Dr. Fraser- Point of View
August 3, 2007
Land and emancipation

A lot has been said during the course of the year about the bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade. The first of August should have reminded us that slavery continued for a considerable period of time after the slave trade was abolished. One expects too that activities to mark the abolition of the slave trade will continue into next year because 1808 was the year that was significant to us.{{more}} It was in 1808 that the abolition act took effect here. St.Vincent was not exposed to the full effects of slavery and the slave trade as a number of its sister colonies were. Although the French who were the first Europeans in this country had some slaves, the slave trade and slavery really took root and shape with the British after 1763 when they began the process of introducing sugar. All of this meant that this country was only open to the slave trade for 45 years and slavery for 75 years. Furthermore, St.Vincent got involved in slavery and the slave trade at a time when opposition to the trade was being voiced in England. The Abolition Society got started in the late 1780s and this influenced some efforts at amelioration as the planters wanted to convince the British public that the evils they were hearing so much about were far from being real.

I am writing this article before the August 1 holiday and before the programmes of celebration have begun. One of the things that will apparently be highlighted is the breadfruit. The breadfruit really had little to do with emancipation. It was brought in as food for the slaves in an effort by the planters to reduce what they would have had to spend on the feeding of slaves. F. Ober on his visit to St.Vincent in 1876 noted that the plant “flourished in greater abundance than in any other of the Caribbean chain.” The breadfruit was, however, quite useful to the ex-slaves and tided many families over difficult periods. The estates at times even rented breadfruit trees to the workers. But all of this was tied up with the availability of land and land of course was the major issue arising at emancipation. It is therefore of great significance that today there is so much talk about our policies and attitude to land. Land to the former slaves meant freedom and independence. The lack of land meant that they would have been forced to depend on the estates for their survival, and with this dependence on the estates came the control of the planters.

Land was status. Those who owned land controlled things. It was the ownership of land that allowed the planters to take control of the Legislature. Under slavery the slaves were things, were property, with no human rights. Ownership of lands could change their status and so they struggled for land. The planters were quite conscious of this and put major obstacles to prevent them not only owning land but also having access to lands. The historical literature reflects this obsession with land. To make matters worse the sugar industry went into serious decline particularly after the 1840s. The planters with their control of all arable land recognised this as a weapon and refused to sell land to the former slaves. When they were in financial difficulty they sold land in large blocks knowing that this gave an advantage to other planters.

There was other land available but that was Crown land and was mainly in the interior, mountainous and with little access. Lands in the country had not been surveyed since Byres survey in 1776. But since that time there were enormous changes with many planters encroaching on Crown lands. Any effort to sell crown lands depended on the planters voting money for surveying the lands, something they were not prepared to do. They were willing to put money into Immigration schemes but not into surveying plans that might facilitate the sale of Crown lands. The economic situation in St.Vincent by the 1850s had become serious enough to have convinced some Lieutenant Governors that the only way out was to facilitate the development of a peasantry. Again the political and economic power of the planters was a major obstacle. In 1882 Lt. Governor A.F Gore even informed the Royal Commission of that year that few small holdings were in existence since the planters aim was to keep the people dependent on them. Despite this, the economic and political environment was being opened up to change. The economic situation was becoming even more severe and the planters themselves were in financial difficulties. In 1875 the Legislature voted to end elected representation and to put power into the hands of the Crown through its Lt.Governor and his nominees.

With the reduction in the political power of the planters, came a survey of Crown lands, a Crown Lands scheme and by 1899, a Peasant Lands Settlement Scheme that ran until 1914 but was limited in its application and certainly unable to fulfil the widespread demand for lands. A new scheme in 1931 made the Three Rivers Estate part of the Land Settlement scheme and in 1936 through cooperation with the respective land owner Snuggs, Barre and Mt.Alexander in the Leeward district. The 1935 riots had put land again very much on the agenda and respective Administrators and Governors felt that the only solution to the severe economic problems facing the country was the availability of more land to the people. The 1946 Land Settlement Schemes involved estates in the central leeward and north leeward areas, that is, in the areas of Richmond, Wallibou and Wallilabou.

Today there is a lot of discussion around the issue of land and the sale of what used to be called Crown lands. There are obviously serious issues at stake involving the matter of foreign investment and its role in the development of the country. There will always be contentious issues arising and at times some sacrifices have to be made. Land is today no less meaningful to us, besides, our small size, topography and environmental concerns will all be at play. Land is therefore a very sensitive matter and no Government, in fact, no one, should take it for granted. It is ironic that, 169 years after emancipation, the issue that was very much on the minds of the freed slaves is now today a matter for sharp debate in a context and environment far removed from that of 1838. The planters are no longer in control. Those calling the shots are our own people caught however in a tangled web spun in a post colonial society. The question is what and how much are we prepared to give up in our thrust toward development and how do the prevailing political dynamics accommodate the different forces at play. The legal step in 1838 that we call emancipation was only one step in a long process. At its heart was a quest for a better life and for more control over one’s lives. Other factors have crept into the picture and so the struggle goes on.