come for know better; no more one way, same fashion blessed Saviour he self do”.
This assertion of faith, and of loyalty to English Baptist Christianity, marked the triumphant end of the missionary account of Maria’s life—it was after all a “conversion narrative”, a common type of literature in the nineteenth century, celebrating the conversion of the heathen (or, in Maria’s actual case, her move from one variant of Christianity to another).
But Maria entered the archival record one more time. At the age of around 80, she met E.B.Underhill, the noted English Baptist leader, during his visit to Trinidad in 1860, and he recorded this meeting in his book, The West Indies.
That Maria was a missionary success story is clear enough. But there is another story: of a rebellious and strong-minded woman who survived enslavement as a child, the Middle Passage, and decades of field labour in St Vincent and Trinidad; lived to a very old age despite the hardships of such a life; and appropriated Christianity in its rival forms as a source of empowerment and strength.
The preceding article also appeared in Trinidad and Tobago’s daily newspaper Daily Express