'It had nothing to do with the Christian cross
BY ANGELA PIDDUCK Monday, August 20 2012
In 1969, seven years after Trinidad and Tobago became an Independent nation, Wilhelmina Alberta McDowell-Benjamin, a librarian with Central Library Services, entered a competition to design national awards for the country – the Trinity Cross, Humming Bird and Chaconia medals.
“I was given a lot of encouragement to enter the competition” she said in a 2006 interview with Newsday.
Mc Dowell-Benjamin’s Trinity Cross design won that competition, and at the first presentation of the award at the 1969 National Awards ceremony at President’s House, she received the “handsome” sum of $200 in Bonds, as her prize.
The National Awards of Trinidad and Tobago, acknowledging the involvement of citizens and non-nationals who have had a significant and positive impact on the twin island Republic, replaced those presented to citizens in Her Majesty The Queen’s birthday honours list, and from Independence Day August 31, 1969, have been presented in four categories annually – The Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago has now replaced the Trinity Cross, which was last awarded in 2005; The Chaconia Medal; The Humming Bird Medal and The Public Servants’ Medal of Merit. In 2011 a new category, The Medal for the Development of Women was introduced.
The recipients of the first Trinity Cross, the highest National Award in the twin island Republic were Dr Rudranath Capildeo for his contribution in the sphere of Science; Ellis Clarke (Sir) - CMG, QC who drafted the Constitution of Independent Trinidad and Tobago; Solomon Hochoy (His Excellency Sir) - GCMG, GCVO, OBE, the then Governor General and Ex-Officio of Trinidad and Tobago; Finbar Ryan (His Excellency Count) - OP in the sphere of religion – he was then Archbishop of Port-of-Spain; Hugh Wooding (The Right Honourable Sir) - PC, CBE, QC, for his contribution to Justice – he was then Chief Justice.
The Trinity Cross, specifically, was granted to nationals and non-nationals of Trinidad and Tobago who portrayed distinguished and outstanding service to the country and was also awarded for gallantry in the face of the enemy, or for gallant conduct. The identifying colour on the Borders of Ribbons for this medal was gold.
Mc Dowell-Benjamin, a very laid back woman who has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for more than 40 years, and had, up to the Newsday interview in June 2006 never seen the actual medal, remembered, “There was no computer back in 1969, so it was designed in pen and ink, submitted, and someone else made the medal. I did not think of photocopying in those days and it is only recently that a copy was given to me.”
However, soon after a story appeared in Sunday Newsday, in which an appeal had been made to those in receipt of this award to take the medal to show the now physically handicapped woman, Joyce Ramcharan answered the appeal and brought her late father Arnold Thomasos’ Trinity Cross to show this courageous woman.
Born in Montserrat, the sixth of James and Cecilia Mc Dowell’s seven children, “Mina,” as she has always been called, came to live in Trinidad at age four. In 1971, she married Father David Benjamin, the curate at St Crispin’s Anglican Church where she worshipped, and had one child, Cecilia. Her husband died in 1994.
When Newsday interviewed her in 2006, Mina revealed that, after several surgeries including a leg amputation, she had only stopped driving a year before, and we found out nothing kept her back as she used two pencils to work the computer and looked after her then five-year-old granddaughter, Dominique.
Eighty-nine designs for the award had been submitted; Mina’s winning design represented Trinidad and Tobago, not only by the hills, but the supporting birds from the Coat of Arms – the Ibis and Cocrico. After agonising over the type of cross she should put, and since there were so many meanings in the encyclopedia which had different crosses for Christians, and even the one on the voting ballot was described as a cross, Mina wondered why the committee chose the Trinity Cross.
“I had to analyse and come up with a design meaning for distinguished service... so I chose an ornament in some form of cross worn as a distinction by knights of various orders and by persons honoured for exceptional merit or bravery.
“Yet when I looked at the name “Trinity’ proposed by the committee, the first thought was Trinity was quite appropriate because Trinidad is named after the Trinity including the three hills. It had nothing to do with the Christian cross. Can you imagine my shock when the dispute arose?” she said.
Mina was referring to the movement to have the award changed on the grounds that the Trinity Cross did not represent a true national award involving all religious denominations of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1995 Pundit Krishna Maharaj refused to accept the award for social work on those grounds. A 1997 Cabinet-appointed committee suggested that the “Order of Trinidad and Tobago” be considered as the Trinity Cross was perceived as a Christian symbol in a multi-religious society. A constitutional motion was filed by Satnarayan Maharaj, secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, and Inshan Ishmael, president of the Islamic Relief Centre challenging the constitutionality of the Trinity Cross on the grounds that its existence and award were in breach of their fundamental rights under the Constitution.
In 2006, Justice Peter Jamadar ruled that the Trinity Cross was a Christian symbol and as a result it discriminated in a multi-religious society. However he also ruled that it was a matter for Parliament to change as it was protected under the Constitution.
Mina told Newsday, “I did not get involved but just watched with interest what was happening and on the final day of the hearings in 2005 when Russell Martineau said it was a poor imitation of a cross, I called and agreed with him. I told him if it were Christian, I never would have designed a cross like that but would have made the cross-bar higher because that is what a cross is like.”
After some years of dissension as to the religious connotation of the words “Trinity Cross” in our pluralistic society, the highest National Award was on April 17, 2008, replaced with the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (ORTT). One year later, the Privy Council found the choice of name, “Trinity Cross” had been unconstitutional.
When Newsday spoke to her in 2006, Mina wouldn’t say, “I am upset” but rather, “I would say I am saddened. But change has to take place and if it does take place we should be gracious about it. I thank God for the privilege of having designed that Cross and having it used for half of my lifetime.”
The ORTT was first awarded in 2008. The first recipients were Professor Brian Copeland, Bertram “Bertie” Lloyd Marshall, and Anthony Williams all for steelpan development.