The emergence of Tobago’s black land-owning class

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


Since the start of the 1800s, it was clear that Tobago’s economy was on a downhill path. Conflicts between Britain and France over the island took their toll on plantation operations, from which some never recovered. As a result, several estates were advertised for sale in London.

The rate at which plantations changed hands was an indication that all was not well in the island’s sugar industry. The pace of change accelerated after the termination of the trade in captured and enslaved Africans in 1808, and more so after emancipation in 1838, when there was strong evidence that the planting community was in financial trouble.

It was the firm belief of the planting community that the existing labour force was inadequate to their needs, and they unsuccessfully sought avenues to import labour.

The situation worsened during the second half of the century, when the island’s problems were aggravated by the 1846 Sugar Duties Act. This law, which reflected the extent of the wider commercial interest of the imperial government, removed the protection that sugar produced in the British Caribbean colonies had enjoyed on the British market since the 1660 Navigation Acts were passed. The law was a blow to the planters of Tobago, who produced poor-quality sugar which could not compete on the international market and would fetch the lowest prices.

There was more bad news for Tobago planters the following year, when the island was hit by a disastrous hurricane which destroyed a significant portion of the sugar works. This calamity further aggravated the problems of the planters, who were out of production for an entire season, while they appealed to the British government for assistance to restore their operations.

Since the assistance was inadequate to fund the badly needed modernisation of the Tobago sugar industry, the old works were repaired and put back into service. The industry therefore remained a wasteful, old-fashioned producer of poor-quality sugar that was unable to benefit from the new technology available.

Despite these setbacks, the members of the planting community and their representatives in the island’s administration were determined to maintain sugar-plantation operations. This meant their main production strategy was an emphasis on the control of labour, because it was necessary to ensure that the freed African population continued to provide the plantations’ labour needs. However, the freed Africans were determined to pursue their ambition to attain independence from the estates by acquiring their own piece of land.

Plantation owners, who were fully cognisant of the importance the freed Africans placed on land-owning, sought to prevent them from doing so. Despite their financial problems, large plantation owners continued to exert tight controls on land resources. They implemented a number of strategies intended to retard the achievement of African ambitions and guarantee that they remained as labourers under planter control.

These strategies were supported by laws implemented by their representatives in the council and House of Assembly which together constituted what can best be described as a wall of planter domination. This was intended to function as a barrier restricting freed Africans from engaging in activities outside of plantation labour.

The first part of the strategy was to prevent the freed Africans from owning land. Right after Emancipation there was a gentleman’s agreement not to sell land to them. Laws were passed against squatting, while plantation owners kept close watch on abandoned estates and crown land to prevent illegal occupation.

When land was sold, the sellers engaged in a number of unscrupulous activities. They sold bad, inaccessible, uncultivable land – steep hillsides, swampy and rocky land – and lands which they did not own. They provided neither deeds nor receipts for land sale, and a number of eager African purchasers lost their savings and had no recourse.

In addition, land was sold at extremely high prices – £20 an acre – to frustrate the land-owning ambitions of the Africans, who earned eightpence (16 cents) per day. Laws such as the Vagrancy Acts forced workers to give service to the estates, and punishment for a range of offences included mandatory service to plantations and public works.

These were bolstered by the very low wages paid to labourers and the imposition of licences to prevent independent employment. Licences were required for dogs used for hunting, boats, for fishing, cutting trees and making coals, to reduce African’s ability to engage in alternative employment and keep them dependent on the estates.

However, cracks began to appear in the wall very early. The first was due to a combination of African determination and planter desperation. Africans were determined to buy land even at the exorbitant prices asked. Some plantation owners became so impoverished that they broke ranks with their group and were willing to sell portions of their estates to the Africans to generate income.

In other instances, it was considered to be to the advantage of the plantation to sell portions of its property to create a village which would provide a resident pool of labour to the estate. In the existing situation of competition for labour, owners felt this would give them the edge for the scarce labour resource.

Also, some planters felt it was beneficial to rent portions of estate land to Africans who would pay the rent by providing service to their estates.

These methods provided the early opportunities for Africans to buy or gain access to land, despite the intentions of the plantation owners. Those Africans who had savings, usually the skilled workers, were able to acquire properties in that manner. These were among the first black landowners on the island.

Others would rent house spots and/or garden pieces, which they used to plant a range of crops and raise animals to increase their earnings.

One of the major problems on the island was the shortage of cash. Planters found themselves in dire circumstances because the credit on which they traditionally depended was no longer available because their British suppliers severed ties with the unprofitable operation. Since they were unable to obtain cash to pay the wages of their labourers, planters had recourse to payments in kind, using the only marketable item they possessed: plantation land. The wages of workers were paid with access to portions of plantation land which they were free to cultivate as they wished. This allowed them to increase the extent of land to which they had access.

With their access to multiple pieces of land workers were able to generate increased income which would later be used to purchase land. Thus these additional cracks served to undermine the very intent of the plantation owners.

However, the problems of the sugar industry persisted. It remained an unprofitable enterprise, planter/worker relations became very complicated, and while planters sought to reduce wages, workers demanded increases. Twelve years after Emancipation, the planting community had not succeeded in restricting the African workers from land-owning and their own policies resulted in increasing the workers’ access to land.

During the second half of the 1800s, another policy was instituted which provided increased opportunity for black land-owning and demonstrated that maintaining planter domination was no easy matter. This will be the focus of the next column.


"The emergence of Tobago’s black land-owning class"

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