Drunk and disorderly in 1880s Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton.
Dr Rita Pemberton.

Dr Rita Pemberton

Her Majesty’s Order in Council of November 17, 1888, which abolished the government of Tobago at the end of 1888, cleared the way for the union of Trinidad and Tobago, which took effect from January 1, 1889.

The explanation for the state of affairs which prompted this change resided with the decline of the island’s economy, which caused its penurious state.

This situation was not unique to the late nineteenth century, for since the beginning of the century it had been evident that the island was on a path of economic decline.

The tug of war between Britain and France for ownership Tobago played out at its worst during the period of the American wars of independence. That provided France with the opportunity to attack its arch-rival when it was faced with a major distraction. France became an ally of the revolting American colonies and launched an attack on Tobago, grabbing it from the British, and instituted a 12-year administration.

French rule was ushered in by a series of negative developments: destruction of estates and disruption of plantations' operations; new and onerous taxes; a ban on trade with Britain and new trading arrangements with France; confusion over mortgage payments to British investors; and uncertainty about property ownership.

Seven years after the island reverted to British ownership, it again fell into French hands, at the start of the 19th century, only to be reclaimed by the British by 1802.

From that time onwards, Tobago was unable to attain any importance as a sugar producer. The uncertainties of the past led to properties being advertised for sale on the London market, and operating planters encountered difficulty in obtaining credit from investors in Britain.

The situation worsened as the century wore on, with the termination of the trade in captive and enslaved Africans and the advent of Emancipation, which caused the price of labour and production costs to increase.

The Tobago sugar industry floundered in the face of increased competition on the international market; low prices for the poor-quality sugar the island produced; negative British policies; and an administration which remained wedded to sugar production at the exclusion even of consideration of alternative economic pursuits. Despite various measures to reduce its operation costs, the Tobago House of Assembly failed in its bid to address the island’s financial woes, and at the behest of the imperial government, reduced the cost of administration by removing the office of governor and replacing with a more lowly paid official, the commissioner, as the most senior on the island.

The first appointee was Commissioner Lorraine Geddes Hay, who had previously served as Tobago’s treasurer from 1879-1885. Hay was fully aware of the parlous state of the island’s finances, but the situation worsened during his administration.

Revenue had been falling incessantly since 1880. Only three out of the original 32 distilleries remained in operation and the challenges faced by large landowners caused a decline of plantations which left owners unable to pay their taxes. The decline in trade caused a reduction of customs duties on import and exports and excise duties.

During the Hay administration, revenue continued to decline, because every source of revenue had been reduced. Hay negotiated and obtained a loan to repair the Tobago jetty, which was repaid by October 1890, and other loans were approved for the repair of public buildings. While Hay was in favour of the establishment of a land-based peasantry, he had developed neither policy nor programme which would allow the larger section of the population to contribute meaningfully to the overall development of the island.

By 1892, the island’s indebtedness had escalated to £7,000 and its financial straits caused Governor Napier Broome to visit. He found it in a very bad state, with worsening economic decline. Tobago was heavily in debt and the salaries of public officers had not been paid for some time.

In addition Hay was virtually useless as an administrator because of his alcohol consumption.

Broome reported that the island was bankrupt and capable neither of meeting its commitments nor paying its debts. Broome took over the administration and made firm decisions about the island’s finances. He paid for essential services and those services provided under legal contracts, while public offices were put on half their salaries and all other payments were suspended. Broome declared the existing operating system in the unified colony unworkable and suggested Tobago should be completely integrated with Trinidad and governed as a ward, or a cost-cutting exercise should abolish some posts and combine some offices.

Supporting the governor’s findings, the Colonial Office blamed Hay for the island’s degeneratione. It was argued that that its problems could have been resolved with effective leadership, but because Hay was incapacitated, he had ceased to function effectively. Hay was forced to resign and an acting commissioner, in the person of David Barnes Horsford, the acting auditor general of Trinidad, was appointed. Horsford investigated the island's accounts and reported what was already apparent: revenue was decreasing and expenditure increasing. The island’s debt stood at over £8,000, with no internal means of resolution. But the Colonial Office was adamant: the administration must find a solution, for neither loans nor aid of any type would be forthcoming from the imperial government.

Governance was clearly an important factor in the fiscal crisis Tobago faced, Not enough consideration was given to the calibre of those appointed to the highest offices, because the major consideration was to cut costs rather than to select capable individuals.


"Drunk and disorderly in 1880s Tobago"

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