The Post-Emancipation Societies

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The second great watershed in Caribbean history resulted from the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century. In the British Caribbean this came between 1834, when a law was passed by the British Parliament to abolish slavery throughout the empire, and 1838, when the apprenticeship system collapsed prematurely. The apprenticeship system was designed to ease the transition from slavery to freedom by forcing the ex-slaves to remain on their plantations for a period of six years. Its main purpose was to prevent the immediate large-scale abandonment of estates by the workers, although, with cruel irony, it was the masters and not the slaves who were awarded compensation for the loss of their "property." The system proved too cumbersome to administer and was prematurely terminated in 1838. Barbados and Antigua abolished slavery without an apprenticeship system in 1834.

Abolition of slavery was difficult for the colonies, which had to adjust to having a majority of new citizens who could not be denied the civil rights already grudgingly extended to the few. Extending those civil rights, then as now, was neither easily nor gracefully achieved because the political systems had existed for centuries as the narrow instruments of the small, white, landed elite, largely absentee, whose members were threatened by the removal of their special trade preferences. Above all, there were economic difficulties. Sugar prices were falling, and West Indian producers were facing severe competition not only from other producers in the British empire--such as India, South Africa, and Australia--and nonimperial cane sugar producers--such as Cuba and Brazil--but also from beet sugar producers in Europe and the United States. Falling prices coincided with rising labor costs, complicated by the urgent need to regard the ex-slaves as wage laborers able and willing to bargain for their pay.

To mitigate labor difficulties, the local assemblies were encouraged to import nominally free laborers from India, China, and Africa under contracts of indenture. Apart from the condition that they had a legally defined term of service and were guaranteed a set wage, these Asian indentured laborers were treated like the African slaves they partially replaced in the fields and factories. Between 1838 and 1917, nearly half a million East Indians (from British India) came to work on the British West Indian sugar plantations, the majority going to the new sugar producers with fertile lands. Trinidad imported 145,000; Jamaica, 21,500; Grenada, 2,570; St. Vincent, 1,820; and St. Lucia, 1,550. Between 1853 and 1879, British Guiana imported more than 14,000 Chinese workers, with a few going to some of the other colonies. Between 1841 and 1867, about 32,000 indentured Africans arrived in the British West Indies, with the greater number going to Jamaica and British Guiana. With important British politicians such as Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) owning sugar estates in British Guiana, that colony, directly administered by the crown, assumed great importance in the Caribbean.

Indentured labor did not resolve the problems of the plantations and the local governments in the Caribbean during the nineteenth century, but it enabled the sugar plantations to weather the difficulties of the transition from slave labor. The new immigrants further pluralized the culture, the economy, and the societies. The East Indians introduced rice and boosted the local production of cacao (the bean from which cocoa is derived) and ground provisions (tubers, fruits, and vegetables). Although some East Indians eventually converted to Christianity and intermarried with other ethnic groups, the majority remained faithful to their original Hindu and Muslim beliefs, adding temples and mosques to the religious architecture of the territories. The Chinese moved into local commerce, and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the corner Chinese grocery store and the Chinese restaurant had become commonplace in all the colonies.

Emancipation of the slaves provided the catalyst for the rise of an energetic, dynamic peasantry throughout the Caribbean. A large proportion of the ex-slaves settled in free villages, often forming cooperatives to buy bankrupt or abandoned sugar estates. Where they lacked the capital, they simply squatted on vacant lands and continued the cultivation of many of the food crops that the planters and the colonial government had exported during the days of slavery.

The villages, although largely independent, provided a potential labor pool that could be attracted to the plantations. The growth of these free villages immediately after the emancipation of the slaves was astonishing. In Jamaica, black freeholders increased from 2,014 in 1838 to more than 7,800 in 1840 and more than 50,000 in 1859. In Barbados, where land was scarcer and prices higher, freeholders of less than 2 hectares each increased from 1,110 in 1844 to 3,537 in 1859. In St. Vincent, about 8,209 persons built their own homes and bought and brought under cultivation over 5,000 hectares between 1838 and 1857. In Antigua, 67 free villages with 5,187 houses and 15,644 inhabitants were established between 1833 and 1858. The free villages produced new crops such as coconuts, rice, bananas, arrowroot, honey, and beeswax, as well as the familiar plantation crops of sugarcane, tobacco, coffee, cacao, citrus limes, and ground provisions.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress