By Clyde W. Thierens
With full emancipation from enslavement in 1838, many of the ex slaves hoped to “make freedom meaningful”. As they saw it, one of the best methods of achieving this desire was for them to free themselves as much as they possibly could from the plantations. Economic and social independence of the planters was, to many, a state worthy of being aspired to. This desire, combined with many other factors, caused ex- slaves to leave the plantations in significant numbers in search of a better life. In British Guiana and in Trinidad – both relatively undeveloped colonies with large amounts of uncultivated land – there was a marked exodus of ex-slaves from the plantations. Many of those who left became peasants, small freeholders, shopkeepers, petty traders and hucksters.
This article seeks to explain why these two colonies experienced the rapid growth of a Black peasantry immediately after 1838, while some other British Caribbean territories did not. The focus is on the immediate post-Emancipation period when there was the initial movement of the ex-slaves off the plantations onto their own land.
Sidney Mintz defines the peasantry as “small-scale cultivators who own or have access to land, who produce some commodities for sale, and who produce much of their own subsistence”. This definition serves as a useful starting point for a discussion on the Caribbean peasantry as it generally describes many of the ex- slaves who initially left the plantations just after Emancipation and settled in villages. Interestingly, Walter Rodney adopts a more rigid view of what constitutes a peasantry by asserting that the nineteenth-century Creole labourers were incorrectly classified as peasants. He insists that it is ‘‘essential to distinguish between self-employed farming and estate wage labour”. Somewhat similarly, Frucht differentiates Caribbean peasants who combine production for subsistence and for sale, with occasional estate work to boost their income, from those who mainly depend upon earning wages but still do some subsistence farming.
It is clear that, in defining the Caribbean peasantry, some degree of ‘flexibility’ is adopted in an effort to accommodate the peculiar Caribbean context. This position is exemplified by Woodville Marshall who, in applying the term to “small farmers, peasant farmers and peasant cultivators”, contends that the Caribbean peasantry has its own peculiarities. A number of these peculiarities he identifies as its recent beginnings, its intricate relationship to the plantation and its adoption of additional economic pursuits for survival, inter alia. In similar vein, Mintz further describes Caribbean peasantries as ‘reconstituted’ ones in that they originated in slavery not as peasants, but eventually became so in order to resist what he identifies as “an externally imposed regimen”.
After Emancipation not all of the ex-slaves chose to leave the plantations. Some of them remained to ‘enjoy’ the amenities they traditionally had become accustomed to. Others bought enough land in an effort to become self-sufficient, while there were those who combined working on the estates with cultivation of their land. In addition to the acquisition of land, a successful Caribbean peasantry could only have evolved in the context of the ex-slaves possessing the requisite agricultural skills for successful cultivation of chosen crops. Additionally, the availability of markets for the sale of surpluses was also necessary.
During their enslavement, although Africans did not own their own land, they cultivated provision grounds to supplement their food requirements. In addition to satisfying their longing for freedom, Emancipation also provided opportunity and scope for the ex-slaves to utilize their farming skills. In those colonies where the prevailing conditions allowed, the ex-slaves made every attempt to exercise their freedom of choice to shape their future. For many, agriculture provided opportunity for the creation of a foundation for a new life. In this regard, their involvement in agriculture as ‘proto-peasants’ during enslavement provided them with an invaluable tool for the realization of their dreams.
The ownership of their own land was perceived by many of the ex-slaves as the method of choice for the demonstration of their new status as independent people. Ownership was also viewed as a means of ensuring their economic survival. The ‘land hunger’ that developed among the ex-slaves provided the fuel that generated the rapid growth of a Black peasantry in British Guiana and Trinidad, as well as in Jamaica. In Barbados, Antigua and St Kitts the freedmen’s desire for land of their own remained unsatisfied. The major reason for this was that, in those colonies, the long-established sugar industry had appropriated almost all of the best lands. In British Guiana and Trinidad the very low population density and the availability of land outside of sugar cultivation allowed the ex- slaves to satisfy their land hunger. In the Leeward Islands, especially in Nevis, despite the development of a ‘proto- peasantry’, the lack of available land prevented the rapid growth of a Black peasantry. The result of this was that the ex-slaves were forced to work wages and to become sharecroppers.
In addition to seeking land for the realization of economic independence, the ex- slaves also desired land for residential purposes. They wanted a place where they could settle their families. With opportunities for this to be done in Trinidad, by 1846, about 5,400 ex-slaves lived in villages they had acquired near to Port of Spain and San Fernando. By 1859, nearly five-sixths of the migrants from the estates owned one to ten acres, cultivating vegetables and provisions for subsistence and for sale. The villagers also cultivated some cocoa, coffee and sugar cane.
In British Guiana there was what has been described by Brian Moore as “one of the greatest expressions of land hunger” by the ex- slaves. By 1850 they had spent in excess of one million pounds to purchase land. More than one and a half million pounds had also been spent on agricultural development and on the building of more than 10,500 homes. This meant that in twelve short years after 1838 formerly enslaved Africans had spent the amazing sum of 2.5 million pounds on property! This clearly demonstrated that the newly freed Africans did not only manifest a desire to acquire their own land but also applied themselves fervently to the development of their properties. This movement of freed Africans away from the plantations, and their awe-inspiring accomplishment in acquiring their own properties, has been described by Rawle Farley as “having no parallel in the history of the world”.
Newly freed Africans in Jamaica also took steps to acquire their own land after Emancipation. By 1842, nearly two hundred free villages covering 100,000 acres of land had been established at a cost of 70,000 pounds. Holdings of up to ten acres were owned by 19,000 freedmen. However, in a number of the Windward Islands, many of the ex-slaves continued to occupy the estate houses and the provision grounds that they had occupied during their enslavement. The rapid growth of a Black peasantry was not realized in these colonies because of the migration of almost one-third of the labour force. Many of the ex-slaves emigrated from St Vincent and from Grenada in search of high wages in Trinidad. Additionally, former labourers on the estates left to seek employment in other areas.
In Trinidad the plantocracy could not prevent the Black labourers from acquiring and cultivating parts of the more than one million acres of available Crown and private lands in the colony. Here, the labourers pioneered the development of the cocoa industry, while cultivating other crops for sale. In British Guiana, the estates provided outlets for the produce of the small farmers. Also, villages near to urban centres capitalized on their proximity to take advantage of the urban clientele. This was to the extent that many imported consumer goods were substituted, leading to an almost thirty per cent decrease in consumer imports between 1838 and 1842.
It is clear that the peasantry in both British Guiana and Trinidad grew as a result of opportunities to satisfy new consumer demands it had created through expanding marketing and distribution networks. The productivity of the provision grounds generated the income for some degree of economic independence and this provided impetus for more of the ex-slaves to move off the plantations and join the ranks of the peasantry.
In both British Guiana and Trinidad the Africans cooperated by combining their resources to purchase and develop abandoned estates. This was also evident in Jamaica with the formation of cooperative financial and agricultural enterprises, in addition to Friendly and Burial Societies. These initiatives enabled the Black peasantry to grow rapidly as the newly freed Africans became empowered to successfully undertake projects that they would not have been able to accomplish individually.