RADHICA DE SILVA
Just over two centuries ago, about 20 years before slavery ended in the British Caribbean, a group of demoralised free Black soldiers and their families made their home in Princes Town.
They were among the black soldiers who fought for the British against the United States from 1812 to 1814. At the time they settled, the sugar estates of Princes Town were still fuelled by slave labour and these slaves developed a healthy respect for the free Blacks who were versed in herbal medicinal secrets, carpentry, and other artisanal skills.
Known as the Merikins, the descendants of these families have continued to build the community of Princes Town both culturally and economically.
These families continued to practice their traditional way of life and have remained proud of their heritage.
Shaping the cultural landscape of Princes Town, the descendants have formed linkages with the Maroons of Jamaica and Suriname and have boosted community tourism by holding celebrations of their history.
Their descendants have also been vociferous champions of change some of whom are former education minister Hazel Manning and Naparima MP Rodney Charles.
In an interview, Charles said the Merikins have preserved their traditional lifeways.
"We are versed in the knowledge of herbal remedies and most families grow their own food," Charles said. Unlike other black families, the Merikins owned land. Their families had been given 16 acres of land and this was divided and passed down through generations. They used these lands to plant food. The Moruga Hill rice which is now fetching a lucrative price on the international market grows using the traditional farming strategies of the Merikins.
Despite their proud legacy, the Merikins like other residents of Princes Town have not been spared from crime and violence. Some of the descendants who live in Sixth Company and Fifth Company have become slaves to drug abuse and addiction which has forced some families into poverty.
Mary Cooper (not her real name) said although her family had a proud legacy, her brothers have gone on the wrong side of the law.
"There are too many bad influences here. This is why some of the Merikin families have ended up poor," she said.
Much like their forefathers did, some of the Merikin activists have lobbied for assistance and under the PNM Government, housing units are not under construction for the Merikin descendants.
MP for the area Dr Lovell Francis, MP for Moruga/Tableland said levels of poverty in Gomez Trace, Moruga, were astonishing so 42 single-family units have been built at St Mary's Village, Moruga and a further 29 units will be completed by the end of October.
"The Merikins were responsible for the growth and development of a number of communities either around Princes Town like The Company Villages and Moruga or communities that make up the wider Princes Town area like New Grant. Without these communities, Princes Town would not have developed into the critical "Central Point" in this case as an important commercial and transit centre that it is today. So both, directly and indirectly, the Merikin people and their communities have assisted greatly in the growth and development of Princes Town," he said.
Curwin Callender, a former Assistant Divisional Fire officer and co-director at the Merikin Heritage Foundation (MHF) has been one of those preserving the artefacts of the Merikin people.
Among his treasures are tools including the head of a sledgehammer, a short cutlass with a guava-wood handle, horseshoes, and other trinkets. The original Merikins brought carpentry and other artisanal skills with them and passed them down.
Apart from setting up a museum, the Merikins plan to set up a heritage village, promote cultural caravans and participate in competitions which can bring in financial aid for the community.