The establishment of the village Settlements of British Guiana forms one of the most remarkable phases of the whole of the Caribbean economic development. It has been customary to regard the rise of these freeholds in British Guiana as peculiarly related to the history of that part of the Caribbean. This is, however, wholly to misunderstand the total history of British Caribbean historical change. The economic history of British Guiana is not a separate aspect of Caribbean history: it is part and parcel of the same history.
British Guiana is no more than the underdeveloped southern frontier of the British Caribbean. When the British West Indian islands declined, capital and labour shifted southwards to the outer margins. The sugar plantations of British Guiana were, in the main,
capitalized by speculating West Indians.
The superior fertility of British Guiana's coastal virgin soil, the increased marginal efficiency of invested capital -- dispite high initial drainage costs -and freedom of property from such natural disasters as hurricanes were effectively responsible for this economic shit.
The movement, more marked after 1838, from the sugar plantations to the unexploited village lands can be ligitmately regarded as a continuation of this pattern of economic change across the underdeveloped frontier. So far, The rise of the village settlements is usually
recorded as a post-emancipation phenomenon. Considered as such, the exciting story of the settlements a mere record entirely drained of its real historical colour.
The roots of the Village Settlements are to be found in the days of slavery. The forces which were fundamental to the establishment of these Settlements were, for the most part, the same economic and social forces which led to the end of slavery as such on August 1st, 1838.
The most decisive and continuous of these forces was the desire, on the part of the slaves, for personal liberity and for land of their own. This desire was responsible for the persistant pressure of the slaves to destroy the system which deprived them of these rights. Humanitarian influences made a powerful contribution, even though there might be debate as to the degree of economic self-interest involved. And finally, as Governor D'Urban reported in 1830, slavery as an economic system was breaking to pieces in British Guiana.
The combination of these forces forced slave emancipation and so created the conditions under which the establishment of the free villages of British Guiana was accelerated. Evidence of the desire for personal liberity and for land on the part of the slave population of British Guiana is quite clear and abundant. Negro slave revolts, or threats of such revolts, were frequent.
The fear of such revolts and their consequences were real and found expression in measures designed to prevent them, and in letters to the local Governor and the Colonial Office. In 1763 and 1795 actual revolts took place; the first was a serious rising in Berbice which met with the most cruel suppression. In the second case, more than a 100 "run-a-ways" led by the driver of plantations Ruimzigt and a house negro, revolted, and were joined by Negroes from plantations Ruimzigt, Waller, Harlem, and Rotterdam.
In 1811, Governor Gordon was expressing his fear of Negro insubordination and the peril of the white population which lay in the disparity of numbers. In 1814, Governor Bentinck wrote in similar vein to Earl Bathurst. " I am concerned", he said,"to aquaint your lordship of the disposition of the Negroes on the west coast of the Colony to revolt". Two months later, Bentinck reported that it came out in evidence that the Negroes intended to "murder the whites and take possession of the estates for their own benefit", which they therefore was not to burn as formerly.
In 1816, William Scott, in a memorial to Bentinck, represented in "strongest possible light" the effect on Negroes' minds not only of a change of masters, 'but for a change of system. In the same year, owing to fears of the potential infection of the Barbados slave revolt, British Caribbean Governors were circularised and directed to take preventative measures against the spread of the revolt.
In 1817 an order of 6th July, 1814, was revived to prohibit Negro Night meetings and negro passing from one estate to another, or travelling away from the estates without written passes. Despite these measures, in 1823 a major revolt broke out in Demerara, forcing Governor D'Urban to forbid the use of the word "freedom" in proclamations. What D'Urban wrote is significant; "it is true", he said, " that the mischief had only time to explode within a certain district, but it is equally certain that the feelings in which it had its origin existed here and elsewhere from the Corentyne to the Pomeroon; they are scarely asleep yet and may be easily awakened". Gipps, an
engineer, anxious to resettle British Guiana slaves in free conditions, observed in 1823: " that a slave should have an aversion to labour from which he received no benefit can I imagine require no depth of philosophy to account for".
In 1833, the slaves had mobilised. The alternatives were clear-overthrow of slavery as an economic system by blood shed or by degree. In 1833, humanitarian stubbornness, firmly marshalled by a great character James Stephens, was at its height. Stephens, two years earlier, acidly attacked D'Urban's attempt to turn back the clock. "It is doubtledd desirable", he wrote," that the slaves should be quiet and contented.
But it is not only desirable, but quite inevitable, that their conditions should be so improved as gradually to qualify them for freedom....therefore whatever is essential to that improvement must be done."
In 1833, the planter class in British Guiana , threatened by these gathering forces, induced by diverse economic compulsions, frustrated by humanitarian stubbornness, made an expedient volte face. They accepted the inevitability of free labour and secured the Colonial Office quid pro quo of the second highest compensation per head in the Caribbean for the losses of their property in human beings.
Their acceptance of these arrangements established the more favourable condition for the independent settlement of labour upon land of their own. The Rise of the Village Settlements was symbolic of the continuation of the revolt against the plantation system by free labour, reinforced after 1838 by the advantages denied them under slavery.
In British Guiana land space has always exceeded the existing labour supply.Given such circumstances, labour usually seeks to establish itself independently on a peasant proprietorship basis. When labour is free, the choice can be carried out at the will of
labour. When labour is not free, as under slavery, the choice can be carried into effect only by defying the prevailing legal restrictions. The first "village settlements" of British Guiana were established during slavery under this condition. The founders of these villages were the British Guiana Bush Negroes or run a slaves. They too were the first Rice planters of British Guiana and the rest of the Caribbean, and not, as the common misconception goes, the East Indians.
The run-a-away Negroes, according to a petition sent by some colonists in 1811 to acxting Governor Dalrymple of Berbice, formed settlements in uncultivated parts of the country. Expeditions were being continuously despatched against these settlements. The recorded reports of them indicate the great activity of these free Negroes. In 1811 Charles Edmonson, commander of an expedition undertaken on the East Coast of Demerara jointly by Demerara and Berbice militia against Bush Negroes reported as follows: "the
quantity of rice of the Bush Negroes have just rising out of the ground is very considerable independent of yam, tannias, plantains, tobacco, &., and as it will be three months before the rice is fit to gather in, I would recommend at that period another expedition be
sent and destroy the same". He continued,"It devolved on Major Brandt, and Mr. Avery to destroy all the provisions that could be met with. This they did most effectually, fourteen houses filled with rice and several fields in cultivation being by their exertions
totally destroyed...I take upon me to say from these gentlemen's report that on a moderate calculation the quantity of rice that has been destroyed by them (independent of ground provisions) would have been equal to the support of seven hundred Negroes for twelve months.
In 1818, Bentick, in an address to the Court of Policy, gave information of the existance of "encampments" of Bush and run-a-way Negroes on the East Coast of Demerara. A great extent of that coast had been abandoned and the Bush Negroes occupied the old plantation walks and provision grounds.
But, even during slavery, unfree labour on the plantations was given experience of peasant farming which was not without value after 1838 when they joined in the establishment of village freeholds. The negro slave came to be granted provision land which he farmed and from which he could derive his own food. Primarily economic self-interest and commonsense compelled the plantation owner to grant this concession- by feeding his slave, he prevented too rapid a deterioration of his property.
On Crown Estates in Berbice, the granting of provisions to slaves was the direct results of the appointment of a commission in 1811 to manage and superintend Crown Estates in Berbice, at the instance of the treasury. William Wilberforce was one of several persons consulted before the commission was appointed. The reformative measures which the commission was to institute were largely inspired by economic considerations, to wit, the alarming mortality of the slaves on Crown Estates in Berbice.
It is difficult to disentangle humanitarian considerations, if any. The commission layed down that the first attention of its agents was to take care that sufficient food was provided for the slaves.
The commission was convinced that the foundations of all improvements in the condition of the slaves was to be found in " the sufficency andeven the liberality of the allowance of food provided for them", and they urged their agent to secure as early as possible on different estates "an ample succession of such articles of provision as may most advantageously be cultivated".
Drought also led to the grant of provision grounds to the slaves. For instance, in 1817, drought was decimating both cattle and slave property and this forced attention on cultivating plantation walks.
In 1824, as a direct consequence of the recent " alarming events" in Demerara, the Secretary of State was led to press for information on the introduction of task work for slaves. The result of this was to increase the cultivation of provision grounds by unfree plantation labour. The remainder of the working day, Governor Beard pointed out in 1824, " an industrious and well disposed Negro will devote to the cultivation of his provision grounds, corn and rice fields of which he sells where and to whom he pleases, and appropriates the money to his own purposes".
On the largest of estates the treatment of the slaves in this respect was comparatively enlightened and he was virtually a freeholder. On the estate of Wolfert Katz, one of the largest plantation owners in Berbice, the Negro was allowed off every fourth Saturday (in addition to his off-task work time) and he used his free time to cultivate the portionof land allotted to every Negro on the estate. On this they grew yams, cassava, corn,all of which they sold or disposed of as they pleased. Some reared successfully feathered stock, namely turkeys, ducks, guinea birds and fowls. Where a bush or uncultivated piece of land was contiguous to the estate they resided on, some would clear away a space which they planted in rice, and in the space of three months one Negro had reaped one hundred bushels which he sold at two bitts each, making 50 guilders in three months by that article alone.
The act of 1833 is intimately related to these preceding developments. It did not create the village settlements, but it establish the conditions under which village freeholds might be easily acquired.
Labour organized after 1838 increased its bargaining power and so was able through increased wages to extend its acquisition of village freeholds. The experience which unfree labour had gained on the provision grounds prior to 1838 found fulloutlet. The act was, therefore, important in that one of its major results was to accelerate the development of the village settlements.
A Frenchman, Milliroux, noted:" Freedom did in three years what slavery had not been able to accomplish in three centuries; it layed in many parts of this Colony (British Guiana) the foundation of a large number of villages wholly independent of the old plantations".
Milliroux makes the following comment on the Act itself. "Nothing", he wrote," is so dry and heartless as that mean Act". However this might be, the Act to the villagers of British Guiana is the landmark of economic freedom.It puts into their hands a precious
heritage won at a great cost by their preceding generations. On the morrow of their freedom, the planters then, who, like the Bourbons, never learnt their historical lessons, began to organise against this new-won freedom. The villagers, with the memory of the grim struggle still fresh in their minds, forcefully struck back. Twenty years later, the boot was on the other foot. Such is the irony of history.
In an open economy, where land space exceeds available labour supply, labour will choose to hold land as free property rather than continue as a wage-earning class totally dependent on wages obtained in exchange for services to property-owners. This law is not fulfilled if labour is forced to give service by coercive and legalized measures under conditions over which labour has no control.
In British Guiana land space has always exceeded the available labour supply. After 1838 this condition influenced the planters to concentrate on cultivation and production and to put themselves into a monopsomistic position with regard to the labour market. Before 1838, this condition was partially responsible for the development of the Bush Negro settlements, and in it the expansion of the village foundations after freedom, finds its main origin.
At the dawn of the new era of free labour the planters, particularly the opponents of Negro freedom, observing this relationship between land space and labour supply, feared that free labour in a British Guiana of "boundless forests" would scatter into the interior and adopt the wandering life of the native aboriginal Indians. This consequence they expected as a natural reaction against the long years of restraint and retrogression. On the whole their fears proved unfounded.
Instead free labour settled on the coast and immediately began to make spectacular purchases of large village settlements. Milliroux writes " Thus in 1840 the freed slaves, those so-called outlaws, set themselves peacefully to purchase land in parts of the Colony nearest to large cultivations. Sedentary and industrious habits could be acquired even in the bosom of slavery. Twenty-five to fifty heads of families united and put their savings together.
The sum reached ten, thirty, and nearly eighty thousand dollars...they paid the whole or a large part of the price in cash and became proprietors of a property which they worked in shares or which they sub-divided into distinct lots. Planter fears sprang from their own self-interest also.
The virtual disappearance of free labour would rob them of labour supply so necessary for the maintenance of high cost fixed plantation capital and for the continuance of production to meet these costs and recurrent expenditure. Planter indebtedness was great and the interuption of the labour supply, the most vital factor, meant industrial and personal collapse. If these terms are taken into account planter fears were to some extent fulfilled. Labour did not disappear but founded village settlements on the river banks in locations that were not immediately accessible as sources of labour for any coastal sugar plantations. Numerious riparian village settlements were founded. Schomburgk in his travels noted a large number of village settlements on the Berbice river. On the Demerara river beyond Borselen Islands, Schomburgk found that the old plantations had disappeared. Their place was taken by large settlements of Negroes and other coloured free labour, who, after emancipation, had combined to buy an abandoned estate or an area of Crown Land, " parcelled it out, and so called a regular negro colony into existence". These villages existed at mere subsistence levels of cultivation. Only so much was cultivated as the villagers and their families required for their support. However, beyond the junction of the Turabarroo Creek on the right bank of the Demerara and the kuliserabo, the number of such village settlements decreased, except for occassional clearings of a few acres serving as cattle pastures for Negro owned cattle and the cultivation of vegetables for their household - and the timber-getters who also owned cattle. In 1846, Governor Barkly in a tour of Berbice made a note of the rise of a large number of settlements on the Berbice river.
Not all the river bank settlements were purchased. A very large number of them were founded by squatters. This was particularly so on the Demerara river. "One of the cheif complaints of the Colonists",Schomburgk wrote, " is the so-called squatting, that is, the arbitrary occupation by Negroes of uncultivated private or Crown Lands". Squatting quite defeated the objects of early immigration. In British Guiana, according the Schomburgk, the Demerara was the main headquarters of the squatters. The squatters carred out an extensive timber trade. laws intended to put down vagrancy and squatting failed to surpress either. The squatters roughly hewed felled trees into timber.
The demand for this lumber came from Georgetown: the timber supplied was used for constructive purposes as well as for firewood required in the household. The immediate environments of the city did not possess forests and firewood formed an important article of trade carried on exclusively by the Negroes. Schomburgk himself landed at one of these establishments with a sawmill, driven by steam as well as by water power.
The owner of the whole establishment was a Negro. It was, however, on the flat, rich, alluvial coastal lands of British Guiana that the majority of village settlements were founded. These settlements spread right from the Orinoco along the coast to the wide mouthed Corentyne River.
As early as 1842, Henry Bargly, who claimed to be well-acquainted with British Guiana and had extensive connections with it as a merchant, mortgagee and part proprietor of two sugar estates and two coffee plantations in Berbice pointed out to a Select Committee on the West Indies that at Herstelling Estates Negroes,could retire into the bush, but there was not much danger of this.
The Negroes, he thought, although they could have supported themselves, had acquired "too many wants and too many luxurious habits to live in the bush". Six years later, Matthew James Higgins gave similar testmony before the Select Committee on Sugar and Coffee planting, 1847-1848.
Higgins was the owner of an estate in Demerara since 1841, and held vested interest in sugar plantations in Grenada and was a resident in the British Caribbean when apprenticeship ended. According to his evidence, abandoned estates might have encourage squatting, but planters did not suffer much from squatting in Guiana.
Free labour settled mainly on the coast."The negroes" he said, " have bought a great many lands...it is only the front strip which is cultivated; all the villagers are in the that front strip of land, and they do not go away into the interior". Early Dutch capitalists who had invested in the interior found to their cost that owing to the shallow soils of the interior river banks, the marginal efficiency of capital invested there fell far below that of similar investment on the rich coastal areas, even after taking into account the enormous overhead costs drainage and irrigation of a plain that is below sea level. Except for forestry activities based on urban demand for firewood and timber for construction activity these shallow soils, which had caused many a cautious Dutch merchant to lose his money, hardly attracted village settlers into the interior.
The villager settled mainly on the abandoned estate lands of the coast consequent on failure in the interior, the Dutch shifted their estates and plantation development to the coastal belt. The succedding British investor aggressively extended this development.
Their flourishing cooton and coffee plantations, extending along the whole coast, boomed, then slumped and failed completely, and the expansion of the succeeding sugar plantations were restricted. The abandoned lands marked their failure. Upon them developed the new and prosperous village activities. They were effectively occupied by free labourers intensely desirous to join the ranks of the land owning section of the population. The land hunger of the new peasantry was enormous; their industry in the development of the acquired was equally great. Governor Light recorded that labourers buying land a year after freedom and erecting cottages paid at the rate of 15 pounds an acre for the land and 3 pounds sterling for the expense of the title: the cottage coast them between 40 and 50 pounds. In 1841, Magistrate Wolseley made a tour of the villagesettlements of Demerara and Berbice.
Light commented thus to Russell. "Mr. Wolseley's report" he wrote, " exhibits a very satisfactory picture of the general state of these counties, and is especially gratifying as showing the highly creditable and useful manner in which those labourers who have become independent agricultural freeholders are conducting themselves in the new station which their industry has achieved".
Wolseley's table below showed the purchased of freehold property, up to 1841, by ex-slaves and former apprenticed labourers referred to in his report on Demerara.. Up to 1842, there were, in Demerara, 2,943 freehold properties containing 3,017 families and 14,127 persons. Joint stock companies of Negroes purchased numerous estates and converted them into villages.
In Berbice, out of a population of 20,000 - 15,000 belonged to the class which gained freedom on August 1, 1838. On that date, not one of them possessed an inch of land. Yet only four years later, 1,223 families, comprising 4,646 individuals - " the great part of the free population" were proprietors in different locations of seven thousand acres...which had cost them more than one hundred thousand dollars, and on which they had erected at their expense 1,184 cottages. Martin records that up to the end of 1848 no less than 446 estates had been acquired, " on which 10,541 houses were built and occupied by 44,443 persons, or an average of four to each dwelling". In 1852, the labouring classes of British Guiana numbered 70,000. Of them Landowner wrote: "They present the singular spectacle to be witness in no other part of the world, and of which history affords no parallell, of a people just emerged from slavery, now enjoying property in houses and lands, for which they had paid no less than a million of money".
He based his calculation on the offical number of villages and hamlets throughout the colony. This amounted to 11,152. " taking the average", he argued, " of each freehold to be 25 pounds and the cost of erecting each cottage at 60 pounds....a low estimate, the total value will be found ... to fall but little short of 1,000,000, sterling". The immigrants and the white inhabitants owned " but a trifling portion of this description of property".
The assumption, in his view, was reasonable that 10,000 of these village freeholds belonged to the native Negro population.