Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Absentee Proprietorship in the British West Indies, to about 1850

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Absentee Proprietorship in the British West Indies, to about 1850

Article excerpt

In the draft report of the Select Committee on Sugar and Coffee Planting in 1848, the Chairman, Lord George Bentinck, commented on the evidence given before the Committee by Mr. Edwin Pickwoad, whose family owned property in St. Kitts:

Mr. Pickwoad's first and great object appeared to be to establish one of Lord Grey's [the Secretary of State for the Colonies] great axioms, that a large portion of the distress of the British Sugar and Coffee Planting Colonies arises from the want of resident proprietors.1

Lord Grey was not alone in this opinion. There is hardly a commentator or an historian who, in describing the distresses of the West Indian colonies in the nineteenth century or earlier, does not point to absentee-proprietorship as a major source of trouble. It has been said that by the prevalence of absentee-ownership the colonies were drained of economic wealth, and denied a gentry who might have set a high example both in social life and in the performance of political and administrative duties. Because of absenteeism, it has been claimed, many estates were left to the management of men who were nearly always incompetent and often dishonest, the moral tone of colonial society was coloured by the example of inferior residents whose lack of right principle was both obvious and irreparable, the public administration lacked integrity and was bedevilled by multiple office-holding, and the profits of sugar went not to colonial economic development but to the financing of British commercial and industrial growth and the conspicuous consumption abroad of the absentee proprietors.2

The number and variety of the charges kindle the spark of curiosity. The profuse, but scattered, information at our disposal provides specific illustrations of all the alleged ills listed above; and yet, something seems questionable in our traditional belabouring of absenteeism. The very limited purposes of this paper are to suggest that our generalizations about absentee-ownership are not always well founded, and that when we have come to learn more about the subject, we may have to shed our remarks of generality and put them in more specific contexts of place and time.

Absentee-proprietorship in the British West Indies began, not with the sugar industry, but with the first English colonizations and the establishment of forms of proprietary government. Thus, from the time of the earliest settlements in the Leeward Islands and in Barbados, there existed a distinction between "colonists" and "proprietors". In later years, as other colonies in the West Indies were acquired by Britain by conquest or by cession, many large tracts of land were granted to people living in Britain who had been instrumental to the new acquisitions, or who for some other reason enjoyed the favour of the Crown or Parliament.4 Thus, in a number of specific instances absentee proprietorship was created by sovereign fiat, and the absentee proprietor decided whether he should move westwards across the Atlantic, either to take up residence on his new property or merely to visit it.

Another source of absentee ownership emerged and grew with the increasing profitability of sugar production from the second half of the seventeenth century. Resident colonists who became wealthy by the production of sugar decided whether they should move eastwards across the Atlantic to reside in, or merely to visit, the metropolitan country whence they or their fathers, probably in less opulent personal circumstances, had formerly migrated.

A third source of absentee-ownership originated in the inheritance by people resident in Britain of West India property. Whether these beneficiaries had been born in Britain or in the West Indies makes no difference. On the inheritance of estates in the colonies, they were free to choose either to remain in Britain or to go and assume, or resume, residence on the estates.

Fourthly, in the later eighteenth century when the profitability of West India estates generally declined, another source of absenteeism became important as creditors in Britain came, however reluctantly, into possession of unprofitable West India estates on which they had lien. …

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