Resistance to Enslavement and Oppression in Trinidad, 1802-1849

By Brereton, Bridget | The Journal of Caribbean History, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Resistance to Enslavement and Oppression in Trinidad, 1802-1849


Brereton, Bridget, The Journal of Caribbean History


Introduction

No major rising by the enslaved people occurred in Trinidad during its short experience of plantation slavery (1780s to 1830s). This contrasts with nearby Tobago, which experienced several significant rebellions between 1770 and 1802, as well as with Barbados, Demerara and Jamaica, each erupting in large-scale risings in 1816, 1823 and 1831, respectively. Nor did Trinidad have large, organized Maroon communities such as those in Jamaica and Suriname; indeed, Alvin Thompson's comprehensive study of runaways and Maroons in the Americas (2006) makes no mention of Trinidad.1

Of course, many of those enslaved in Trinidad did seek to escape from bondage. Marronage was endemic, and there were many small Maroon camps scattered throughout the island right up to the early 1830s. There is some evidence for collective and organized resistance by groups of the enslaved, and Trinidad's Free Coloureds and Free Blacks, as is well known, also organized to protest oppression under the British regime after 1797. This article will examine some aspects of resistance to enslavement in the island, concentrating on the period between 1802 (when Trinidad was ceded to Britain) and 1834 (when slavery was formally abolished) . The analysis will be extended to the post-emancipation period with a brief discussion of the 1849 riots in Port of Spain. One purpose of the article is to assess the impact of events in - and people and ideas from - the French Caribbean islands on these various kinds of resistance in Trinidad.

Marronage in Trinidad

According to B.W. Higman, "the largest proportion of maroon slaves identified in the initial registration was found in Trinidad". In 1813, when the first detailed returns of the enslaved population were mandated by the British government, 0.78 percent of the rural ones and 0.73 percent of the urban ones were listed as deserters, a higher proportion than in any of the other British Caribbean colonies when registration was extended to them a few years later. The returns fail to indicate how long these deserters had been absent, only that they were still regarded as their owners' property. In 1827-1828, Higman shows, 516 persons, 2.1 percent of the enslaved population, were punished for absconding. Because of its late development as a plantation colony, Trinidad had a high proportion of African-born people well into the 1820s, and extensive forests and mountainous or remote areas not under cultivation which could serve as places of refuge for Maroons. Port of Spain, with its fairly large black and mixed-race population relative to that of the island as a whole, was also a focus for internal marronage, and the gateway for escape to the nearby mainland. There is no evidence of a decline in the incidence of marronage after 1824, when ameliorative measures were enacted by Order in Council.2

Many Maroons fled to the eastern part of Trinidad, then remote and sparsely settled. At the end of 1805, a white cotton planter named Walsh and one of his enslaved charges were killed by a "band of Wretches" from the "Woods" behind his small estate on the East Coast. According to Governor Hislop, this event "produced the greatest Alarm among all the Settlers of that distant part of the Island", leading him to send troops and militiamen to the coast "with orders to scour well the Woods for the discovery of Brigands", under the command of Colonel Soter (from Martinique). Twenty years later, the authorities were still concerned about Maroon camps in this area. In 1825 a camp of runaways was discovered in the marshy area on the East Coast, between the Nariva and Ortoire Rivers; fourteen were captured, two were shot while trying to escape, and the others got away. The following year, on the governor's orders, a "survey" of the interior was carried out and four Maroon camps, hitherto unknown, were found in the woods near the coast in the Nariva area. On the very eve of emancipation, the governor noted the existence of a "maroon camp" in Mayaro, also on the East Coast, and announced that he had "raised a Militia" there, in 1833, to forestall possible "disturbances". …

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