Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Rebel with a Cause: The Fall and Rise of Abbé Samuel Power

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Rebel with a Cause: The Fall and Rise of Abbé Samuel Power

Article excerpt

The schisms which occurred in the Roman Catholic church during the first half of the nineteenth century on the islands of Grenada (between 1829 and 1838) and Trinidad (between 1825 and 1841) have attracted the attention of various scholars.2 These were not schisms in the true theological sense but rather disputes with civil and ecclesiastical representatives. Their root cause was therefore not doctrinal but attributable to a complex conjuncture of social, sectarian, ideological and political issues. The schism in Grenada centred on an Irish priest, Antony O'Hannan (1792-1840), who had his licence to preach withdrawn by the Acting Governor in 1829 because he was branded an agitator. The schism in Trinidad, perhaps more intimately relevant to Samuel Power's case, involved a European-educated coloured priest, Francis Joseph de Ridder (1798-1833), the mulatto product of a Guyanese white planter and black slave.

De Ridder, along with Dr Jean-Baptiste Philippe (1796-1829), the son of a white elite planter, collaborated in the campaign to secure for the free coloureds full equality with the whites. O'Hannan became reconciled with his church in 1838, dying in Grenada two years later. De Ridder died in England in 1833 en route to Rome still trying to fight his case. Samuel Power, being sympathetic to their respective causes, played a supporting role first with O'Hannan in Grenada and later with de Ridder in Trinidad.3 Consequently, Power himself came into conflict with the Catholic hierarchy and the colonial authorities, suffering imprisonment, exile and persecution.4 Power's liberal attitudes, nondenominational inclinations, and fervent commitment to the education of slaves and the labouring classes, made him a rarity in his time for a Roman Catholic priest. This ethos naturally ran counter to the pro-Establishment stance of his church who at that time was less concerned about the social injustices suffered by the lower classes, nor particularly in favour of their education either.5

Power eventually became reconciled with his church after years of isolation, and in the final decade of his life was left to continue the spiritual and educational welfare of the lower classes to which he had consistently dedicated his life. Like his co-schismatics, Power condemned the powers that the church hierarchy invested in itself, and was firm in believing that the civil authorities should have no power over matters of faith. This common thread fused their unofficial alliance. Power's grievances with the colonial authorities and the Catholic hierarchy highlight some of the social and religious conflicts and issues in the British Caribbean before and after slave emancipation. His case therefore serves as a useful model for understanding these issues in the wider context.

Genesis of Schism

In order to provide a contextual framework within which Power's case may be better analysed it is first necessary to reconstruct a brief chronology that interweaves the events that took place in Grenada and Trinidad. This will also serve to introduce the principal dramatis personae (figure 1). O'Hannan arrived in Grenada in April 1828, some eighteen months before Power, and was appointed Rector of St George's church by the Vicar General of the Vicariate, Rev Guillaume Le Goff (1767-1833). Bishop James Buckley, First Vicar Apostolic of the West Indies vicariate from 1819, had died in March 1828, and it was not until June 1829 that his successor Bishop Daniel McDonnell arrived (figure 2).

O'Hannan and his new bishop soon came into conflict over the former's friction with a Spanish-speaking cleric and as a result, O'Hannan offered to resign. The conflict intensified further after McDonnell appointed two new priests to O'Hannan's church, prompting him to go back on his word and return. Consequently, Acting Governor (and President of the Council) Andrew Houston cancelled O'Hannan's licence to preach but he refused to give up his church. Chief Justice Jeffrey Hart Bent, also outspoken in his condemnation of the ill-treatment of slaves by some planters, opposed Houston's ruling insisting that no one could dispossess O'Hannan of the church and its land. …

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