Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Routes to Chattel Village: Bequest and Family Villages in Post-Slavery Barbados1

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Routes to Chattel Village: Bequest and Family Villages in Post-Slavery Barbados1

Article excerpt

The historical literature on "free" or "independent" village development in the post-slavery British Caribbean contains hardly a mention of the Barbadian experience. Perhaps, not surprisingly, that literature has focused attention on Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and, to a lesser extent, on the Windward Islands and Antigua. In all those territories, so the story goes, certain factors operated to ensure that the transition from slavery to freedom was qualitatively different from the experience of the other territories. Specifically, it is affirmed that each of those terri- tories possessed, to a greater or lesser extent, some land outside of the dominant plantation, and that in all of the territories certain agencies, sometimes operating in combination, effectively facilitated the transfer of some of that land on freehold tenure to some of the formerly enslaved. Those agencies are identified as: the planters who recognized how selfinterest could be advanced by establishing nurseries of labourers on plantation lands; joint or communal action by some of the formerly enslaved both to acquire land and to protect it from environmental haz- ard; intermediaries (mainly missionaries) who deliberately facilitated the transfer of available land; and part-time land speculators who were essentially seeking profit.2

Presumably, Barbados has been excluded from consideration and investigation because of its deserved designation as the quintessential plantation territory. On the face of it, a free village movement had little chance of taking root, because the land space was severely limited, because the plantation controlled virtually all the land, because Barbados was the "high density" territory where the numbers of the formerly enslaved were almost twice as dense as those in the other high density territories, and because the planters took early legislative action to reinforce their control of land and labour by restricting emigration opportunities and, particularly, by creating the located-labourer system that securely tied most of the formerly enslaved to both plantation labour and plantation residence.3 Moreover, Barbados, unlike Jamaica, did not have the benefit of the presence of non-conformist missionaries who accepted that an integral part of their mission was to facilitate the pur- chase of land by members of their congregation. This would allow those vulnerable and disadvantaged people to create both an independent "home" and "an asylum" that could shield them from the "treachery, scorn and trickery" of their "inveterate enemies".4 Therefore, in Barbados land for purchase remained scarce and expensive, and most agricultural workers, earning at most one shilling a day, had very limited means of saving towards that desirable end.

Governors of the island and at least one visitor fully recognized that formidable constraints militated against the acquisition of freeholds and the formation of free villages. In 1858, Sir Francis Hincks virtually repeated the remarks of his predecessor when he declared: "In Barbados the labourers remain on the estates, not because they like the tenure, but because the scarcity and high price of land place freeholds beyond their reach."5 William Sewell, the itinerant American journalist, neatly paraphrased those remarks when he chillingly observed that, because the island possessed an "overstocked and imprisoned population", the agricultural labourer was "virtually a slave" who "had the option of work at low wages, and on most illiberal terms, or starvation".6 No doubt, it was this unanimity, perhaps substituting for hard evidence, which led William Green to pronounce: "free villages did not arise"!7 Other scholars, no less impressed, have obviously concluded that evidence of the acquisition of small freeholds and of free village development in Barbados was either so "vague" or "highly unusual" as to render those issues not worthy of further investigation.8

However, there is a case for asserting that free village development did occur in Barbados. …

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