Dr Rita Pemberton
The contrasting attitudes of plantation owners and the freed African population to the implementation of the law that terminated enslavement in the British Caribbean possessions in 1838, set the stage for ongoing tension and conflict in post emancipation Caribbean. While plantation owners received a compensation package of a £20 million grant for the loss of their “property,” and the apprenticeship system which allowed them an extra four-year control over the labour of the workers, there was no compensation to the Africans – neither for the years of free labour that was extracted from them nor for the future development of the Africans as free workers in the society. Also, it was very significant that no changes were made to the self-serving administrative system, which remained planter controlled and devoted to the maintenance of the status quo. Thus, plantation owners were able to use their control of the arms of government to try to force workers to accept low wages and poor working conditions and prevent the social change they feared.
But the desire for liberation which existed from the start of enslavement, became aggravated with information on the impending freedom that were made by churchmen and to the heated expressions of condemnation and opposition of the effort by the planters. In their determination to free themselves from continued planter control, the Africans engaged in a number of resistance strategies.
In Tobago, emancipation occurred when the island’s sugar industry was already in decline, a process that was evident since the beginning of the 19th century. Planters feared that emancipation would cause them to lose their labour force and destroy the industry they were determined to avoid at all costs. To them it was most convenient to maintain the conditions of enslavement, offer low wages with the hope they could wring profits, while using the legal system to prop up the industry. Planters acted in defiance of sugar market trends and stubbornly held on to sugar production while forcing the free people to remain on the estates. The Tobago workers, in defiance mode, engaged in several strategies to liberate themselves.
There was no resource allocation to the freed Africans in Tobago, but the Africans valued land holding as the means to achieve their independence. Hence their desire for independence formed a part of their liberation strategy. These land-owning ambitions, made very clear from the onset of emancipation, were not easily attainable because there was no free land on the island. All the cultivable land had been sold to investors for conversion into plantations after British rule was established in 1763. Since then, Tobago’s land remained under tight control of planters and their sympathisers. But the Africans were determined to make use of a every opportunity that presented itself.
Planter labour policy provided such an opportunity. It was considered advantageous to establish a resident labour force and planters were willing to rent or sell portions of their estates to workers. Because land prices were made deliberately high, only a small number of freed men and women were able to buy land during the early years of freedom. But the majority rented house spots which gave them access to land to be used as pastures and as provision grounds, helping them to increase their incomes. Access to land became a first step in the journey to becoming landowners and to the creation of communities, many of which developed around estates.
The next stage in the process was the development of villages, which occurred during the 1840s. These villages were nucleated around estates, churches, and locations where facilities existed. This process was influenced by several factors: the growing indebtedness of planters; the quest by the churches to increase their congregations; the desire of the freed people to take advantage of the opportunities the churches offered to improved their circumstances; and their desire to settle in areas where employment possibilities and communication were best.
The villages of Mason Hall, Elsinore and Mt St George developed around Methodist churches; Mt Grace, Cinnamon Hill, St Cecelia, Hoogly Bush, Moriah and Montgomery, around the Moravian church; and Parlatuvier was created by migrants from Leeward Tobago who were attracted by the low land prices there. Most population movements favoured the Leeward side of the island in places such as Signal Hill, Patience Hill, Hopeton and Milford. Some freed men and women settled in districts around Scarborough which had been settled by free people before emancipation. This was the site of the most rapid post-emancipation population growth on the island and resulted in an increase in the population of Calder Hall, Rockly Vale, and Morne Quiton.
Further possibilities were created by the challenges facing the sugar industry across the 19th century. Unfavourable trade and imperial policies, especially the 1846 Sugar Duties Act and the 1847 hurricane, made it impossible to resuscitate the sugar industry and led to an increase in the number of abandoned estates and the number of cash-strapped planters. Fearing a total loss of labour would cripple the sugar industry, planters used the force of law to restrict Africans from gaining access to land, but without success because debt ridden planters found themselves forced to sell to any buyer. The village of Moriah was created by the sale of cash-strapped Indian Walk Estate to labourers and in 1854. Land from Prospect Estate was sold to workers in an attempt to attract labour.
When Tobago estates failed to attract buyers on the London market, the indebted properties were put under the Encumbered Estates Courts which functioned between 1865 and 1884 and sold land to labourers. The estates were: Pigeon Point, Grafton, Old Grange, New Grange, Buccoo, Hampden Kendal Place, Prospect, Betsy’s Hope, Richmond. Glamorgan, Goldsborough, Goodwood, Charlotteville, Kendal Place Lucy Vale, Kings Bay, Grafton, Courland, Prospect and Whim. Portions of Auchenskeoch estate created Carnbee and Lambeau villages.
The last phase of village development occurred at the end of the 19th century, when the crash of the sugar industry forced the government to sell land in small parcels. This created the landed peasantry which became a feature of 20th century Tobago. These peasants added to the population of the existing villages and created villages that carry the names of the estate from which the land was purchased.
It is to be noted that these villages developed without any planning or direction from any agency of the administration, hence survival was dependent upon co-operation among the residents, leading to community bonding. This was expressed through traditional activities of such as len’ han’ in cultivation and home construction, celebrations such as christenings and weddings, and funeral rites. The community took care of its problems, established its annual recreation activities, created distinct identity from (top side or low side), and engaged in a healthy rivalry with neighbouring villages – each of which claimed to be the best team or performer.
Tobago communities emerged from a desire to own land as a liberating force from plantation control. The development of communities proceeded through phases: access to land, individual land purchases, rented land, settlements created by sales from the estates, stimulants from churches, and the need to be close to better facilities and employment opportunities. It was cemented by the use of African traditions and driven by the desire for, and determination to achieve freedom from planter control.
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