Dr Rita Pemberton
Reflective of planter concerns about how the island’s sugar business would be conducted with a freed workforce, a mere seven months after the termination of the apprenticeship system, the Tobago House of Assembly and the Tobago Council met in emergency sessions to deal with what was considered an urgent matter.
Tobago planters, who were vehemently opposed to the termination of the system in 1838, would not conceive of plantations without the support of the controls of enslavement to which they had become wedded. They sought to establish obstacles to prevent the attainment of real freedom in the interest of the continuation of the sugar industry.
The expectation was that the freed Africans would abandon the estates and jeopardise plantation operations and profits. This view was supported by freed African men’s removing their wives and children from plantation labour and refusing to comply with planters’ requests for labour during the first months of freedom.
Panic buttons went off among the plantation owners, who were overcome with fear. At all costs, such an unthinkable situation had to be prevented, and it was agreed the most effective strategy would be legal restrictions on opportunities for the free labourers to engage in alternatives to estate labour. Their intention was to use the legal system to force workers to remain plantation labourers and, with no other alternative, accept labour on terms dictated by the planters.
As a consequence, at the meetings of the council on March 23 and the assembly on March 26, 1839, the legislation was passed and an Act for the Suppression of Vagrancy and for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons was proclaimed on March 28.
The law made no secret of the intent of the planters: it stated that every able-bodied person should, by his labour or other lawful means, provide support for himself and his dependents. Those who deliberately avoided their responsibilities and caused their charges to become dependent on charity would be punished.
The fact is, the only employment on the island at that time was plantation labour. But the freed Africans resisted continued planter control and sought to reduce their dependence on plantation labour by creating alternative employment for themselves.
This the planters resisted. The law provided a list of “offensive acts” which were punishable. These were committed by: “common prostitutes” who wandered on the streets and public places behaving in a riotous and indecent manner; idle and disorderly beggars and those who encouraged children to beg were subject to the full brunt of the law.
The stipendiary magistrates or credible witness (undoubtedly a planter or supporter) were to determine the ability of such people to provide for themselves by honest labour (ie plantation labour), or a confession of the offender himself. Those found guilty were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour for a maximum of 14 days.
The next category of offenders included fortune-tellers, palmists, those who practised obeah or any such craft “to deceive and impose on other people”; and those who exposed indecent print, pictures or other indecent materials in public places, who would be imprisoned with hard labour for up to 28 days.
The third group included those who engaged in indecent exposure in public; falsely sought contributions to charitable organisations: engaged in playing or betting in the street; those who had in their possession implements such as picklock, key, crowbar, jack, bit with intent for housebreaking; and those armed with any gun, pistol, hangar, cutlass, bludgeons, or other offensive weapons or any weapons for the conduct of felonious acts.
In addition, any apprehended person who resisted arrest or was charged for breaking and escaping from prison was deemed a rogue and vagabond be kept in hard labour for the benefit of the colony for up to28 days at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
The worst offenders were those repeat offenders who were classified as “incorrigible rogues,” whose punishment was hard labour on the streets or highways for up to six months, The law also targeted those suspected of supporting illegal activity by harbouring a vagabond or idle person, who would be imprisoned for up to 28 days.
Provision was also made to ensure that the offers to whom the task of apprehension was allocated did their work efficiently. Delinquent police and peace officers who declined to do so in the manner expected or assisted offenders would be fined or, if they failed to pay, imprisoned for up to 30 days.
This first law was followed by the Anti-Squatting Law passed on May 9, 1839 to prevent the unauthorised occupation of unoccupied land, which planters feared would increase as the number of abandoned estates increased. This act was extended to prevent illegal occupation of land after the termination of lease or contractual agreements on November 5, 1839. This was in response to the refusal of some freed Africans to cease activity on the provision grounds and rented land they cultivated during slavery and apprenticeship.
The issue was a serious bone of contention during the early years of emancipation, when the freed Africans strongly resisted the efforts of planters to remove them from the land.
These laws represented the planters’ recognition of the importance of land to the workers. The concern was not the ambitions of the freed Africans, but more so the opportunity that access to land offered for alternative employment, to the detriment of planter ability to control labour – the central issue of the post-emancipation planter/worker conflict.
In 1843 the police were empowered to arrest anyone who opened a store or shop on a Sunday. Their goods were to be confiscated and the owners charged £5, to be paid immediately after the verdict or within a specified period. Failure would result in imprisonment with or without hard labour.
Developments in Tobago over the first five years after the termination of apprenticeship reflect a kneejerk reaction as the ruling elite came to recognise that land was of premier value to the freed Africans, and management of land resources was critical to the viability of their estates.
However, planters desperately sought to plug holes as issues manifested themselves, in an attempt to wring profits for the industry through restraints on labour.
The resulting criminalisation of the freed Africans provided no solution to their problems, for the reality was that the sugar industry was dying and beyond resuscitation