Guardians of security: the militia in Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton.
Dr Rita Pemberton.

Dr Rita Pemberton

When the idea of emancipation of the enslaved Africans in the British Caribbean was first broached, planters across the region gave a collective gasp at what was considered the unthinkable. They employed a variety of unsuccessful strategies to derail the anti-slavery movement. But, recognising that the tripartite force of imperial policy – the increase of costly resistance of the enslaved who were determined to attain freedom and the growing popularity of the anti-slavery movement – they relented to the inevitable and negotiated with the imperial authorities for the terms of emancipation. The compromise was a compensation package which included a transitory apprenticeship period and a cash payment for each African that was ‘lost’ to freedom.

The sugar planters of Tobago received the sum of £233,875 as compensation for the loss of the labour of the 11,599 enslaved Africans on the island when the Emancipation Act was passed by the British Parliament. But the Tobago planters who remained opposed to emancipation were embittered by the prospect of losing their “possessions” so they sought various means to frustrate the freedom effort and secure their interests. Their main concerns were two-fold, security and the economy, both of which were inextricably linked.

Security meant protection of their property – the land and labour – the sources of their wealth and social privileges. The protection of these factors of production was considered a necessity during enslavement, which led to the creation of a security system in which the property owners established themselves as the first port of call for defence through the establishment of a militia.

During the period of enslavement this group of plantation owners secured themselves by connecting their estates with bridle paths to allow them to render assistance to their fellows in the event of a crisis. But although the militia was an important feature of the system of enslavement, it assumed even greater importance after 1834 when it was considered of utmost importance to prevent any further loss of “their property” in the face of the grim reality of the economic decline of the Tobago sugar industry and to the imperial government’s cost cutting exercise. It was then considered necessary to formalise the militia as a part of the island’s administrative system.

On February 9, 1836, two years before the termination of the apprenticeship system, an Act was passed to establish and regulate the militia in Tobago. But this law was replaced by a more comprehensive piece or legislation with a detailed set of regulations proclaimed on April 3, 1840.

Under the new law it was compulsory for all white males between the ages of 18 and 50 to enroll for duty in the militia in the town or parish of their residence, or with the commanding officer of the cavalry within 30 days of their arrival on the island, with a penalty of £4 for every 30 days of non-compliance, in default of which the offender was liable to 15 days imprisonment. However, the privilege of membership of the militia was open only to professional gentlemen; merchants; shopkeepers; clerks in stores, offices, warehouses or counting houses; attorneys; managers; overseers or other people who earned £15 pounds per year; free holders, tenants or occupiers of a house with a rental value of of £12.

The only people who were exempted from militia duty were members of the Privy Council and all the other members of the legal establishment, the justices of the peace, stipendiary magistrates, principal officers of the bank, the harbour master and all mariners. Members of the House of Assembly and Council were exempt when their duties required their presence elsewhere.

The militia was formed with a regiment of infantry or corps of artillery and troops of cavalry with the following staff: colonel commander; lieutenant colonel, two majors – one each in the Leeward and Windward divisions; a surgeon and two assistant surgeons; an adjutant captain who could be promoted to any vacant senior position and a quarter master.

Regiments of the infantry were made up of companies each with a captain, lieutenant, ensign two sergeants, 50 privates and a drummer and fifer. The quarter master of the militia was responsible for the safe keeping of all spare arms and provision was made for the acquisition of appropriate sites at public expense.

Bacolet Pastures was designated the depository for artillery and Bacolet Estate was the store house for guns. It was also the responsibility of the quarter master to ensure that the militia was provided with competent armourer to repair and keep all arms in a serviceable state.

The law provided details on appointments, uniforms for officers and members of each rank and regulations relating to leave, delinquency punishments drills and training. Monthly training sessions were to be held on the first Saturday of each month in the Leeward district and the second Saturday in the Windward district.

Martial law would be declared when public safety was threatened with the eruption or discovery of a plot to revolt or from invasion by an external enemy. At such times arms would be issued to the companies. Under martial law the lieutenant governor was empowered to order that the services of any desired number of labourers, horses, mules or oxen for work on any public works considered necessary for the defence of the island be provided.

The penalty for a refusal to supply each person or animal was 40 shillings or 21 days imprisonment. Military officers were authorised to employ as many labourers or drivers, horses, mules or oxen as were required, and they were to be paid at the rate of one shilling and six pence per day. Under the law, officers and members of the militia who supplied their own labourers and/or animal, were entitled to the established compensation.

The creation of this body of legislation is particularly instructive. It was patterned after the British military laws but it came at a time when there were four note-worthy developments. In the first instance the island’s traditionally small white population was steadily declining, allowing for the inclusion of non-whites with the necessary property, rental or job qualifications to be included. Hence coloured men were included in Tobago’s militia.

Secondly, a central part of British cost-cutting strategy targeted the colonial administration, and for the smaller, less profitable colonies, defence costs attracted special attention. Word was out that it was the intention of the imperial government to cut its costs in Tobago by removing the troops stationed at Fort King George maintained with imperial funds. In order to avoid a defence vacuum that would leave them vulnerable, the militia Bill was implemented for the ruling class to protect itself. Thirdly, the fear that dominated the ruling class during enslavement persisted during the era of freedom, when preparation for that eventuality of revolt was considered essential.

Finally, it was clear that the island’s ruling class could not disabuse itself of the notion of a black servile class under its control. The island’s free African workers continued to be regarded as chattel and were lumped with the animals under the militia law. It was the employers who were to provide and be paid for the services of their labourers under the compulsory military regulations. The militia was intended to function as the guardian of security for Tobago’s ruling class.


"Guardians of security: the militia in Tobago"

More in this section