Vidale: How legislation preserved Plantation society’s status quo; why emancipation hinges on labour struggle

EPL Infrafred Sauna

In the first part of this discourse I attempted to argue that Emancipation as an event failed to meet the expectations of the African who were freed. But more than that, I posit that a concerted effort was made to ensure that changes to the essence of the society’s power structures were negligible.

In this blog I want to push the argument further and suggest that legislation served the fundamental purpose of maintaining the status quo of pre-emancipation plantation society.

Photo: Queen Elizabeth II (left) greets Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) in April 2018.
(Copyright Office of the Prime Minister)

There is support for this position by Dr Roy Thomas in his work examining the development of labour law in Trinidad and Tobago.

Thomas asserts that “as restrictive provisions, the main purpose of labour law as seen by the colonial authorities was primarily to lay down procedures for the regulation of employer-worker relations which would minimise the scope for workers’ collective assertiveness in determining their terms and conditions of work.”

There were several changes to the legislation which governed workers in the region. From the declaration of Emancipation to the eventual labour riots which culminated in 1938, there were laws introduced across the region which had not previously existed. One could therefore argue that the society had progressed.

Using the legislation of Trinidad and Tobago as an example, between 1846 and 1938 Thomas identifies twenty pieces of legislation which pioneered ‘labour reforms’ in that colony. However only the Trades Dispute Ordinance of 1938 can be identified as having what Khan – Freund called the “the auxiliary” function. This meant that the legislation pertained to the implantation, stimulation and extension of the collective bargaining process.

The other 19 pieces could be classed as either being regulatory or restrictive in nature. That latter meant that they either provided rules for the terms and conditions of employment or restrictions on what was considered lawful industrial action.

In other words, any attempt at independence on the part of the formerly enslaved was thwarted through legislation. The primary interest of the planter was always the question of addressing the “labour shortage” or potential shortage on the plantations, while the labouring masses would have been concerned with self-employment, navigation of a waged environment and access to land.

Photo: Late US television personality Anthony Bourdain (centre) has dinner with representatives from Trinidad and Tobago’s Syrian/Lebanese community in 2017.

When examining legislation some considerations are necessary. It is my view that two crucial considerations are a consideration of the societal problem which the legislation intends to address and of equal importance is the consideration of which groups’ perspective formed the basis for the definition of the said societal problem.

Anthony De V Phillips’ analysis of post emancipation labour legislation also recognises three major features. In order to have a nominal transition in power relations from the slave society to the post emancipation society:

“The decision-makers devised a series of inter-locking tactics. In the first place, control of labour was to be attempted by fixing the existing labourers in situ-on the plantation, in the parish or locality, in the colony-and in a position of dependency in relation to the plantation. 

“Secondly, terms concerning wages and conditions of work must favour capital rather than labour. Thirdly, where the local labour force needed to be supplemented, immigration from as far away as China and India was to be sponsored. As much as possible of the financial burden of immigration was to be shunted onto the general revenue, mostly provided by the masses because of the class bias in the incidence of taxation.”

The labour legislation, over the period under review, had in large part changed only to the extent that it added layers of regulatory and administrative guidelines for the society. But it stopped short of enshrining rights of workers which had been denied to them during the period of enslavement.

Photo: Workers in the sugarcane field.
(Copyright News.Gov.TT)

Another area of life in the colony legislated to maintain planter control was the political administration of the colonies. At the time of Emancipation, 17 colonies can be identified as belonging to the British West Indies. These included: Antigua, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Barbados, Honduras, Jamaica, Montserrat, Nevis, St Kitts and the Virgin Islands which were the original colonies founded in the early 17th century.

At the end of the Seven Year War in 1765, Dominica, Tobago, St Vincent and Grenada were annexed from France, adding three more to the original colonies and lastly, there were the late acquisitions including Trinidad, captured from Spain in 1797, St Lucia ceded by France in 1803 and Guyana which became British in the same year.

These three phases are also reflected in three distinct patterns of colonial administration.

The Moyne Commission, appointed to investigate the disturbances in the region between 1936 and 1938, acknowledges the existence of the politics of exclusion which is coloured by racial prejudice. It is clear from the report that very little was done to include the mass of the population directly in the governance of its own affairs.

The Report states:

“Rightly or wrongly, a substantial body of public opinion in the West Indies is convinced that far-reaching measures of social reconstruction depend, both for their initiation and their effective administration, upon greater participation of the people in the business of government. 

“[…] Moreover, we are satisfied that the claim so often put before us that the people should have a larger voice in the management of their affairs represents a genuine sentiment and reflects a growing political consciousness, which is sufficiently widespread to make it doubtful whether any schemes of social reform—however wisely conceived and efficiently conducted—would be completely successful unless they were accompanied by the largest measure of constitutional development which is thought to be judicious in existing circumstances.”

Photo: A protest in La Brea causes a traffic pile-up.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian/Tony Howell)

It goes on to lament that:

“The chief weakness of the Crown Colony system of government, widespread in the West Indies, is that the unofficial element—precluded from the exercise of complete administrative control—tends to adopt a consistently hostile attitude towards Government and Government officials. Associated with this problem is the regrettable fact that colour prejudice, although universally deprecated, is generally on the increase.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This weakness can be attributed to the very deliberate intent of the planters and local administrators to deny the mass of the population any direct involvement in the administration of the colony.

As stated, there were different models applied to the various acquisitions but these varying forms and variations to existing forms, only help to reinforce the point that in spite of themselves, they were essentially the same; and the inequities within them remained unchanged for the most part up to the 1930s.

The first model was to be found in Barbados, the Bahamas, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica. This model was developed during the initial stages of colony formation. Not unlike the mainland North American colonies (and Bermuda), they had Representative Assemblies fashioned after the bicameral British Parliament. The right to vote however, was usually restricted to a few wealthy property holders who were generally men.

“Power was divided between the governor, who executed the laws, and the assembly, which made them. However, the assembly retained the right to pass all money bills—including the pay for the governor—and so used this right to obstruct legislation or simply to control new officials.

Photo: The Trinidad and Tobago Red House.

“These older colonies also had an effective system of local government based on parish vestries. The vestries were elected annually by the freeholders and met frequently to levy local revenues for the maintenance of the poor, the support of the clergy, the construction of roads, and other local business, such as the licensing of teachers.”

A second pattern of local Assemblies developed in Dominica, Grenada, St Vincent, the Grenadines, and Tobago.

“The small size of the free landholding population in these islands vitiated the functions of the assemblies and precluded development of a viable system of local government such as had developed in Jamaica and Barbados.”

And lastly, the third pattern was found in Trinidad, St Lucia and Guyana, where direct rule through Crown Colony administration was implemented.

The declaration of Emancipation in 1838 proved to be a challenge for these ‘representative’ systems. These assemblies were in their original design intended for British settlers to be its administrators and its burgesses. However, the freeing of the enslaved translated into the Assemblies being representative of a “minority of the Oligarchy.”

Of concern as well, was the fact that in many instances the population of the elite was simply too small, rendering them incapable of providing the necessary personnel for the administration apparatus.

Combined with the reduction in exports the Assemblies experienced a general decline in their political currency. The continued threat of the expansion of the non-European population did not escape the British authorities and they found willing partners among the local elites to address the impending situation.

Photo: A depiction of slaves serving their masters in Trinidad.

“In Jamaica, just before the collapse of the system in 1865, the assembly had 49 members representing 28 constituencies elected by 1,457 voters. Only 1,903 registered voters existed in a population of 400,000—nearly half of whom were adult males. 

“In Jamaica the Morant Bay Rebellion of October 1865 brought about the end of the old representative assemblies. […] December 1865 the House of Assembly abolished itself, making way for crown colony government. The act was the final gesture of the old planter oligarchy, symbolizing that it did not wish to share political power in a democratic way with the new groups. 

“Crown colony rule was soon established in other colonies. In the constitutional reorganization of the late nineteenth century, only Barbados managed to retain its representative assembly.”

This represents a change in form which was intended to maintain the status quo. The truth of course was that the ‘social contradiction’ of the post emancipation period forced the local elite to cede its authority over the assembly in order that it would maintain its social standing.

In his 2012 paper titled Institutional Change and Elite Persistence: The 19th Century Caribbean Colonies, Christian Dippel suggests that the:

“Planters’ choices were therefore quite limited. They could not coercively suppress the franchise but letting it expand meant giving up their dominance of local politics. The response of the planter elites was to change the constitutions of their colonies to abolish the elected legislature altogether. 

“This was not an isolated decision by one colony: Of the 14 colonies governed under the old representative system in 1838, 11 transitioned towards Crown Colony status between 1854 and 1890.”

Photo: A sugar cane worker contemplates during post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago.
(Courtesy Talking Humanities)

The anxiety toward minimising social dislocation among the elite was self-evident in these developments. The local elite succeeded in changing the form of governance while keeping the substance of the 1838 colonial society intact, in so far as the “exclusion from institutional […] decision-making” of the labouring masses of the population.

This was the essence of the political institutions which spanned the hundred-year period after Emancipation. The purpose of the political institutions remained unchanged and had been legislated to enshrine oligarchic rule rather than expand to politics of inclusion.

As one assesses the century between 1838 and 1938, the evidence is clear that the plantation suprastructure remained affected by the normative changes in forms to the society over the period. Having used a clear theoretical frame for the inquiry, it can be seen that the “structural forces” identified throughout, were sufficiently able to adapt to calls for change while securing the integrity of the substance of the Plantation.

The reality “of power inequity, poverty, and the denial of basic human rights” remained entrenched in the West Indian societies of the 1930s. Protracted unrest and conflict over the period under review culminated in a watershed of violent resistance and fight back in the 1930s.

One is now forced to ask what would our conclusion be if we extended this enquiry from the 1930s—to 2018?!

Photo: Protest in La Brea.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian/Rishi Ragoonath)

Editor’s Note: Click HERE for part one, as Akins Vidale links the ongoing struggle for emancipation with the fight of the trade union movement.

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About Akins Vidale

Akins Vidale
Akins Vidale lectures at the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies and is a UWI graduate with a B.A. in History. He has served as the president of the Trinidad Youth Council and is the General Secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN). Read his blog:

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