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Emancipation and land


It is indeed full of irony that in a month when we celebrate the anniversary of emancipation the issue of land should surface in the way it does. I refer, in particular to the cries coming from Cane Grove and Bequia. Of course the Argyle issue still remains hanging. I refer to it as being ironic since land has been so central to emancipation. In fact, the most dominant theme in Vincentian history has been that of land.{{more}} In making this last point I am actually quoting from Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves in an unpublished paper “Land Reform: The St.Vincent Case of Peasant vs. Plantation Agriculture”, 1973. Very much of the history of this country is centered on the struggle for land, starting of course, with the Caribs. The prolonged struggle of the Caribs was to defend their land against efforts by the Europeans to wrest it for the establishment of plantations and the production of sugar. This is what the deportation of the Caribs was all about in 1797.

The 1797 expulsion paved the way for the creation of a monopoly of land by a few planters. The story should be well known. The country’s topography was such that most of the cultivable and easily accessible land was on the coast. This land in the hands of a few planters carried with it the power that came with ownership of the major economic resource of the country. The slaves naturally did not feature in this since by law they were considered property. So slavery and the plantation system came into full effect with the forceful removal of the indigenous people. But even then the slaves got access to kitchen gardens and marginal estate lands in a bid to allow them to produce part of their own subsistence and reduce the burden on the estates.

The emancipation that we now celebrate was only the beginning of a process that is still playing itself out. Legally the slaves were free, but the reality was far different. It was here that the freed slaves made that connection between land and freedom, since it was realised that without access to the ownership of land they remained dependent on the plantations and the dictates that came with that. The situation was made worse when the introduction of immigrant labourers limited the kind of options they had and was actually done with the intention of stifling any demands that the freed people were tempted to make. Hence the struggle for land was central to the life of the people. The planters who understood the power that ownership and control of land carried, were determined to limit access to the freed people. Vincentian history, particularly up to 1951, the date of the introduction of Adult Suffrage, was thus to a large extent about land. I singled out 1951 because until the advent of Adult Suffrage the franchise was limited to those who owned property.

Post emancipation records abound with information about this struggle that intensified when the faltering sugar industry failed to satisfy the demand for labour. There were two major problems. First, the planters, when they were inclined for whatever reason, to sell land did so only to people of their own ilk. Land owned by government, Crown land, was in the interior of the country with no roads and, therefore, little access to markets. Moreover, the Legislature refused to sanction the availability of money for any survey of Crown lands, limiting therefore, the movement away from the control of the estates. Despite these obstacles, the faltering economy and the need to secure labour meant that some planters were ultimately prepared to lease lands on the borders of their estates. These were lands not suitable for the cultivation of sugar. Squatting also became a growing reality. Continued applications for land and growing unrest by the labouring class led eventually to a survey of Crown lands in 1887 and the start of a Crown Lands Scheme. By 1897 the sugar economy was grinding to a halt. Members of the labouring class continued to voice their dissatisfaction especially since in their view planters cut back on employment to prevent them from acquiring money to purchase or lease Crown lands. By 1897 there were fears of revolt and the 1898 hurricane only added to the woes. The first government land settlement scheme was started in 1899 and extended to 1912, with further purchases in 1932, and smaller purchases in the leeward area in 1936 and 1939, before the acquisition of blocks of estates in Central Leeward and North Leeward in 1946. These were the purchases before 1951. The other major purchases came during the tenure of the government of James Mitchell.

I have tried to show rather briefly how central land has been to the lives of our people. There were many flaws in the settlement schemes implemented over the years since they were attempts at land distribution rather than land reform. The later land settlement schemes I have not touched on but these are adequately captured by Karl John in his recent book Land Reform in Small Island Developing States- A Case Study of St.Vincent, 1890-2000. The point that has to be emphasized is that in a small island state with limited resources, land still assumes enormous importance something that was recognised by all and sundry throughout the years especially by those persons who gained their freedom from slavery. Political leaders such as McIntosh, Joshua and Mitchell, more than others, recognised this and made efforts to push the country into that direction. George McIntosh’s was perhaps the loudest voice calling for making land accessible to the working people. I had actually thought that this was the track the OECS leaders were on when they highlighted the importance of the Alien Land Holding Licences at the time of their acceptance into the CSM. But the reality is that today we seem to be reversing some of the gains made over the years and are heading in a different direction. Given the global context and declining options, land appears to be the only thing we can hold on to. We need seriously to reflect on our path to development and to come to some consensus on what really constitutes development and determine the sacrifices we are prepared to make. Land is tied up with the issue of emancipation and we must remember this as we celebrate during this emancipation month.