I made the point last week that following the emancipation of enslaved Africans the issue of immigration was the focus of attention for planters and colonial officials. They were of the view that the future of the colony’s economy was tied up with the continuing cultivation of sugar under a plantation/estate system. With their expectation of a movement away from the estates they fixed their minds on immigration. They made this even more self-fulfilling by antagonising the free labourers with measures that were aimed at keeping them tied to estate labour through denying them easy access to lands including Crown lands. Moreover, they dictated wages to be paid without consultation. The result was a series of labour disturbances especially in the 1840s and 1850s. Services which were supplied by the estates under Slavery were no longer provided so the Legislature was supposed to play a role in ensuring that these were available to the free labourers. Their emphasis however was on providing funds for matters that benefited them. Hence Immigration took top place.
We tend to see Immigration as a response to what the historical literature told us was a shortage of workers for the estates. The focus ultimately was on Indian immigration, but this only started in 1861. Prior to this, planters and colonial officials tapped into the immigration of liberated Africans from Sierra Leone and on Portuguese workers from Portuguese Madeira. There was even an interest in 1858 for Chinese labour, the two branches of the Legislature considered their labour as valuable. They requested the home government in England to allow the entry to St. Vincent of 500 Chinese immigrants. This, however, never got off the ground.
Present day African descendants see themselves as coming from a slave background where their ancestors worked on the colony’s estates as enslaved workers. But there were hundreds who had been captured especially from Portuguese slave ships and taken to Sierra Leone from which many were brought to St. Vincent as ‘liberated Africans’. Others were urged to come as free labourers, all of this in the period following the end of Slavery. The first set of Africans that arrived after emancipation was a group of 26 brought from the River Gambia. The first Portuguese immigrants arrived here in 1845. Up to June 1847 1,893 Portuguese immigrants had arrived from Madeira. Before 1861 when the emphasis was on Indian immigrants Madeira and Sierra Leone supplied immigrants to St. Vincent.
Another group of Immigrants were Poor Whites from Barbados because of the conditions under which they lived there. By the end of 1858 there were 300 Barbadians who arrived in St. Vincent. This included 100 white Barbadians. Between 1860 and 1875 there was an increasing number of Barbadian poor whites who took up residence at Dorsetshire Hill and Mt. Pleasant in Bequia. It was felt that the poor whites could become involved in cotton cultivation.
It was known that by June 1859 agents for Trinidad in India were also acting on behalf of St. Vincent. There was even an offer by Captain Lewis, a part owner and master of the ship “William Jackson” to bring Indian immigrants to St. Vincent but was unable to take more than 350. Efforts however did not bear fruit until 1861. African immigrants arrived in July 1860 from St. Helena and on January 14, 1861 the ship ‘Alcabor’ arrived from St. Helena with 119 Liberated Africans. Finally on 2nd June 1861 Immigrants long awaited from India arrived on the Barque “Travacoure” after a passage of 92 days with 260 immigrants which included 160 men and 62 women, 34 children under 10 and 4 infants under 1. There were 2 births recorded on the ship. The immigrants were placed at the Commissariat Buildings at New Edinburgh except for 5 sick cases that were taken to the hospital. The immigrants were distributed to the following estates – Rabacca which took the most, Tourama, Argyle, Adelphi, Calder, Rutland Vale, Sans Souci, Union, Mt Greenan, Mt. Bentinck and L’Ance Joyeau. One individual was used as an Interpreter.
Although the emphasis after this was on Indian immigrants it must be noted that the ship “Castle Howard” that arrived from Calcutta on 11th April 1862 also had on board 14 ‘Liberated Africans’ from St. Helena. Included in the contract for Indian immigrants was the payment of back passages for those who wanted to return to India at the end of their contract. This payment of back passages which increased in the 1880s placed a heavy dent on the Immigration fund, especially with the departure of 500 Indians in 1885. This brought an end to the demand for immigrants from India.
There was a view expressed even among Lt. Governors that Immigration did not “give the sugar industry the shot in the arm” that was expected since the problem was not a labour problem. Lt. Governor Rennie agreed in 1872 that there were enough creole labourers to carry out sugar cultivation. The labourers themselves had their say, as did Goodluck Clarke and two others before the 1882 Royal Commission. He said that they were willing to work to better their conditions “but since the introduction of Indian immigrants they are unfairly dealt with and have no protection even before some of the police magistrates.”
Immigration fitted into the colonial practice of ‘divide and rule’. The Indians too were not satisfied with the conditions under which they worked because some of the terms of the contract were never fulfilled. This is seen with their demand for back passages to return home and the protests which they undertook at different times. By the end of the 19th century the sugar industry was on the verge of collapse, made even more so by the hurricane of 1898 and the volcanic eruption of 1902.
- Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian