I is for Lewis Osborne Innis (1848-1940)

L. O. Innis was born in Demerara (Guyana) and came to Trinidad with his family as a young child; his father was a head teacher in one of the island’s new government primary schools in the 1850s and 1860s. After school in Port of Spain, he qualified as a “licensed druggist” and owned and managed a “drug emporium” in the capital city, one of the few Afro-Trinidadians to own a business in the late nineteenth century. He was a prominent member of the Baptist Church and held important posts in it, as well as writing its history in Trinidad. Innis died in Trinidad in 1940.

Selwyn Cudjoe has called Innis one of the “premier men of letters” in Port of Spain’s small intelligentsia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1910, he published Trinidad and Trinidadians: A Collection of Papers, Historical, Social and Descriptive, about Trinidad and its People. Among other items, it includes “personal reminiscences of fifty years” and essays about local proverbs, folklore, Creole remedies and indigenous fruits and vegetables. Innis also published shorter pieces, such as Reminiscences of Old Trinidad (1932), Creole Folk Lore (1923), and “Carnival in the Old Days (From 1858)” (The Beacon, April 1932, No. xii). As a prominent lay member of the London Baptist denomination, Innis published two short books on his church: Diamond Jubilee of Baptist Missions in Trinidad, 1843-1903 (1903) and Short History of St John’s Baptist Church (1929).

Innis was also a playwright, and two of his plays were published in his 1910 book: Mura, the Cacique’s Daughter and Carmelita, the Belle of San José. Both have been republished in Cudjoe’s Narratives of Amerindians in Trinidad and Tobago (2013). These two plays were, according to Michael Anthony, “well-known works in their time”. Carmelita was written and performed in 1897 to commemorate the centenary of the British conquest of Trinidad. It re-imagines this event through the romantic tale of Carmelita, daughter of a local cacique who’s been mistreated by the Spanish, and Frank Norton, an English officer. They marry, symbolic of better times for the island “under the strong but gentle and beneficent rule of England”. This play enjoyed considerable public success, according to Cudjoe. Mura was written and performed in 1898 for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of Trinidad by Columbus. It imagines his arrival and the response of the Amerindians of the island, and it portrays their enslavement and humiliation by the Spanish invaders. Eventually, Mura (daughter of a chief, or ‘cacique’) marries another chief, Caonabo, and they escape to the mainland.

Innis was an important member of Port of Spain’s small literary world between the 1890s and the 1920s, long before the celebrated ‘Trinidad Awakening’ of the early 1930s.

—Bridget Brereton

More about the author

In a 2016 lecture , scholar Selwyn R. Cudjoe described Innis as “Trinidad’s premier folklorist of the 19th century.”

The full text of Trinidad and Trinidadians: A Collection of Papers, Historical, Social and Descriptive, about Trinidad and its People (1910) is available online.

An early 20th-century ad from Innis’ pharmacy in Trinidad illustrates his position as one of the few Black business owners on the island.

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