Cholera and Tobago’s first sanitary law

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

SANITATION was not considered a pressing issue by the administration in Tobago until the cholera pandemic, which lasted from 1846-1860, spread to the Caribbean.

The first cases in the region were identified in Cuba in 1833-34 and again in 1851; Jamaica in 1850; the Bahamas in 1852; and from 1854 it spread from the northern Caribbean to the south, affecting Nevis, Antigua, St Thomas, Tortola, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada, Barbados and Trinidad.

The presence of cholera in the region stimulated a frenzied panic reaction from the administrations, all ill-prepared to deal with an outbreak of such magnitude.

The fact is that living conditions in the post-emancipation communities of the British Caribbean were extremely poor. The mass of the free population lived jumbled in ad-hoc settlements devoid of basic infrastructural provisions, which made them prone to disease.

News of an outbreak in a neighbouring island triggered futile attempts to prevent its entry, since the existing trading arrangements facilitated transmission from one island to another, while crowded living conditions permitted rapid spread from the ports into the defenceless communities.

In Tobago, on August 24, 1853, the Sanitary Act, to make sanitary regulations for the towns of Scarborough and Plymouth and inhabitants of the rest of the island, was passed by the new Board of Health. Its stated purpose was to secure the cleanliness of the towns and districts and the health of the inhabitants.

This was a herculean task, which, it was assumed, could be achieved by laws, in an island which, up to that time, had paid no attention to sanitation and the social well-being of its freed African population. There was hope that Tobago would escape the scourge of cholera through the rules and regulations, which were assented on November 2, 1854.

It is necessary to note the social state of Tobago during the immediate post-emancipation years. There were striking differences between the environment around the plantation houses and those of the African workers in the communities.

The grounds around the plantation houses were laid out with gardens which reflected the social status of the occupants. In stark contrast were the hovels in which the mass of the population lived.

Firstly, the yearning for freedom stimulated the formation of a series of unplanned communities across the island which reflected the strong desire of the freed Africans to establish independent existences away from direct planter control.

However, there was no provision for infrastructure in these settlements, no access roads, no provision of potable water – the choice was to negotiate access to plantation water supplies, which would be obtained only on terms which compromised their independence and ongoing wage negotiations with their former owners-cum-employers; or resort to nearby rivers, ponds and streams.

Regardless of the quality of their water, the island’s watercourses were critical for the survival of post-emancipation communities for domestic purposes and communication with the rest of the island. All laundry was done at the rivers and animals were washed and watered there as well.

Animal-rearing was an important component of the independence drive, to supplement low incomes and feed families. So the focus of the regulations on the environment, particularly waterways, if strictly implemented, had implications for the survival of the newly freed.

The first clause of the act was directed to watercourses. It declared that washing or cleaning animals, clothes or any filthy items in any stream, gully, pond, lagoon, tank, reservoir, or any other waterworks was illegal, as was throwing discarded items, sewage or other unwholesome water into them. Written notices would be served on offenders, who could be charged up to £5 or, in default, imprisoned in the Scarborough jail for up to 30 days. A further 20 shillings would be charged for each day the offence continued after written notice and charges had been served.

Managers/proprietors or overseers engaged in the manufacture of spirituous liquors who permit discharges into the watercourses could be charged up to £10, in default of which they could be imprisoned for up to three months and fined an additional 40 shillings for every day the offence continued after notice had been received.

However, the board was authorised to permit the washing of animals in any stream deemed essential to the public good. This provided a legal opening for plantation animals, especially horses, to be washed in the watercourses, which was not available to animals owned by the working class.

Rearing pigs without a written licence signed by the chairman of the Board of Health was forbidden in Scarborough and Plymouth. The licence, which could be granted for up to six months, specified the terms under which such permission was granted. It is to be noted that pig-rearing was popular among the freed African population, and pork was a cherished food.

It was mandatory for holders of such licences to be registered by the senior officer in charge of the district and the police in the district where the sty was located, and a list of people so authorised to keep pigs should be posted in the relevant offices. The licences only became effective 48 hours after they were issued, and could be revoked by the board in writing before they expired, after due notice was served.

The penalty for continuing to rear pigs after such a notice had been properly served was 40 shillings or imprisonment for up to ten days, and a further five shillings for every day the offence continued.

The next environmental target was the sea. It was unlawful to throw fish parts, dead or rotten fish on the seashore or the beach in Scarborough, Plymouth, Rockley Bay, or Great Courland Bay. The charge for offenders was up to £5 and in default, a jail term of up to 30 days.

Boat owners or captains were to keep their boats clean and those who failed or refused to do so could be imprisoned for up to 30 days. This regulation was specifically directed to the fishing community. Fishing was also a very popular alternative to plantation labour and a number of freed Africans owned their own boats.

The catch was cleaned and sold in the more populous areas listed in the regulations. No sanitation-friendly alternatives were provided to the fisherfolk.

The regulations targeted activities which were important to the freed population, which suggests this group was the prime disease-causal factor. There were no alternative arrangements to provide water and infrastructure to the growing communities, nor any facilities for fishermen to safely discard fish refuse.

In addition, the penalties were beyond the reach of this group, simply because daily wages for the average worker were less than a shilling a day. These regulations stood little chance of being effective in saving the island from disaster if cholera reached its shores.

However, despite its impractical health regulations, Tobago was spared the trauma felt across the region, although the regulations did not deal with the real causal factors.

The cholera infection was spread by the crews of trading boats and port workers. Tobago was not linked to this regional trade service, so it escaped the agony of the cholera pandemic, while its sanitation issues festered.


"Cholera and Tobago’s first sanitary law"

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