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One hundred and seventy three years after…


The first of August would have marked one hundred and seventy three years since our great great grand parents were legally relieved from the bonds of slavery.{{more}} They were said to be free, but that is looking at freedom in a very limited way because they were still largely tied to the plantations. A people who had been tied to the land during slavery knew nothing else but work on the land. In any event, opportunities away from the land were very limited, and the political establishment under the influence of the planters wanted to curtail any opportunities that existed away from the land. Our freed ancestors were thus faced with a situation where they were said to be free but owned no land and faced limited opportunities away from the land. For most of them, freedom meant being able to eke out an existence away from the control of the planters. And we have to make a distinction here for they were not running away from working the land. What they were running away from was the control of the planters who within the limitations of freedom were trying to retain the situation as far as was possible to what existed under slavery. The freed people could combine to ensure that working conditions were made better. But here is where immigration was to play a key role for immigrants came under contracts that subscribed the kind of regulations under which they were to work. Their freedom, too, was in that way limited. The availability of immigrant labour meant that the freed African slaves did not hold a bargaining card. So continuation of work on the land was inevitable, and under conditions over which they had no say. Land for our ancestors meant wealth. Those who had wealth and controlled the society were those who owned the land. The freed slaves did not want land to exercise control. Ownership of land would have provided them with space away from the control of the planters. So for most of the nineteenth century post slavery the cry for land was the dominant theme among the newly emancipated.

Even when some of them were able to acquire plots of land, work on the estates was still necessary to allow them to pay for the land and to meet other needs. One of the planters biggest fears was that the freed people would combine their efforts to force their hands with regard to pay on the estate and working conditions generally. In an effort to counter that, immigration was used as a weapon. The immigrants who were introduced were given certain contracts which regulated working conditions and pay. With the availability of immigrants who were tied to certain working conditions, black labour was held at a ransom for any refusal to work for the pay provided would have resulted in their places being taken by immigrant workers. Three labourers, one of them who went by the name of Goodluck Clarke, told the 1882 Royal Commission that they were prepared to work to better their conditions, “but since the introduction of Indian immigrants they are unfairly dealt with, and have no protection even before some of the police magistrates.” Many of the Indian immigrants remained once their contracts were over. Some of them were provided with land as an inducement to remain. But the strategy of those who controlled the land was to ensure that there was no unity of purpose among Indians and Africans, even though they faced the same horrific conditions.

The socio-politico environment thus subscribed the freedom that was granted in 1838, but the people struggled. The 1862 riots on estates on the windward side of the island and in Mesopotamia predated the 1865 Morant Bay riots in Jamaica. We know a lot about the Morant Bay riots but little about those in St.Vincent in 1862.The Peasant Land Settlement Scheme that was inaugurated in 1899 was forced on the government by the fear that the labouring population was going to revolt because of the dire economic conditions and the failure to provide them with enough land.

By the early twentieth century a middle class made up of professional people and small land owners began to involve themselves in political affairs, calling for an end to Crown Colony rule and the return to representative government. When this was forced on the colonial establishment the situation that was put in place was one that favoured a few persons who had access to land and money. Although concessions were grudgingly given over the years, the socio-economic situation had not substantially changed by the 1930s when the working people in St.Vincent followed those in Belize and St.Kitts and revolted against the system. The Governor in reacting to the riots of October 21 and 22, 1935 acknowledged that the persons who invaded the Court Yard and rioted were ones who were not represented in parliament. By 1938 when other colonies had been involved in similar revolts the Colonial authorities realised that something was rotten in the Caribbean colonial society and began a period of reform that was mapped out by the Moyne Commission. The riots in St.Vincent led to the formation of the St.Vincent Working Men’s Association that dominated the Assembly from 1937 to 1951 and forced significant changes in different areas of life affecting the working people. The changes following the riots of October 1935, stimulated the move toward Adult Suffrage in 1951.

When this country, like other Caribbean countries, was handed its independence in 1979, it was easy to assume that we had gotten it on a platter. That, however, is certainly not so for the struggles of our people over the years created a path that was ultimately to lead to independence. Young people today do not fully appreciate the kind of struggles and sacrifices which those who went before them had to make. It is on the backs of those people that we stand today. But what are we today going to leave for those who are coming behind us? Kowtowing to the political elite will not take us anywhere. The struggle must continue. It is only through struggle that we are going to achieve. Our divisions are, however, so strong that the unity of purpose that is needed does not exist. One hundred and seventy three years after emancipation we seem to be lost. The physical plantations might have disappeared but a plantation mentality still suffocates us.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.