The question of the meaning and significance of the commemoration of emancipation on August 1st of every year to Muslims of African descent, and indeed Muslims in general, in Trinidad is an interesting one. Without even the slightest room for doubt, the occasion of the 1st August 1834 – the date which marked the official abolition of slavery in British colonies, is a watershed moment, not only in the history of those places where slavery was practiced, but in the history of the world at large. For African chattel slavery, it is argued, was undoubtedly one of the most brutal forced-migration of a people en masse in the recorded history of humanity.
But the question of the meaning of emancipation being referred to here has nothing to do with a suspicion about the significance of the day itself as an important commemoration of the end of almost 300 years of infernal displacement and subjugation; neither is it about anything to do with the legitimacy of participation in the events surrounding the day from the perspective of Islamic law. Rather, the question is one which emerges simply from a reflection on the historical experience of African Muslims in this part of the world and what emancipation meant to them.
The historical record of African Muslims i.e. Muslims born in Africa, arriving in this part of the world, and in Trinidad in particular, is well documented. As with much of the episodes in the history of this island, the story of its people only really develops into a sustained plot from after the cedula of population of 1783. It was this document which facilitated the importation of large numbers of African slaves into the island. Prior to this time, however, the slave population in the country was very small (the population of the entire island in 1782 was only 2,813!). It is recorded that approximately 19% of the slaves imported into the island directly from Africa came from the regions of the Gold Coast, Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and the Bight of Benin – areas which would have supplied sizeable numbers of Muslims.
There are also records of African Muslim settlements on the island. In this regard, three communities in particular stand out – the ones at Valencia, Manzanilla and Port-of-Spain. The communities of Valencia and Manzanilla were established by the British for the settlement of demobilized African troops who fought in the Third and Sixth West India Regiment in wars against the French further up the Caribbean chain of islands. These communities were characterized by their isolation from the remainder of the African population on the island – after all, it would have been a very bad idea to have Africans with military experience in close proximity to their fellow Africans on the plantations, wouldn’t it?
Nonetheless, this plan to keep them isolated and out of contact with other Africans worked to the advantage of the development of a distinct Muslim presence and practice of Islam in these villages. This is evidenced from the testimony, in 1841, of the Reverend J. H. Hamilton, rector of the Church of England over Tacarigua, Arouca, and Arima who lamented that:
From the entire want, for long years, of clerical instruction, even the outward form of Christianity has almost disappeared amongst them; indeed, melancholy to relate, many of them have relapsed into the errors of Mahometanism [i.e. Islam], under the guidance of three Mandingo priests established amongst them. One of their number can write, and has copied portions of the Koran, which he reads to his assembled followers, and to whom they seem to look up with the greatest reverence.
Hamilton identified this leader as Seyimah Brock, who “appears to possess an extraordinary influence over the settlers of that faith.” Prof. Michael Gomez writes that “by 1841…Quare (i.e. Valencia) and Manzanilla were predominantly Muslim.” Dr. Sylvianne Diouf mentioned about the settlers of these communities that in the early 1820s they built “what seems to be the first documented consecrated mosque” in the Americas. The ranks of these Muslims were strengthened by the arrival of Muhammad Sisse, who is recorded to have been a school-teacher in his native Gambia before being captured and eventually arriving in Trinidad. He is said to have helped strengthen those already in the faith while working to convert others, such that “a complete regiment was converted to Islam in Trinidad.” Sisse eventually moved to Port-of-Spain where he joined up with the Muslim community headed by Yunus Muhammad Bath.
Of all the African Muslim communities in Trinidad, both in the pre- and post-emancipation period, the Mandingo Society of Port-of-Spain, as it was called, is the most well-known and documented. This community of Muslims “formed a distinct society of themselves strictly bound together by their Mohammedan faith.” The community actually functioned as a cooperative with the objective of “the manumission of its members.” So that by the declaration of emancipation in 1834, the Muslims boasted in a petition to the King of England that “on the memorable first day of August one thousand, eight hundred and thirty-four [i.e. 1st August 1834]…Your Memorialists can safely, and with truth, assert, very few, if any of their tribe in the island of Trinidad remained in slavery…Your Memorialists had long before unfettered themselves, their tribe and their families, by the fruits of their joint and industrious efforts.” It is estimated that around 150 Muslims were manumitted by the society before emancipation in 1834.
It is for the reasons discussed above, and others not mentioned, that Prof. Gomez states that “[w]hile the Islam introduced by Africans would eventually go into eclipse in Trinidad, the fact remains that the African Muslim presence there constitutes one of the largest, most organized, most vibrant, most enduring, and most influential African Muslim communities in all of the Americas prior to the twentieth century, perhaps rivalled only by their coreligionists in Brazil.”
Now, (after that brief sojourn into the past) back to the question about the meaning of emancipation to Muslims in Trinidad (and Tobago). For us, the occasion certainly cannot be about evoking misplaced sentiments of pride in such matters as “blackness” or “African-ness” as we see with other groups, for the Qur’an and the hadeeth explicitly denounce deriving any special merit or social standing from such superficial qualities; and indeed, as was discussed above, the early African Muslims derived their distinction and sought communal associations with others on the basis of their common faith, rather than the simple matter of them all coming from the same continent. Perhaps it is this identification with their faith over and above the colour of their skin which led one of them to gift a copy of the Quran to one of his Indian brethren in a gesture of goodwill and, one might confidently assert, solidarity.
Come the 1st of August, it is this spirit of resoluteness and determination of the African Muslims to overcome all adversity in order to adhere to Islam and fashion their lives according to its teachings, even in hostile environment, which we should be commemorating and celebrating.
 Taken from Prof. Michael A. Gomez’s “Black Cresent: the experience and legacy of African Muslims in the Americas,” pg. 80: “Their presence and contributions were recognized by East Indian Muslims arriving in Trinidad after 1845, such that in 1946 the esteemed Indian elder Syad Mohammed Hosein recalled that, during his childhood, he had been shown an Arabic Qur’an by a person whose father had received it as a gift from a “Mandingo.””