The Merikins were African-American Marines of the War of 1812 – former African slaves who fought for the British against the USA in the Corps of Colonial Marines and then, after post-war service in Bermuda, were established as a community in the south of Trinidad and Tobago in 1815–16. They were settled in an area populated by French-speaking Catholics and retained cohesion as an English-speaking, Baptist community. It is sometimes said that the term "Merikins" derived from the local patois, but as many Americans have long been in the habit of dropping the initial 'A' it seems more likely that the new settlers brought that pronunciation with them from the United States. Some of the Company villages and land grants established back then still exist in Trinidad today.
During the American Revolution, the British recruited Freedmen. After that war, the British settled the Marines in colonies of British Empire including Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas. During the War of 1812, there was a policy that was somewhat similar except that Freedmen were treated as free as soon as they came into British hands and there were no conditions nor bargains attached to recruitment. Six companies of Freedmen were recruited into a Corps of Colonial Marines along the Atlantic coast, from Chesapeake Bay to Georgia.
Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, on taking over the command of British forces on the North America station on 2 April 1814, issued a proclamation offering a choice of enlistment or resettlement:
...all who may be disposed to emigrate from the UNITED STATES will, with their Families, be received on board His Majesty's Ships or Vessels of War, or at the Military Posts that may be established, upon or near the Coast of the UNITED STATES, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE Settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with due encouragement...
Cochrane's recruitment of the Colonial Marines, mostly in the Chesapeake, went doubly against his orders from the British government, who had instructed him to accept volunteers for military service only from Georgia and South Carolina and to send all such volunteers away immediately for training overseas for the Army.
After the end of the War, the Colonial Marines were first stationed at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda. Although they had signed on for a militaty life, they rejected government orders to be transferred to the West India Regiments, and finally agreed to be settled in Trinidad and Tobago.
The Governor of Trinidad, Sir Ralph Woodford, wanted to increase the number of small farmers in that colony and arranged for the creation of a village for each company on the Naparima Plain in the south of the island. Local planter Robert Mitchell managed the establishment and maintenance of the settlements, petitioning the governor for supplies when needed.
Unlike the American refugees who were brought to Trinidad in 1815 in ships of the Royal Navy, HMS Carron and HMS Levant, the Veteran Marines were brought there in 1816, with their families, in the hired transports Mary & Dorothy and Lord Eldon . There were 574 former soldiers plus about 200 women and children. To balance the sexes, more black women were subsequently recruited – women who had been freed from other places such as captured French slave ships. The six companies were each settled in a separate village under the command of a corporal or sergeant, who maintained a military style of discipline. Some of the villages were named after the companies and the Fifth and Sixth Company villages still retain those names.
The villages were in a forested area of the Naparima Plain near a former Spanish mission, La Misión de Savana Grande. Each of the Veteran Marines were granted 16 acres of land and some of these plots are still farmed today by descendants of original settlers. The land was fertile but the conditions were primitive initially as the land had to be cleared and the lack of roads was an especial problem. It is sometimes said that some of the settlers were craftsmen more used to an urban environment and, as they had been expecting better, they were disgruntled and some returned to America, but this comment applies to later free Black American settlers, who came from towns, and not to the Veteran Colonial Marines, who were all refugees from the rural areas of the Cheasapeake and Georgia. The settlers built houses from the timber they felled, and planting crops of bananas, cassava, maize and potatoes.  Rice was introduced from America and was especially useful because it could be stored for long periods without spoiling.
Twenty years after the initial establishment, the then governor Lord Harris supported improvements to the infrastructure of the settlements and arranged for the settlers to get deeds to their lands, so confirming their property rights as originally stated on arrival, though it is not clear that the initiative was carried through universally.  As they prospered, they became a significant element in Trinidad's economy. Their agriculture advanced from subsistence farming to include cash crops of cocoa and sugar cane. Later, oil was discovered and then some descendants were able to lease their lands for the mineral rights. Others continued as independent market traders.
Many of the original settlers were Baptists from evangelical sects common in places such as Georgia and Virginia. The settlers kept this religion, which was reinforced by missionary work by Baptists from London who helped organise the construction of churches in the 1840s. The villages had pastors and other religious elders as authority figures and there was a rigorous moral code of abstinence and the puritan work ethic. African traditions were influential too and these included the gayap system of communal help, herbal medicine and Obeah – African tribal science. A prominent elder in the 20th century was "Papa Neezer" – Samuel Ebenezer Elliot (1901–1969) – who was a descendant of an original settler, George Elliot, and renowned for his ability to heal and cast out evil spirits. His syncretic form of religion included veneration of Shango, prophecies from the "Obee seed" and revelation from the Psalms. The Spiritual Baptist faith is a legacy of the Merikin community.
The following people are descended from this community:
- Tina Dunkley, American museum director
- Hazel Manning, Trinidadian senator and education minister
- Althea McNish, British textile designer
- Brent Sancho, footballer, Minister for Sport for Trinidad and Tobago
- Black Refugee (War of 1812) – similar communities established in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Citations and references
- NALIS 2016.
- Weiss 2002.
- UK National Archives ADM 1/4228
- John McNish Weiss, "‘Averse to any kind of controul’: American refugees from slavery building the new Royal Naval Dockyard at Bermuda", June 2012.
- UK National Archives ADM 1/3319, Field Officers' letters to Admy, 1815-1819.
- Express 2011.
- Anthony 2008.
- Margarite Fernández Olmos, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, "Obeah, Myal, and Quimbois", Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo, NYU Press, 2011 (2nd edn), p. 164.
- Tony Martin, The Pan-African Connection: From Slavery to Garvey and Beyond, The Majority Press, 1984, p. 15.
- "The Merikins", SocaWarriors, 14 February 2012.
- Express 2012.
- Kamminga & Walters 2016, p. 32.
- Anthony, Michael (2008). "Fifth Company Village". NALIS Research. National Library of Trinidad and Tobago.
- Dunkley, Tina (2015). The Merikins: Forgotten Freedom Fighters in the War of 1812. Plain Vision. ISBN 978-0991059454.
- Huggins, Alfred B. (2014). The Saga of the Companies: A History of the Merikin Settlers in Trinidad. Plain Vision. ISBN 978-0991059447.
- Kamminga, Caitlyn; Walters, Adam (2016). River of Freedom. Plain Vision. ISBN 978-0997166408.
- "The Merikins: Free Black Settlers 1815–1816". NALIS Research. National Library of Trinidad and Tobago. 2016.
- Rodriguez (ed.), Junius P. (2007). Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 1. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 031333272X.
- "How the Merikins came to Moruga". Sunday Express. Trinidad & Tobago. 5 December 2011.
- "A Merikins Legacy". Sunday Express. Trinidad & Tobago. 24 March 2012.
- Weiss, John McNish (2002). The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad. London. ISBN 0-9526460-5-6.
- Weiss, John McNish (26 May 2015). The Corps of Colonial Marines: Black freedom fighters of the War of 1812. London.
- "The Merikins", SocaWarriors.com, 14 February 2012.