Planters vs workers in post-emancipation Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


On August 1, 1838, the over 1,100 enslaved African workers who were freed in Tobago held great expectations of and ambitious plans for their newly acquired freedom.

But it soon became evident that freedom was not automatic and the path to attaining real freedom was strewn with obstacles – the first of which lay with the British authorities.

It was the intent of the imperial power to avoid the ignominy of destruction of the region’s sugar. There was no attempt to bridle the powers of the plantation owners, nor was there any imperial order requiring plantation owners to streamline their relationships with their former enslaved charges in accordance with the new law.

Left in control of the agencies of government, the planting community of Tobago was intent on maintaining its operations in exactly the same way as it had during enslavement. As far as they were concerned, the freed Africans remained the labour force and were expected to continue to provide labour to the estates on terms dictated by plantation owners.

The Tobago sugar industry was in dire financial straits during the post-Emancipation period. It faced insurmountable market challenges which were further aggravated by the destructive hurricane of 1847.

Plantation owners projected labour as their major problem largely because it was the only factor of production over which they could exert any control. They convinced themselves that the industry faced “a scarcity of labour” which could be remedied by importing immigrants.

There was, of course, no shortage, because the enslaved population remained on the island as free people after Emancipation.

But the planting community was unhappy with some of the practices in which the freed population engaged, such as the reduction of women and children in the workforce and the inclination of the workers to move off the estates. They saw this as loss of control, and they were determined to prevent it by bringing in immigrants to drive wages down and enhance planter control over the workers on the island.

Despite failed attempts, planters maintained efforts to obtain approval for immigrant labour, but the need to exert control over the freed Africans remained of utmost importance to them. Land was a critical element.

The term “free African workers” referred to a group that operated under a system of classification. Workers were placed in a labyrinth of classes, based on place of residence.

Residential or located labourers were those who continued to live on the estates. They were paid with a portion of estate land as a provision ground, the size determined by the class of worker and cash wages.

Within this class there were three sub-groups. The strongest and most able-bodied were the first-class workers, who were paid eightpence (16 cents) per day. Second-class labourers earned between six (12 cents) and eightpence (16 cents), and the weakest/youngest were the third-class workers who earned three-sixpence (six-12 cents).

In addition, residential workers were offered medical attention, water, pasturage and other benefits. These privileges were intended to keep workers resident on the plantations.

But much to the consternation of planters, by 1848 there was a visible trend among workers to move off the estates in order to avoid the restrictions of planter control. Those workers were classified as strangers and received higher wages, but without benefits.

Another group were tenants, of whom there were of three types. Some tenants rented land from the estate to be used as provision ground, at the rate of 40 shillings (($9.60) per year for one acre of land. Tenants paid for their plots by giving 40 days’ labour to the estate, usually at the end of the year.

This caused conflict because at that same time of year the tenants needed to attend to their own crops, but planters expected this group to provide continuous labour to the estates.

The second group of tenants were those who obtained rented land under a lease arrangement for two-three-year periods and had no other obligation to the planter.

The third group were tenants at will. They occupied estate lands but functioned with the knowledge that they could be evicted at any time.

Part-time labourers were another class of workers. They acquired their own freehold or rented land but gave labour to the estates. They were paid between eightpence (16 cents) and one shilling and two pence (28 cents) per day, and could rent portions of estate land for 24- 32 shillings ($5.76-$7.68) per acre per year. Access to land was used to incentivise workers to enter into this type of tenancy arrangement.

Another class were cane farmers, who cultivated cane on their own or rented lands. They had an arrangement with estate owners on how the sugar would be shared and the estate factory was used to manufacture the sugar.

This was the biggest class of workers in post-emancipation Tobago. Metayage, the system of sharecropping, gained popularity after it was introduced in 1842. The agreements were mainly verbal and varied from one estate to another, and one owner to the other on the same estate. This was a continuing cause of conflict, as were the arrangements from one district to another.

By 1852 most estates operated under the system of metayage as a mechanism for planters to deal with both shortage of cash and labour.

Metayers were paid in kind, with access to estate land which they could cultivate. Despite its apparent popularity, the metayage system was conflict-ridden because there was a difference between planter and worker interpretations of the agreements, and both groups tried to extract advantages for themselves.

Within the metayage system was a worker-organised system of jobbing gangs. Recognising the desperation of planters, a head man organised a team of jobbers and negotiated contracts with the planters to do specific jobs on the estates. The jobbers were paid twice the wages paid to labourers on the estates for the same jobs. Jobbing reduced the planters’ ability to hire estate labourers, and they complained bitterly about the difficulties they encountered in obtaining labour.

In many instances these free workers straddled several of the above-mentioned classes at the same time, and when a conflict developed between a worker and his employer, the worker could be evicted from the estate and lose his crops and related benefits in a different class.

The result was increased worker/employment tensions, which characterised the post-Emancipation years. Ultimately, the complex system of classification did not permit planters to exert the extent of control over workers which they desired, and despite the planters’ intentions, workers gained increased access to land.


"Planters vs workers in post-emancipation Tobago"

More in this section