Preventing social change: Tobago’s 1854 police law

Dr Rita Pemberton -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

DESPITE Tobago’s grim economic outlook, security assumed greater importance even as the island’s sugar industry continued its downward slide during the second half of the 19th century, and it was considered essential to make provisions for restructuring and strengthening the police force.

This was done in An Act to Augment the Police Force in January 1854, which built on and expanded the earlier law of 1843.

This was the year when the British government decided to reduce its administration costs in Tobago because the island could not make any significant contributions to the British treasury. The British government was anxious to shift the burden of responsibility for administrative costs onto the island’s treasury, which it was ill prepared to bear.

This did not deter the imperial cost-reduction thrust, which was based on a determination to provide support only to profit-generating colonies. This triggered the law of 1854.

In 1854 the British government terminated the security arrangement by which it maintained troops in the barracks at Fort King George as a part of the defensive measures against French designs on Tobago and the activities of pirates and privateers around the island during the second half of the 18th century and the early 19th century.

With the French menace terminated in 1815 and a decline in Tobago’s trading activity which led to a decline in the presence of pirates and illegal traders, security needs against external forces were considerably reduced.

However, Tobago’s planting community was concerned about internal security threats that were posed by the resisting labour force, which they anticipated would explode into open rebellion, against whom the presence of the imperial troops offered solace.

Much to the discomfort of the Tobago administration, the troops were immediately removed and relocated to Trinidad. The ruling class felt this imperial act inflicted a wound on the island which, they argued, made Tobago vulnerable to both internal and external challenges.

Despite protestations and lamentations, the British government remained unmoved.

The local response was to strengthen internal security arrangements by augmenting the island’s police force.

By the 1854 act, the structure and composition of the Tobago police force were enhanced and the basic provisions for its structure implemented. The force was to consist of an inspector general, a superintending sergeant, two sergeants, six corporals and 24 privates. The power of appointment and dismissal from the force was vested in the governor, who was responsible for making all rules on the operations of the police, regulating uniforms, the allocation of arms and the performance of duties. The governor, in consultation with council, could impose additional rules and penalties as he saw fit. It was the intention that the police force should be maintained as a disciplined and military force.

Physical, mental, reputational and other qualifications were determined by the governor. Those selected had to be able-bodied, undergo a medical examination to verify they were of “sound constitution,” and be of good character. They were also required to swear an oath of office before being given three-year appointments.

The annual salary scale was: inspector general £205, superintending sergeant £100, sergeant £50, corporal £35 and private £30.

Police officers were assigned numbers and allocated one uniform suit, the cost of which was deducted monthly from their salaries. These items remained public property and could not be seized to cover an officer's debts. Policemen were exempt from all inquiries, inquests and militia and jury service. The inspector general was authorised to employ medical officers to examine sick policemen and prisoners. Policemen who were off duty because of illness were liable to a salary deduction of sixpence (12 cents) per day.

The inspector general and the superintending sergeant were required to live within the precincts of Scarborough, and the remaining officers allocated to the central station in Scarborough and stations at Plymouth and others subsequently established in other districts.

The number of policemen appointed was determined by the needs of the society and of the justices of the peace who required police assistance in the conduct of civil and criminal matters.

The main responsibility of the police force was to keep the peace and maintain discipline. They were empowered to arrest all those who committed crimes which included felony, misdemeanours, firing on houses, illegal vending, vendors who failed to comply with the prescribed weights and measures, and armed people who sought to maim or kill others. Such arrests could be made based on information provided by “credible witnesses” – normally white and coloured planters and office-holders.

Assault, obstruction, or resisting policemen in the conduct of their duties and aiding and/or encouraging others to do so were offences for which the penalty was up to £6 or jail for two months with or without hard labour

It was illegal to sell or give intoxicating liquor to a policeman or to entertain an on-duty policeman in a private residence. Such offenders would be charged £3.

There were charges for impersonating a policeman and illegal possession of police arms, ammunition or clothing which could be used by unauthorised people with criminal intent to enter homes. Policemen who sold or otherwise disposed of their arms, clothing or other items of public property and the people who bought such items were liable to instant dismissal and further charges as determined by the police magistrate or justice of the peace.

Policemen could be charged up to £6 for neglect of duty, deserting the force and disobedience to their seniors. This sum would be deducted from any outstanding salary owed. If not, he would be sentenced to imprisonment in the Scarborough jail for up to a month with or without hard labour. Officers who faced charges were required to surrender the items issued to them on appointment and required to pay for any damaged item.

Officers who wished to leave the police force were required to seek discharge from the governor.

Eleven years after the previous police law was implemented, the administration of Tobago found it necessary to institute another which strengthened and expanded the previous one.

While both were efforts to provide security arrangements for the island, this matter assumed what was considered urgency by the ruling class because of the removal of the troops.

This removal therefore stimulated the creation of a more comprehensive law which, in anticipation of particular reactions, specifically targeted the freed African population to criminalise some of the strategies they used to become independent from estate labour and used policing to maintain Tobago’s labouring class in its pre-emancipation state.


"Preventing social change: Tobago’s 1854 police law"

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