Exploring the Marine Plantation: An Historical Investigation of the Barbados Fishing Industry

By Welch, Pedro L., V | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Marine Plantation: An Historical Investigation of the Barbados Fishing Industry


Welch, Pedro L., V, The Journal of Caribbean History


Introduction

In general, Caribbean historiography has whispered quietly on the non-plantation aspects of pre-emancipation society. Professor Verene Shepherd has noted, with reference to Jamaica, that "among students of rural history, enquiry into class and race dynamics outside of the sugar plantation per se has been consigned to a position of secondary significance. Similarly, the study of the sugar plantation elite has been considered more socially significant than the study of other producers."1 Shepherd was not speaking specifically about the question of the fishing industry as an aspect of scholarly study but her comments are equally applicable to this aspect of the social and economic history of Caribbean societies. In fact, one area of the non-plantation experience that has received less than a whisper is that of the fishing trade.

We may note that in several small island communities in the Caribbean, farming the marine environment, not sugar, represented the main economic activity, yet one can count the works devoted to this area on one hand. One work that has pointed to the fishing trade as an important factor in the settlement of New World societies by Europeans is that of K.G. Davies, who observes that among the push and pull forces that led to European colonization, "the first pull and the longest and steadiest in the sixteenth century was fish".2 While Davies's examination does not touch on the industry in the Lesser Antilles, the value of its citation here rests in the fact that it provides a strong reminder that the New World experience was not all about sugar or bullion.

Of particular relevance to our investigation of the fishing industry in Barbados is the pioneering article of Richard Price, "Caribbean Fishing and Fishermen: A Historical Sketch". Price recognizes the importance of the fishing industry to a fuller understanding of Caribbean social history. He observes that

Caribbean fishermen - at first Indians and then Africans - were from the beginning a privileged slave subgroup within the plantation system, and their special socioeconomic role permitted a particularly smooth transformation to a life as free fishermen, whether this came about before or after general emancipation. The plantation system in spite of its generally repressive character, incidentally endowed fishing slaves with valuable economic skills as well as with considerable self-reliance and independence.3

While it is my contention that Price accords a centrality to the plantation system that might not paint a fully accurate picture of the workings of the fishing industry, his is a vital contribution that enters a veritable no-man's land and forces us to consider the importance of fishing as a non-plantation aspect of Caribbean social and economic history.

Professor Bonham Richardson also wrote about the fishing industry. He noted that the ruling classes left most of the day-to-day activities in the fishing industry in the hands of "natives". Indeed, he suggests that the involvement of "natives" in fishing in the Anglophone Caribbean represented the understanding of the ruling classes that the seasonal nature of fishing and the low level of preservation technologies used in the region precluded them from making any major economic capital from the fishing industry. Moreover, indigenous peoples could be relied on to provide fish in season and to "absorb the risk associated with fishing".4 While this might well speak to the factors influencing the nature of the labour systems in the fishing trade, it misses the other side of the coin - the perceptions of those indigenous peoples on whom the industry relied for labour. In particular, one ought to note that after emancipation, when some choices were permitted the former enslaved persons, the same issues of risk and seasonality could well preclude any choice to enter the industry. We will assert, in the case of Barbados, that the analysis of the African fishermen was more sophisticated than is conceded by Richardson, and their well-represented place in the labour market statistics suggests that their expectations of social and economic freedom might be considered in analysing their involvement in the industry. …

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