Restricting freedom: prison reform in post-Emancipation Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

With emancipation in the air and prison reform under way in Britain itself, the unabated proddings of the reformist movement animated the plantocracy, whose members sought to preserve their access to labour during the era of freedom.

Under the guise of reform, the prison system offered an avenue for continued exploitation of labour after Emancipation. This was made possible by three pieces of legislation.

The prison housed those condemned to life imprisonment or the death sentence for murder and those sentenced to transportation. Those who dared to challenge the authority of their masters and were caught during planned, attempted or actual revolts were considered dangerous and sentenced to transportation, but it was never clear where they would be sent.

During the heyday of enslavement, the colonial administration paid for them to be stored in ships called “hulks” in the River Thames in England, for an unknown fate, or to be transported to an undetermined destination in the Spanish Main, where it was presumed they would suffer the ultimate punishment for their offences. In both instances, such condemned people vanished from Tobago without a trace.

However, as Emancipation approached, the fate of those who remained on the island had to be determined. The answer was long-term imprisonment.

This matter was addressed by the act to authorise the employment of convicts under sentence of death or transportation, passed by the Tobago House of Assembly and Council on June 5, 1838, just eight weeks before the proclamation of full emancipation.

Under this law, anyone condemned to transportation or death could be kept for labour anywhere on the island, in any identified work, under the management of an individual named as a superintendent, an arrangement which allowed overseers to have power over them as gaolers.

The convicted would remain under such officers until the authorities issued a liberation order for them. They would work on the streets of Scarborough or any other specified location (the estates) and would be kept in jail until required for further work. The law said their meals and clothing were to be provided in accordance with rules.

Any person so confined who was found guilty of misconduct, escape or attempted escape, as well as anyone who assisted in the escape plot, would be punished. Reports on the conduct, treatment and behaviour of the offenders were to be made to the House of Assembly and Council at the start of every session.

No convict under sentence of death or transportation was to be removed from labour unless the sentence was commuted. Thus the prison provided a permanent supply of labour to the administration for public works and to the plantations.

The impending Emancipation Act provided the stimulus for the imperial government to pay increased attention to the state of prisons in its Caribbean colonies. The very damning report of Capt JW Pringle provided the opportunity for the British Government to assert its responsibility for regulating prisons and intervening to inquire into their state and institute the required reforms. Pringle reported that prisons in the region were in disrepair and there was an urgent need for reforms to bring them in line with those implemented in Britain.

As a result, the colonial administrations were mandated to institute prison-reform legislation.

Accordingly, in 1839 the Tobago House of Assembly approved an Act for the Better Government of Prisons which detailed the administrative arrangements to be made for the island’s prisons. While the governor was given overall supervisory charge, the act specified the duties of the officers and arrangements for the care and superintendence of prisoners. The governor was authorised to appoint an Inspector of Prisons to inspect and make periodic checks on the detailed records of the prison, examine the prisoners and present an annual report on December 1. Under the law, it was illegal for any person to obstruct the inspector and any such offender was liable to be charged £20 or imprisoned for a month and become ineligible for further employment in the prison service.

The Inspector of Prisons was required to provide returns on the state of the prison and prisoners. If any extensions to the prison were deemed necessary, he had to include a plan for approval. It was unlawful to imprison anyone without the authority of the governor.

Prison was defined as every “house of correction, hospital, asylum, workhouse or any other institution used on the island or on the plantations” for anyone charged for an offence, and every inmate of such a place was considered a prisoner.

Hence plantation prisons were drawn within the ambit of the legal system, so permitting plantation owners to obtain forced African labour at minimal cost, during the period of emancipation.

After a plethora of complaints from magistrates and prison officers about the dilapidated conditions and inadequacies of the Scarborough prison, arrangements were made to relocate it. Opportunity for this came after the imperial government terminated the provision of troops to the island. The vacated military prison, hospital and adjoining property were transformed into the Tobago Convict Prison by an act of 1856.

The area which included the military stables, the engineer’s house and a work shed was to be enclosed by a high wall and put under the care of the Provost Marshal, who was also given charge of prisoners in the common gaol in Scarborough. The new facility was to be inspected and reports made to the governor after the required alterations were made and it was lawful to remove prisoners from the common jail to the new site.

No prisoner considered to be under “acute or dangerous distemper,” the symptoms of which were not specified, and those serving a sentence of transportation or with hard labour for over six months would be released.

Prisoners who escaped during transportation and who were assisted or harboured were liable to imprisonment at the pleasure of the court or a fine. Such escaped prisoners would be liable to extensions of their incarceration by two years and any who attempted to break out while at work were liable to an extension of confinement by one year.

This law provided increased accommodation for prisoners and the means to entrap an increased population into the confines of the prison. Its vagaries, along with those of the two preceding laws, gave planters a mechanism to restrict the freedom of a number of Africans after Emancipation within a system of prison reform.


"Restricting freedom: prison reform in post-Emancipation Tobago"

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