When Barbudans were foreigners

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We dedicated the month of May to looking at historic labour matters. In this our final instalment, we get a look at the impact and reaction that Antiguans had to imported labour after emancipation, including labourers brought over from Barbuda.

This is another excerpt from the recently republished book “A History of Antigua” (c)2023, by Brian Dyde.

 “Just over 2500 Madeirans went to Antigua between 1846 and 1870, more than to any one of the other islands between Trinidad and Jamaica, but even so, they represented only a fraction of the total of all who left their homeland for the West Indies. They emigrated in such large numbers because after 400 years of occupation – Madeira had become overcrowded, and erosion, soil exhaustion and a steep fall in the demand for the island’s main product – the fortified wine called Madeira – had by the 1840s produced a state of famine.

The conditions they left behind made them highly susceptible to illnesses and, regardless of what the Governor may have thought to begin with, they were mostly unfit for heavy manual labour. Three years after the scheme began, by which time over a thousand Madeirans had arrived, Higginson was forced to admit that ‘on the whole, the experiment has not proved successful, and will not, I think, be persevered in’, the reason for this being that: Their Natural Portion

For the unskilled black labourers at this time, and especially for those still living on the estates, life took a definite turn for the worse. Wages had risen steadily to reach two shillings a day for a first-class field-worker by 1845, but three years later had fallen to the immediate post-emancipation rate of only half this amount. This sudden reduction came about through a combination of factors: a hurricane followed by a severe drought had destroyed food crops and forced more people to turn to estate work in order to survive; the declining market in Britain for West Indian sugar had compelled planters to cut production costs in order to remain competitive; and it was undoubtedly encouraged by the advent of immigrant labour.

By the late 1850s, wages generally were stuck at a level which could barely sustain life. Labourers working on the estates and those supporting themselves in the villages, where church influence was strongest, remained for the most part subdued and fatalistic.

In St John’s, where there was more money and greater opportunities, there was less resignation among the unskilled, but also less tolerance. This was especially true of the port workers, then as later a rougher, more vocal and less submissive lot, who were in 1858 the instigators of a riot. The stevedores employed by one of the merchants became so incensed when he took on an immigrant labourer – in this case a man from Barbuda – that they burnt down the house in which the new employee was living and forced him to take refuge in the police station. This too was then attacked by an even bigger crowd, which only dispersed after the police opened fire on them.

The killing of eight of the rioters and the injuring of another fourteen, instead of quelling the fury of the mob, only served to channel it to the homes of other Barbudan residents and those of the policemen themselves – all of which were destroyed after nightfall. Martial law was declared, extra constables sworn in, help summoned from among the planters, and requests for troops sent to Guadeloupe and Barbados. In the event the assistance of troops was not needed, as before any had even been mustered, the riot had been put down with the aid of the many estate owners, managers and overseers who had ridden into the city and acted as a troop of cavalry. In his report of the affair to the Colonial Office, Governor Hamilton complained of being forced to appeal to the French in Guadeloupe for troops as he had no military forces of his own to call upon.

The militia had been abolished soon after emancipation, the dockyard was now rarely used by the Navy, and the garrison had been withdrawn four years earlier. The police force, he wrote, ‘although efficient for ordinary purposes, is numerically insufficient, in time of tumult, to uphold the Civil Power’. He had a solution, however, as the men who had been largely instrumental in ending the riot were not prepared to remain passive in the face of the possibility of similar threats to public order, and had decided to form a volunteer mounted security force. Three years later, it was given official standing when, under a new Militia Act, ‘persons having property qualifications became liable to service’ in the infantry, artillery or cavalry. The qualifications ensured that few, if any, blacks could join, even if they had wanted to, and the 400-strong force which mustered in 1861 can only have been seen by them as yet another move by the plantocracy to keep them subjugated.

This view would have been reinforced by the knowledge that each estate was obliged to provide one cavalryman, with the proprietor being paid £25 a year for his services. While the enthusiasm of those who joined the infantry and artillery soon waned, just as it always had in the past – causing the Militia Act to be reported as ‘almost a dead letter’ within three years – the cavalry was still in existence under a different name fifty years later.“

The publisher of this book, “A History of Antigua: (c)2023, grants permission for this excerpt (pages 178-179) to be published as a Big Issues column, authored by Barbara Arrindell.

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