Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

An Indo-Trinidadian Man of the Cloth: Reverend Charles Bliss Ragbir, 1865-1951

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

An Indo-Trinidadian Man of the Cloth: Reverend Charles Bliss Ragbir, 1865-1951

Article excerpt


A victim and a champion: such was the man Charles Bliss Ragbir (1865-1951), one-time aspiring pundit, Presbyterian minister (Canadian Mission), and subsequently the first Indo-Trinidadian Anglican minister; he was also the superintendent of the Anglican Church's East Indian Mission for twenty years.

Indians occupied a peculiar position in Trinidadian society in the nineteenth century. From 1845 to 1919 they came to work on the sugar estates as indentured labourers. As long as the indentureship system lasted, the host society saw Indians primarily in terms of their contribution to the island's agriculture, particularly sugar. A network of legal constraints inherent in the indentureship system set the Indians apart from the rest of the society. Culturally, they formed a distinct group as well, with their dress, language, and religion - Hinduism for most and Islam for the minority - making them appear strange in the eyes of others. Moreover, as Brereton's brilliant study of race relations in Trinidad has shown, the dominant social groups, with their Euro-Christian perspective, despised the Indian culture and religion;1 in the unfortunate stereotype of the Indian, the latter's virtues became vices. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ragbir was a victim of racism in both the Canadian Mission and the Anglican Church. Yet this pioneering IndoTrinidadian preacher was also a champion. The life and work of Charles Bliss Ragbir suggest a pride in his Indian heritage despite his conversion to Christianity.

Ragbir's parents were Bhoojiah and Hera. Bhoojiah, his mother, who had already been married and had a child prior to her marriage to Hera, came to Trinidad around 1862 as an indentured immigrant, bringing her young son, Mahabir.2 She settled on a sugar estate in Cedros, probably Perseverance estate. It is not clear whether Hera had accompanied her on the long voyage from India or they met in Trinidad. The short biographical profile which Ragbir submitted to the editors of the Indian Centenary Review, a publication marking the hundredth anniversary of the Indian presence in Trinidad in 1945, revealed that he was born in Cedros in 1865.3 According to an Anglican cleric, Canon Winston Lament, who sought spiritual guidance from Ragbir in the 1930s, the latter was groomed from early childhood to become a pundit.4 Then at the age of twelve his path changed when he, like his half-brother, and indeed like so many fellow Indians, came under the influence of John Morton, founder of the Canadian Mission, a branch of the Presbyterian Church that worked exclusively among Indians in Trinidad.5 According to an extract from Morton's diary for 26 November 1877: "We have seven people living on the premises, some to teach, all requiring to be taught. One is Ragbir, a brother of David Mahabir, the interpreter at Cedros, staying here to attend school."6 The following month, on 16 December, Morton baptized Ragbir, the convert adopting the name Charles, after Mrs. Morton's brother.7


Without a doubt, Ragbir had an impressive academic record. It is known that some time between 1879 and 1883 he attended Queen's Royal College (QRC), one of the colony's two leading secondary schools;8 he was quite likely the first Indo-Trinidadian to attend that prestigious institution.9 Students attending QRC were mainly Protestant, wealthy, and white, while St. Mary's College, its rival, took in Catholic children. Fees were out of reach of ordinary folk and it is not clear who paid for Ragbir's secondary education. After QRC, he went on to Auburn Theological Seminary in New York (he may have attended QRC to obtain the matriculation requirement for Auburn).10 This came about through the interest of Annie Blackadder, a Canadian teacher who taught at Princes Town and later at Tacarigua.11 After four years at Auburn, he was ordained in New York in 1887.

Around the late 1880s or early 1890s, Ragbir married an American, Netta Genura Bliss. …

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