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Sugar, Slavery and Emancipation in St.Vincent- A Brief Overview

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Sunday, August 1, is the anniversary of Emancipation, but the annual holiday will be celebrated on the next day, Monday, August 2.

To mark the occasion, I am doing a two part article reflecting on issues pertaining to Emancipation in St.Vincent. In this first article I will provide a brief overview of Slavery.{{more}}

The first point that should perhaps be made is that this country got into the sugar business at a late stage. While other Caribbean colonies had begun the production of sugar from the 1640s and 50s, St.Vincent was still in the hands of the Caribs who controlled what were considered the best sugar lands. Colonies such as Barbados and Antigua had, therefore, been producing sugar for over 120 years at the time when St.Vincent began its period of British colonisation. St.Vincent became a colony of Britain in 1763, and three years later it began to export sugar but in very small quantities. In fact the export in that year, 1766, was a mere 35 tons. By 1771 it had reached 2,218 tons. However, in 1828, following the expulsion of the Caribs, it reached 14,403 tons, an amount that was never surpassed in its history. A major effort into the expansion of sugar began with the expulsion of the Caribs since the British planters then had access to the prized Carib lands in the north, lands considered ideal for sugar production. In 1813, the Byrea Hill tunnel was cut through Mount Young, facilitating communication with the north of the island. Later, the Black Point tunnel, as we call it, was also created at the sea end of Mount Young, to accommodate easier shipment of sugar to the calmer Byrea end. Georgetown was created from the Grand Sable estate which was the largest estate in the colony and the remainder of the Carib lands were divided into 7 large estates: Mt. Bentinck, Langley Park, Rabacca, Lot 14, Waterloo, Orange Hill, and Tourama. In 1791 the Grenadines were divided into two blocs with the north bloc linked administratively with St.Vincent. On Bequia there were 9 estates with Industry (1,000 acres) being the largest, Mustique -2 estates, Cheltenham (663 acres) and Adelphi (1,992 acres); Canouan 1 estate-Careenage 600 acres and Union Island 1 estate, 2057 acres. Cotton was planted in Union Island, Canouan, Petit St.Vincent and Mayreau with Balliceaux and Batowia used as stock islands from 1821.

In any attempt to understand the state and fate of the Sugar Industry in St.Vincent, it is important to know that the country started exporting Sugar a mere 10 years before the start of the War of American Independence which deprived planters of cheap sources of supplies for their estates. Added to this there were a series of disasters that played havoc with the Sugar Industry; a hurricane in 1780, the eruption of the Soufriere Volcano in 1812, another hurricane in 1819 and yet another in 1831. Loans advanced for hurricane relief following that of 1831 were up to 30 years after, not repaired and had brought a great burden on the estates.

With Sugar came slavery. Although a few slaves existed before, working on the small farms of the French planters, it was not until the development of the Sugar Industry that slavery expanded. It meant, however, that slavery did not exist for any major period in St.Vincent and began at a time when persons were beginning to raise serious issues about that institution and the challenge to the system began. Slaves came from different parts of Africa. Advertisements in the newspapers referred to the sale of Eboe and Malay slaves. Sir William Young in his diaries left accounts of the sale of Windward and Gold Coast slaves. While it might be argued that Slavery in St.Vincent for the reasons already outlined did not attain the brutality that it did in the older slave colonies, slavery was slavery, a brutal institution and moreover slaves were property. A notice in one of the newspapers in 1808 tells it all, “For Sale – A stout healthy Negro man of the Ebo nation, well seasoned to the island and sold for no fault but that the owner is in want of cash. For further particulars enquire of Mr. James O’ Flaherty.”

Slave laws put severe restrictions on the lives of slaves. Meetings of slaves after 10 pm were prohibited. Slaves were not allowed to leave the estates without a ticket except when they were going to the markets. Their houses, too, were often searched for weapons. Preaching of slaves was forbidden. Despite the restrictions prescribed in the laws, the slaves tried to fashion a life of their own and to create the space to do so. They had access to provision grounds and yam pieces and planted food which they took to the market. Mrs. Carmaichael, the wife of a Scottish planter, left us some accounts: “After morning service at the Chapel, the country Negroes eat cold fried jack fish and drink mobee, grog or some other beverage with their friends in the market place under a tree, and soon after, the well disposed people may be seen trudging home again with their empty trays and baskets. Mobee is a drink prepared with sugar, ginger and snake root, as a bitter it is fermented and is a wholesome cooling beverage.” Ashton Warner who was a slave on the Penniston estate and who left an account of slavery mentioned that his mother made sausages and souse made from pig head for sale.

There was no major slave revolt in St.Vincent but there were individual acts of violence. St.Hilaire, a planter of French descent who lived in Mayreau, was murdered by his slaves while working in the field. Charles Warner, the proprietor of Friendship estate in Bequia was murdered by two of his slaves. There were major disturbances on the estates in the Carib Country area in 1833, so much so that mention of this was made during the debate on abolition in the British parliament. The country was then experiencing serious economic difficulties, to the extent that the British Government had to meet the salary of the Lieutenant Governor.

What I have provided is a brief glimpse of aspects of the Sugar Industry and Slavery. Next week I will focus on issues related to Emancipation as they were played out in this country.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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