June 1, 2023, will be one hundred and sixty two years since the first East Indians arrived in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. What I will attempt to do in this article is to describe the circumstances that existed before their arrival. Emancipation for the enslaved Africans created serious concerns for Vincentian planters, many of them absentees, and the Colonial Office which saw the future of St. Vincent and other Caribbean colonies as dependent on the retention of the sugar industry based on plantations worked by free African people. There were fears however on the part of the planters and the colonial office that many of them would desert the plantations. Despite those fears they created conditions that antagonized the former enslaved. There were issues particularly over wages and conditions of work, sometimes arbitrary decisions being made over wages. Moreover, obstacles were created to force them to remain on the plantations, regulations against squatting and efforts to prevent the sale of land especially in small quantities.
By the 1840s after many strikes and disturbances on the estates a great deal of interest was placed on immigration. At first European labourers were sought as ploughmen and there was even the thought that they could attract European labourers who would then set an example to the creole labourers. It obviously didn’t take them long to realise that European labourers were not going to come, at least in the numbers they wanted. In their appeals for help from the British Government attention was focused on Sierra Leone but there was no interest from that end.
At this time a foreign slave trade was still in progress, particularly that of the Portuguese. The British, having abolished the trade, allowed their ships to capture enslaved Africans to be taken to Sierra Leone or St. Helena where they exerted pressure on them to emigrate to the West Indies. It is estimated that between 1834 and 1867 over 5,000 ‘liberated Africans’ as they were called were brought to Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. The first set of Portuguese from Madeira were brought to this country in 1845. The Legislature dominated by planters was prepared to put money into Immigration, at the same time neglecting education and the provision of other services that were important to the free Vincentian labourers. Immigration was largely a way of providing competition and forcing down wages.
They really preferred native labour. In fact, on many occasions when immigrants arrived it took a long time before they were taken up by the estates, each planter hoping that other planters would utilize their labour. The Lieutenant Governor in 1861 commented on the ease with which funds were voted for Immigration while the number of applicants for immigrant labour was small.
While all of this was happening, labourers were moving from St. Vincent to seek employment elsewhere, so that the Colonial Office in one of its memos likened immigration into the Windward Islands as putting water in a sieve because of the extent of emigration at a time when the country was hell bent on attracting immigrants. As early as 1839 the Legislature amended the Immigration Act to control emigration from the island. Penalties were imposed on masters of vessels if they had passengers on board without the relevant certificate. Emigration to Trinidad was very attractive because of the higher wages being offered there and the better opportunities for owning land. I had stated elsewhere that the planters also seemed to have been deriving some psychological satisfaction from having the immigrants around.
In March 1849 when the ship “Amity Hall” arrived with 234 liberated Africans from Sierra Leone there was tremendous joy. The journey from Africa involved two deaths, with ten others reported ill when they arrived. A few weeks later there were seven deaths among the immigrants. The Lieutenant Governor argued that the deaths were among those “whose constitutions appeared to have ben quite exhausted previous to their embarkation at Sierra Leone.” He went on to say that they had also been among the last remaining in the yard at Sierra Leone. Between March 1845 and June 1847, 1,893 Portugese immigrants from Madeira had been introduced on one-year contracts. After their contract ended, they moved where they were able to obtain higher wages. The contract was later extended to three years. (To be continued)
- Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian