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This land is ours!

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I remember, as a primary school student in Barrouallie, being struck by the number of court cases involving land, often with members of the same

 
family. Magistrate’s Court day was a day when persons on the Leeward coast, from as far north as Chateaubelair, had to attend sittings, Barrouallie being centre for those areas. It was only later through the study of history that the land issue began to make sense to me. The Africans have a saying that when the Europeans came to Africa, they brought their Bible. They met them with their land; but not long after, they left the Africans with the Bible and took control of their land. Similarly, in St Vincent in the beginning, the Caribs had the land, but by 1797, most of them were sent into exile and those remaining were given small bits of their own land in areas readily subject to natural disasters.

Land was the reason for the prolonged struggle between the Caribs and English invaders. Land controlled by the Caribs in the north of the country was considered ideal for sugar production, hence their desire to have them removed from their country. With their expulsion, their land was divided into eight estates – Grand Sable, Mt. Bentinck, Langley Park, Rabacca, Orange Hill, Waterloo, Lot 14 and Tourama. By 1829 there were 110 estates. The largest was Union Island, that island being one estate of 2,057 acres, followed by Adelphi in Mustique, 1,992 acres, one of two estates there. The largest estate on mainland was Grand Sable, 1,600 acres.

Throughout the history of our country, land remained the dominant theme. Today, it remains so and constitutes a large part of our national conversation – the sale to foreigners and the impact on our ability to own piece, having to compete with the prices that the foreigners could afford to pay. Additionally, there is the transfer of good agricultural land into housing. With British control and the establishment of sugar, it was obvious to the Caribs and African slaves that ownership of land meant power and that the British were fixated with the ownership of land. Ownership carried with it economic and political power. To be able then to participate in the formal political process it was necessary to own land or have a certain income, which in any event meant owning land. The slaves were not considered human beings. They were property, chattel, and our slavery, as with the rest of the British slave colonies, has been described as chattel slavery. A planter’s property involved land and slaves. In the early years to kill or injure a slave meant having to compensate the planter for his property. There were a couple exceptional cases. On one of the estates just outside of the Kingstown boundary, one slave woman, the common-law wife of the planter, virtually ran the estate, since the owner was frequently out of the colony. In the 1880s, a Carib woman, the mistress of a planter, Robinson, inherited an estate in an area near to Morne Ronde where Caribs were granted lands in 1805.

It was the hope of the slaves at emancipation that they would have been able to acquire lands. Some of them were in a position to purchase small pieces from money earned through the sale of their produce at the market during slavery. The planters, fearing the possibility of a movement away from the estates, refused to sell lands in small lots whenever they had occasion to sell. They sold instead to other planters. One of the options was to squat on crown lands in the interior, which some did, but with no roads it was difficult getting their produce to the market. The planters also passed laws preventing squatting. Not to work was not an option, for there were vagrancy laws that they would have been infringing. Despite the attitude of planters, circumstances allowed former slaves to begin to own and lease land. Fear of a labour shortage led some planters to allow workers access to land not suitable for sugar cane cultivation on the borders of their estates. Some of them ultimately purchased those small bits of land that they subsequently subdivided, allowing space for only a house. This was the beginning of a process of building villages. By 1845, there were over 2,000 residents in about 44 villages built after emancipation. Some of the early ones were Victoria village, Montrose, Evesham and Belmont. By 1861, there were 128 towns, villages and small settlements, with a population of 20,661. Those still resident on estates numbered about 10,891.

The ownership of land was critical, with people risking punishment by squatting on crown lands, while others demanded the lease or purchase of those lands. The process of acquiring holdings and developing villages continued. The former slaves, now legally free and no longer chattel, could only enter the formal political process if they owned lands of a certain value. By the 1870s, a few of the former slaves began owning enough land to challenge the planters who controlled the different legislative councils in the colonies. The reaction of the planters was to surrender control to the British government, hence a period of Crown Colony government that lasted until 1925. (To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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