By Tom Cunningham
“[I]n Trinidad, every species of criminality is lost in the blaze and glare of whiteness […] Man can brook every variety of misfortune, but cannot meekly endure sarcasm or affront. To these the coloured are constantly exposed from the white inhabitants […] their every complaint is construed into mutiny.”
A Free Mulatto (1823).
Graduating in medicine in 1815 with a thesis on “Hysterical Moods”, Trinidadian Jean-Baptiste Philip (sometimes written “Phillipe”) was one of the first black medical students at Edinburgh, and one of the first black doctors to practice in the Caribbean. A slave-owner, sugar plantation-owner and member of the Trinidadian social elite, Philip is a complex figure. He is best known for his 1823 work A Free Mulatto: An Address to the Right Hon. Earl Bathurst. Informed by liberal Enlightenment thought – which Philip engaged with during his time in Edinburgh, and subsequently, in continental Europe in salons on Paris and the low countries – Free Mulatto was an attack on the injustices “coloured” people faced in Trinidad.
“Coloured” in this context was a category that confused race and enfranchisement; it encompassed the “free Black” population, and excluded “slaves.” In Free Mulatto Philip called on the governor of Trinidad to extend to Trinidad’s “coloureds” the “civil and political privileges” that whites enjoyed. Critiquing the scourge of “whiteness”, and everyday inequalities (night curfews, taxes on dances, segregation in churches, prejudice against black doctors), Free Mulatto has been hailed as a seminal, landmark piece in Caribbean literature. At the same time, although Philip spoke of his compassion for enslaved people, Free Mulatto was conservative in its demands: Philip did not demand the abolition of the institution of slavery and his pleas for the rights of “coloureds” reinforced differences within Trinidad’s black population.