‘Breaches of the peace’ and development of policing in Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

TOBAGO’S large plantation owners and their representatives on the island’s council and assembly, as in other British Caribbean colonies, were strongly opposed to the imperial-dictated emancipation of enslaved Africans.

Their opposition was based on concerns about labour supply, operating costs, profits, property, the survival of the sugar industry and maintaining the social and political privileges they enjoyed.

These concerns were all predicated on their anticipation of the behaviour of freed Africans, from whom it was expected that reprisal would be directed against their former owners.

So convinced were the planters of Tobago that they sought to prevent such an eruption. Their policy was aimed at preventing the Africans from accessing the means for the creation of an independent existence – through low wages and maintenance of the servile working and living conditions of the pre-emancipation era.

Both concerns and strategies were embodied in the laws of the period and, in particular, the police laws, which were primarily concerned with what were considered "breaches of the peace."

The emphasis attached to policing in the era of freedom was demonstrated by three laws to regulate the island’s police service which were passed in 1842, 1843 and 1854. The 1842 act, which was in force for a year, was expanded by the act of 1843, which provided the foundation of the Tobago police force. The 1843 act sought to maintain the service established in 1842 and to ensure all the magistrate posts were filled and all outstanding cases initiated under the previous act determined.

Then provision was made for the structure of the police force, with a superintendent of police who appointed and was in charge of a group of constables with responsibility for preventing the feared "breaches of the peace." The superintendent determined the number of constables to be appointed and their duties, prepared a duty roster for street patrols, specified how they should be armed and the duration of their duty.

Constables who failed to obey the superintendent's instructions could be dismissed or suspended for negligence. Constables in Scarborough were to be paid £50 a year and were required to wear a uniform. Constables in Plymouth were paid £16 a year on the presentation of a document from a magistrate which certified that their duties were satisfactorily performed.

The duties of the constables centred on behaviours expected from the freed African. These included their cultural practices, which were considered disorderly and obscene, the activities in which they engaged to increase their incomes and establish independent employment, which were seen as depriving estates of labourers, and their conflicts with planters over property, labour and wages.

The constables’ duties involved constant day and night street patrols for the protection of property and the preservation of peace, good order and the observation of the laws. Threats to peace and good order were those activities that were offensive or considered threats to the established social order.

Constables were empowered to apprehend all violators of the laws, report to the superintendent and disperse all disorderly gatherings for dancing in the towns and environs, as well as all idle, loose and disorderly people who disturbed the public peace or who might be suspected of evil designs that would have the same effect.

People lying in yards, highways or any other places or loitering without satisfactory explanation, especially between 8 pm and 6 am, could be hauled before a magistrate. Those who assisted or encouraged such behaviours could also be punished.

The constables were mandated to patrol every street of the town to locate instances of assault and battery, damage, injury or spoliation of public or private property. These were usually the result of conflicts over land and were usually made by complaint of the offended landowners. The guilty party was made to pay up to £5 or to be imprisoned for up to 30 days. Imprisonment often included hard labour, which could be mandated to an estate.

The business enterprise of the freed people was also blacklisted among the undesirable practices the constables were expected to expose. The law prohibited vending outside the market shed, selling any goods in any part of the island on Sunday and opening shops or stores on Sunday.

Meat, fish and turtle were only to be sold in the market shed five minutes after the sale was announced by blowing shells, or could be sold in any store before, between or after the times specified for divine services on Sundays. But the tradition of selling fish and seafood on the beach when the boats came in by blowing shells was already a well-established practice.

Constables were required to examine weights and measures used in all businesses to ensure only imperial weights were in use on meat, fish and turtle, which were to be sold only in the market shed. Those caught selling elsewhere were liable to a fine of ten shillings or 48 hours' jail.

People caught gambling, rioting, dancing or drunk were to be imprisoned and all goods and musical instruments in their possession to be seized and confiscated according to the decision of the magistrate. Offenders were to be fined 40 shillings, in default of which they could be imprisoned for up to five days.

Constables were to apprehend people cursing, swearing, using obscene language or for indecent exposure in the public streets, gaming or drunk in tipping houses, quarrelling or fighting in streets or public places, and "common prostitutes" or night walkers loitering and or soliciting to the annoyance and obstruction of passengers and inhabitants of the town.

Constables were to be on the alert for animal-related offences, which included cruelly whipping, beating or ill-using an animal, offering animals for sale outside the markets, tethering them on private or public property and leaving them loose in public spaces.

Their duties also included apprehension for negligent or unauthorised driving of cattle, improper driving of carriages which could endanger the lives of passengers and users of the roads and obstructing the streets of the town by loading carts, carriages, trucks, or barrows for extended periods.

Their duties also included checking books and publications for indecent writings, drawings or paintings, for those who wrote and sang profane songs, and writings with indecent or obscene language that were offensive to the inhabitants.

The central responsibility of the constables was to apprehend those whose actions could cause an immediate escalation into breaches of the peace, such as using threatening words and abusive or insulting language. This was a hangover law from the period of enslavement, when the enslaved were severely punished for disrespectful conduct to their superiors.

In addition, those who possessed and discharged firearms, threw stones or missiles or were prone to setting fires were to be apprehended. People flying kites or playing games that annoyed the inhabitants would attract a fine of £2 or up to five days in the Scarborough jail, with or without hard labour.

Constables were also to prevent the removal of stones or sand from the beaches in Scarborough and the dumping rubbish on the streets of Scarborough or towns. Such offenders could be charged £3 or 20 days' imprisonment. Constables were also required to inspect empty lots to detect and punish those who deposited garbage on them.

The Tobago police service began with the onus being placed on constables who were appointed to maintain the island’s status quo, but the tasks were varied and extensive and the numbers of constables inadequate to the volume of work expected of them.


"‘Breaches of the peace’ and development of policing in Tobago"

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