Nova Scotia missionaries left a lasting legacy on the island of Trinidad

·7 min read

In 1864, a Presbyterian minister from Nova Scotia arrived in Trinidad and changed the face of education on the island forever. But historians say his legacy isn't entirely positive.

Rev. John Morton was born to Scottish parents in Stellarton, N.S., then called Albion Mines, in 1839. He went on to study at the Free Church College in Halifax and was licensed and ordained to serve in Bridgewater, N.S., in 1861.

According to Rev. Peter Bush, editor of the Presbyterian Church in Canada's newsletter, Presbyterian History, in the winter of 1864 Morton left Nova Scotia for the Caribbean.

"He had, we think, diphtheria and for health reasons had traveled to Trinidad because his doctor ordered that he do that," Bush said in an interview.

The ship he sailed on was carrying salted fish and lumber — part of a thriving two-way trade between the British West Indies and Nova Scotia that had been happening since the 1700s.

While in Trinidad, Morton saw the condition of indentured Indians who had been brought from India to the island by the British, starting in 1845, to fill in the labour gap left by the abolition of slavery.

"He saw that the indentured Indian workers were not being served, not being cared for by any Christian group, that there were Presbyterians who were working with the Black community in Trinidad and with the Indigenous people of Trinidad. But no one was working with the indentured Indian workers," Bush said.

Ignored, alienated and ostracized

Between 1845 and 1917 over 140,000 Indians were transported to Trinidad to work on the island's sugar and cocoa estates. Most never returned to India.

Stephen Aziz
Stephen Aziz

Jerome Teelucksingh, a descendant of indentured Indians and lecturer in history at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, said Morton would have found these labourers living in wretched conditions and shunned by the rest of Trinidad society.

"They would have been ignored, they'd have been alienated, ostracized, the majority were poverty stricken," he said.

"And remember at that time the planters and the colonial-era British government were focused only on obtaining their labour so they were not concerned about their health, welfare or their culture. It was a state that was really despicable."

Convinced that he had to aid this growing community, Morton tried to enlist the help of Presbyterians in the United States and the Church of Scotland, but to no avail.

He returned home and found a receptive audience in Nova Scotia's Presbyterian community.

The Presbyterian Church in Nova Scotia was already familiar with foreign mission work, as Rev. John Geddie had been dispatched from Pictou, N.S., to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the South Pacific in 1846.

Morton's request for a mission was approved and, after raising funds for a year, he set off for Trinidad with his wife, Sarah, and his daughter Agnes — arriving in the capital, Port-of-Spain, on Jan. 3, 1868.

He set up a mission base and home in Iere Village in the south of the island but eventually moved his home to the southern town of San Fernando.

Submitted by Brinsley Samaroo
Submitted by Brinsley Samaroo

From the outset, Morton saw education as essential to his mission, according to Brinsley Samaroo, professor emeritus of history at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine.

"Most of these missionaries were Scottish Canadians, their ancestors had come from Scotland," he said. "The Scots have always been very, very much concerned about education. And ... whereas Morton was more concerned about evangelization, he used education as a tool towards that."

The indentured Indians in Trinidad had always been reluctant to enrol their children, and especially their daughters, in the Roman Catholic, Anglican or ward schools that served the white and African-Trinidadian populations.

At the time, Teelucksingh said, Indian children were despised and treated with contempt because of their dress, food, religion and culture. Schools also conducted classes exclusively in English, which most of the new immigrants could not speak.

Canadian Mission Indian schools

Realizing the daunting extent of his planned undertaking, Morton appealed to the church board in Nova Scotia for help and by 1870 he was joined by Rev. Kenneth James Grant from Merigomish, N.S.

They established a number of Canadian Mission Indian schools, which later became known simply as Canadian Mission schools.

Unlike other religious groups on the island, Morton and Grant opted to teach in the language of the indentured workers.

They initially imported Hindi and Urdu religious and teaching books from missions in India but eventually set up their own printing press locally.

By speaking their language and incorporating it into church services, classes and even the names of their churches, the efforts of the missionaries were embraced by the indentured labourers.

"All of that really appealed to the Indians because you were meeting them on their own ground and very slowly and subtly moving them away from that ground and onto a Christian ground," said Samaroo.

"But I think the most important thing is that they all understood that once they got a Western education via the missionaries, that was the beginning of the end of their life on the plantation."

The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives [G-3129-FC]
The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives [G-3129-FC]

The missionaries also provided material benefits to the Indian population, including food and medicines imported from Canada, according to Teelucksingh.

A few other male and female missionaries from the Maritimes went to Trinidad over the years, but the focus was always on training local converts to keep up with the tremendous demand for schools.

A Presbyterian theological college was established in 1892 and by 1894 a teachers' training college was opened.

As a historian of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Bush said he is fascinated by the fact the "mission in Trinidad is led largely by the Indian community."

"If you look at our records ... in Canada, our records record the names of teachers and lay missionaries, long lists of Indian names who are listed in our books as being members of the mission, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, in Trinidad."

Susan Baboolal-Sam/National Trust of Trinidad & Tobago
Susan Baboolal-Sam/National Trust of Trinidad & Tobago

Teelucksingh said in addition to opening numerous schools in areas with a high concentration of indentured Indians, the Canadian Mission also offered night classes for adults and women missionaries from Canada taught women "catechism and domestic chores."

The popularity of the education opportunities offered by the Nova Scotian missionaries and their use of locally trained teachers led to a rapid expansion of their mission.

Although conversion was not a requirement for taking part in their educational programs, it was a requirement for taking up teaching positions, and some Indians, though not the majority, converted for the opportunities it offered for upward mobility.

Samaroo estimated that by 1956 there were 71 Presbyterian elementary and secondary schools in Trinidad serving 3,000 students.

Unintended consequences

He said that the influence of the missions also caused unintended negative effects on the Indian community, and the island in general, that persist to this day.

According to Samaroo, Presbyterian Indians became alienated from their culture as they were taught that they shouldn't bother with their old cultural ways.

He said because their education allowed them to prosper and move away from the plantations, it allowed them to ascend into "a higher echelon of the society" and become an "elite Indian class."

Susan Baboolal-Sam/National Trust of Trinidad & Tobago
Susan Baboolal-Sam/National Trust of Trinidad & Tobago

Teelucksingh said this distinction lessened when Hindu and Muslim schools started to be established in the 20th century, allowing the rest of the Indian population to catch up.

He said it became evident that many converts were actually "temporary Presbyterians," as they went to teach at the new schools with many reverting to their previous religious practices.

The more problematic side-effect, according to Samaroo, was that the Canadian Mission deepened racial divisions on the island.

He said the creation of divisions was not deliberate or unique to the missionaries but part of the British colonial system of "divide and rule."

"By going to the Indians and speaking in Indian languages and calling churches after Indian names," Samaroo said, "it created antagonism because you didn't have too many Black people in the Presbyterian circle, very few of them ... and that created a kind of ethnic competition, a kind of ethnic antagonism."

Despite the creation of divisions within the Indian community and the wider community, Samaroo believes the Canadian Mission had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the island.

"I think they were the major agencies for the emancipation of the Indians from the plantations to the professions," he said. "And had they not come, I think it would have taken much longer for the Indians to escape the drudgery of the plantation."

Today, four of the most prestigious high schools in Trinidad & Tobago — Naparima College, Naparima Girls' High School, Hillview College and St. Augustine Girls' High School — can trace their roots directly back to the work of missionaries from Nova Scotia.

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