Post-Emancipation Protest in the Caribbean: The "Belmanna Riots" in Tobago, 1876

By Bereton, Bridget | Caribbean Quarterly, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Post-Emancipation Protest in the Caribbean: The "Belmanna Riots" in Tobago, 1876


Bereton, Bridget, Caribbean Quarterly


Abbreviations

CO Colonial Office Series, Public Record Office, Kew

SM Special Magistrate

When slavery in the British West Indies was formally ended in 1833, the great majority of the freed men and women remained within the orbit of the plantation system. Even if many succeeded in establishing themselves as small-holders who cultivated food crops on their own account, most were driven by their cash needs to work part-time on the estates. It would be naive to think that the managerial attitudes and practices developed during slavery were abandoned with the end of the legal institution; the ill-disguised contempt and hostility of many plantation staff, their lack of sensitivity towards the labourers' new status, were constant sources of friction in the post-slavery decades. In addition, legal freedom brought a host of new irritants - wage rates, wage stoppages and irregular payment, the size of tasks, the mode of payment by day or by task - to complicate relations between labour and management.1 The result of these problems, and other, more specific grievances, was a series of labour protests, disturbances and riots in the post-slavery decades throughout the Caribbean. If revolts were an inescapable consequence of formal slavery, demonstrations and riots by labourers seeking to defend their "rights" and to protect their hard- won gains were equally characteristic of the difficult post-Emancipation period.

Tobago, which was permanently British after 1814, was linked administratively to Barbados and the Windward Islands in a loose union after 1833. Several labour protests and riots took place in this group of islands in the forty or fifty years after Emancipation. In Dominica a serious rising occurred in 1 844 in protest against the taking of a census, an action which many Dominican freedmen interpreted as the first step in their re -enslavement. In 1856, peasants who were technically squatters on Crown Lands resisted attempts to evict them at Batalie on Dominica's Leeward coast, and attacked the policemen who were trying to execute the order. Towards the end of the century, in 1 893, peasants of La Plain village violently protested against the eviction of one of their number for defaulting on his land tax in a time of serious rural depression. The Navy had to be summoned and four persons lost their lives St Vincent experienced riots in 1 855 sparked off by a severe judicial punishment inflicted on a woman for stealing canes worth one or two shillings, and a serious labour disturbance took place in 1862.4 In St. Lucia, the public flogging of a 14-year-old boy from a "respectable" coloured family for perjury triggered off riots in Castries in 1844; as in the Dominica "Guerre Negre" of the same year rumours spread in St. Lucia that slavery would be re-imposed. More serious was the St. Lucia riot of March 1 849 in protest against the land tax imposed on small-holders whose cash incomes were extremely small: eight persons lost their lives in this riot. 5

Even in Barbados, the headquarters of the Windward Islands government, where the island's complacent ruling class traditionally represented the labourers as docile and contented, the pressures of extreme poverty led to occasional explosions. In 1872 a Bridgetown crowd looted the cargo of a wrecked ship as it was brought ashore; the looters only dispersed when the police fired, killed one, and arrested 77 persons.6 In April 1876, the "Confederation Riots" broke out, and although political issues were probably most salient, there is little doubt that more traditional grievances such as low and irregular wages, oppression by individual plantation managers - as well as stark poverty - played their part

Tobago

The spectrum of grievances and different forms of oppression that led the Windward Islands Creoles to protest violently in these decades were also present in Tobago, the smallest island in the group, where the total population was only 17,054 by 1871. …

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