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Roman Catholicism in our national history

What has been the role of Roman Catholicism in our national history?

That was the topic for discussion on the evening of Independence Day at a virtual forum titled ‘Our Nation, Our Faith, Our History’ hosted by the Catholic Youth Commission.

Dr Peter Timothy, Episcopal Delegate for Evangelisation and historian, was the presenter. Dr Timothy began by stating that it was impossible in the time allotted to share on all the Church and its members have done in the development of the nation. Instead, he highlighted, through a PowerPoint presentation, and references, some key aspects.

He said long before the coming of the Europeans to Trinidad, our indigenous people had developed their own communities “some more advanced than others”.
The arrival of the Europeans had “a profound effect” on the region and its indigenous peoples. The Europeans came to conquer and saw the islands as possessions, with the peoples “there to serve them or service them”. This, Dr Timothy said, is an important point to note in the relationship between colonies and their mother country.

Dr Timothy explained that Trinidad was first a Spanish colony and delved briefly into the geo-political situation in Spain. He said in the 16th century, there were three provinces: Castile, Aragon, and Granada. The marriage between King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella brought together Castile and Aragon. Granada was controlled then by the Moors who were Muslims. It took a war to conquer the Moors and unify Spain.
Trinidad, ruled by the Spanish from 1498 to 1797, became “an important stop-off point” for the Spaniards on their way to the South American mainland in their search for gold.
Dr Timothy spoke of the Spaniards setting up St Joseph as the capital with other small settlements. The Church sent missionaries to these settlements to evangelise the indigenous peoples. One mission was set up in Arena, east Trinidad. Dr Timothy highlighted a flashpoint: in 1699 the indigenous peoples killed Dominican missionary priests, a visiting governor, and his party. One person survived and returned to St Joseph. Spanish troops returned to Arena and killed the indigenous peoples.

Over time, the relationship between the Spanish colonisers and the indigenous peoples improved. By then, fertile Trinidad was seen by the Spanish crown as a plantation colony. In 1783, the Spaniards introduced the Cedula of Population, allowing land grants to potential immigrants. There were restrictions: immigrants had to be Catholic, willing to follow Spanish law, and be subject to the powers of Spain. The majority of immigrants came from the French Caribbean islands, but there were some Irish and English.

By 1797, the British took over Trinidad and faced the of challenge how to govern non-British people, promote labour and anglicise the colony.
Dr Timothy also addressed the issue of enslaved persons and the historical significance of the Catholic and Anglican Churches being seen as the churches of the slave masters.

He also spoke of the critical role the Church played inviting religious orders and congregations to educate the population before 1962 when Catholic schools were seen as being solely for the elite.

A brief Q and A followed with Dr Timothy asking participants if they had noticed anything during his talk. With no reply, he said the obvious question would be what about Tobago? He explained that Tobago’s history was unlike Trinidad’s as they were not influences by the Spaniards. “In Tobago, Catholicism is a minority. They were two separate colonies with two separate histories.”

Episcopal Delegate for Youth Taresa Best-Downes said other talks will be held in coming months, with one hopefully to focus on the Church and race

By Raymond Syms

Twitter: @RaymsCN