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This land is ours (Part 2)

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In last week’s column, I emphasized the point that land was and in fact, remains a dominant issue in the lives of Vincentians. It was, from the beginning, a critical factor that helped to shape their lives.

The struggle for land was particularly vicious in the period from 1838 to 1899, the end of the 19th century. Although increasingly former slaves were accessing land, most of it was leased, some were glebe lands and in any event the acreage was quite small, and not very good land either. On the other hand, by 1880 there were 123 estates. Portions of those estates were either sold or leased to labourers and formed the beginning of villages. Examples of this can be seen where on the boundary of Evesham Vale estate, Evesham village was formed. Similarly, Enham village from Carapan estate, South Rivers from Three Rivers estate and Harmony Hall village from Harmony Hall. The dominant estate owner was DK Porter, owning or part owning 24 estates, George Robertson, 6 and Duncan McDonald, 3; with those two, the estates were in the Leeward parishes of St Patrick and St David’s; Ephraim Hadley, 5, James Choppin, 5 and John Greatheed, 3.

What stood out up to 1899 was the inequality in ownership. A Royal Commission that visited the island in 1897 provided information on land ownership. Total acreage of St Vincent and the Grenadines was put at 93, 987 acres. 50,584 acres were distributed in 129 estates of not less than 100 acres. Crown lands were estimated to be 25,000 acres, which meant that thousands of former slaves and their descendants had access to only 18, 403 acres. The Commission stated that there were only few small proprietors cultivating their own land. Labourers and small peasants appeared before the Commission. Twenty-one of them from Barrouallie (including well-known names such as Harry, Ogarro, Williams, Doyle and Richardson) stated, “Your coming here reminds us of Moses of Yore into Egypt, delivering the children of Israel from Pharoah’s bondage. Then allow us, the undersigned to say that we are tenants on the glebe land of this parish to the Reverend SF Branch, who is oppressing us very much, making us pay him interest on back rent…” They also pointed to other grievances they suffered.

By then, many of the estates were in debt and sugar was no longer a profitable industry. Some of the estates lay idle while the people continued their demand for land. In fact, at times, the estate owners went into the cultivation of arrowroot, but this crop did not demand as many workers as the cultivation of sugar. The colonial authorities were becoming alarmed and feared possible unrest. The hurricane of 1898 and the eruption of 1902 created a crisis situation, since sugar cultivation was to all intent and purposes doomed. The Royal Commission made a recommendation for the region, that the introduction of a peasant land settlement scheme be given some attention and in the case of St Vincent saw it as being urgent. Fearing the possibility of trouble, the authorities acted and introduced a peasant land settlement scheme from 1899, where some estates were purchased by the government and parcelled out in small lots to labourers and peasants, who were given a period of time to complete payment for their lots. Most of this took place in the Leeward area, so that the villages of Convent, Spring, Grove, Belleisle, Hermitage, Troumaca, Rosebank, Belmont and Rose Hall emerged. In the St Georges parish was Richmond Hill and in Charlotte, New Adelphi and Park Hill. The scheme was extended with Clare Valley and Questelles and because of the need for resettlement of refugees after the volcanic eruption, other areas were added – Camden Park, Rutland Vale and Arnos Vale. Union Island was next. The population of 2,000 there petitioned government to acquire the island. They described the proprietor Richards as a tyrant and spoke of the harsh and oppressive conditions they faced. The following year it was Sandy Bay; Belair in 1912 and Three Rivers in 1932.

Government had always been reluctant to interfere with the estates, but was forced to act because of the constant call for land, expressed sometimes through petitions. Although the anxiety over land continued, the government declined to proceed further. This issue remained serious at the time of the 1935 riots. Unlike other Caribbean colonies, the desire was not for work on the estates, but for land. Arrowroot and Sea Island cotton had become the premier crops in the island and those were crops, unlike sugar cane, that could have been cultivated on the kind of inferior lands to which the people had access. Moreover, those into the cultivation of cotton and arrowroot became participants in the export economy. After the riots, the people of Barrouallie petitioned the government and reminded them of how loyal they were during the disturbances. They were under the impression that the acquisition of Three Rivers in 1932 signalled the start of another land settlement scheme and so awaited that. What happened in 1935 placed land settlement high on the colony’s agenda. (To be continued)

 
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.
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