19th Century Protest Movements in the West Indies

Protest Movement In The West Indies

Morant Bay Rebellion, 1865 Source: Caribbean History: Foundations Book 1

The 19th century protests were not solely rooted in the workers outrage or defence of the moral economy. It is correct to say that the moral economy was extremely important to the workers because of their belief in customary rights and allowances. However, throughout the 19th century one can see that the workers protested for various reasons. Therefore, one can posit the view that it was not only the moral economy which was the major cause of the protests. The workers frustration with the local government  showed and the plantocracy had no respect for their rights as workers, contributing to injustice. In addition, immigration was another issue which cause grievous sores to the workers in at least seven of the protests in the 19th century. Furthermore, the wage rate was undeniable one of the reasons the workers protested in the 19th century because it affected their social and economic condition. Another reason for the workers protest was land, which was closely linked to rent [two issues that resulted in conflict between the workers and the planters].

The moral economy was one of the main concerns in the protests of the 19th century and it was closely linked to traditions from slavery. During slavery, often the slave master would give concessions or allowances to the enslaved in the form of food such as salt fish or rum from the factory. Subsequently, after the abolishment of slavery, the tradition continued on the various plantations in the British West Indies. Therefore, the former enslaved considered the allowances as part of the wages and for them it was a permanent gesture. E.P Thompson explains it as customary rights of the people because it became entrenched in the economy. Thompson like George Rude [Thompson work modelled much on Rude] believed that protests are not rooted always in bread and butter issues as one may believe but in violation of products that the workers deemed as customary. Thompson further states that people would naturally react, when  someone threatens their customary body of rights– rights which often enshrine the way  people are organized, socially, economically and politically.[1] A clear example of how a people reacted to the threat to their customary rights is in the Belmana Riots in Tobago in 1876. According to Bridget Brereton, the workers on Pile’s estate in Tobago started showing discontent when the owner withdrew privileges from the workers.[2] The workers were defending privileges that they believed turned into ‘rights’ because of the length of time, the privileges were given. Thus, they resorted to spreading notices around expressing their discontent in the change of Pile’s policy.

Furthermore, protest against the withdrawal of customary tradition formed an important part of the Vox Populi in St.Vincent in 1862. According to Woodville Marshall, as part of their incentive to work the enslaved in St.Vincent were given rum or molasses, free medical care, 21bs of salt fish per week among other things.[3] The incentive extended after emancipation, therefore, naturally the people got accustom to it. However, the manager of Mt.Bentrick decided to withdraw most of the privileges, including confiscating the provision grounds. Furthermore, it was more than simply a protest because of the withdrawal of tradition. It was crucial to the workers because they integrated the privileges as part of their wages. One can say that the workers budget the allowances along with the cash. For example, the molasses formed part of the domestic economy because of its use to sweeten drinks, beverage, livestock feed and as a good for barter.[4] When molasses was withdrawn in the midst of a failure economic crisis, the people suffered a greater level of hardship. Increase hardship affected their health and social condition. As a result the people wrote the Vox Populi, voicing their concern for their ‘rights.’ When the people felt ignored they assaulted managers and overseers,  considered prime targets because they withdrew the allowances.[5]

Link to the withdrawal of allowances, was the issue of wage rate in most of the 19th century protests. When the workers in the West Indies in the 19th century protested for better pay, it helped create what E.P Thompson calls a “working class consciousness.”[6] The workers realized the value of their labour, therefore demanded more pay for longer working hours. According to Swithin Wilmot, in Jamaica “the apprentices were willing to labour but for fair and just terms…asking for a minimum of 1shilling 6d per day.”[7] The planters wanted to give the labourers 7 and 1\2d per day, plus two days labour in exchange for rent of the provision ground and cottages.[8] However, the labourers refused to work for the price negotiated by the planters. It was only after much encouragement from Governor Lionel Smith that the workers of Manchester, Vere, Clarendon and St.Thomas went back to work for 1 shilling per day and three months’ rent free.[9] It was clearly a better wage package than what the planters originally bargained for. This clearly shows  the strength in the labourers in not comprising for less than what they believed their wage was worth.”[10]

Immediately once could see here that the blacks wanted to work because they knew that it was the only means of survival in a society where the plantocracy cared only about their profits. The determination shown by the labourers to earn a wage is remarkably depicted in St.Kitts when they said “…rather give their souls to hell and their bodies to the sharks rather than be bound to work as apprentices.”[11] In this writer’s belief, this is one of the most clearly define statements of the labourers to work during the 19th century protest and  it shows how serious the blacks were in their quest for paid labour in St.Kitts. When a man says that he would intentionally go through a painful process by shark death, you should expect that he would rebel when threatened. Furthermore, the labourers were also discontented of the irregular payment of their wages and wage reduction. For example, in British Guiana in 1842, planters reduced wages and  abolished task gangs because they  believed production cost was too expensive and they needed ways to cut it. Therefore, they shifted the burden unto the labourers, who in turn protested in an island wide strike.[12]

In the attempt to shift the burden of a high productive cost unto the labourers, the planters devised many taxes which infuriated the labourers. In British Guiana in 1842, there were  taxes  on the livelihood of the hucksters and porters and import duties on horses and mules. Although the labourers understood the system the plantocracy operated they could not prevent the tax. They could clamour for higher wages and the planters would simply devise another way to add another financial burden to their pockets. In the end, whilst the labourer spent more money to earn a living or to buy items, the need for cash arose. 1846 saw the introduction of Tax Ordinance in British Guiana; the ordinance was the unfair taxation of common items of food such as flour. There was also a tax on the growing of plantains, which angered the labouring class.[13] This meant that the labourers would become unhealthy because their diet became more expensive and most would not be able to avoid the new cost of food. What angered the labourers in British Guiana around that period was that whilst they saddled with high taxes, the planters were surrounding themselves with luxuries such as an ice house in Georgetown for $10,000.[14]  Thus, they got frustrated to the point where in 1842 and 1848, they participated in an island wide strike.

Furthermore, closely related to the issue of taxation is the issue of immigration for most of the 19th century protest movements. There were many dissatisfied  labourers because  the planters were using the money which they derived from taxing the workers to fund the immigration scheme. The islands were economically depressed, yet the planters were taking tax money to fund an immigration scheme. Bitter relations ensued between the immigrants and the black workers because stiff competition grew in the labour market. The influx of immigrants in large numbers especially in British Guiana resulted in a wage reduction for the black labourers. One can correctly say that the immigrants prevented the blacks from achieving their goal of undermining plantocracy. The immigrants in some of the strikes did not take part with the blacks such as the Portuguese in British Guiana in 1848.[15] It was because a relationship existed with the Portuguese and the planter, the labour that the blacks provided was not fully valued. In St.Vincent and British Guiana, the Portuguese were business partners with the planters. In British Guiana the Portuguese were given credit to set up businesses, whilst this opportunity did not exist for the blacks. Furthermore, the relationship between the blacks and the Portuguese was like a boiling volcano, on the verge of eruption. When the Portuguese lied to the blacks about the value of the bank notes and later resold it at a higher, the flames were further ignited. In Jamaica, the planters offered the Indians better housing structures, as well as paid a higher wage.[16]

Furthermore, the blacks were angry when they saw that their social and economic status was meagre compared to the immigrants who only recently came to live in the island. According to Patricia Marks [quoting from the works of Ted Gurr], the theory of relative deprivation explains why people would resort to violence sometimes. Relative deprivation states that when a man views his valued capabilities and compared it to another’s, the value of what he has changes.[17] Gurr’s  theory simply involves a person or group comparing and contrasting his social, economic and political status to another. Inevitably, when the assessment ends, one group views his empire as inferior. This is exactly what happened between the Portuguese and Blacks and the Indians and Blacks. Thus, according to Chan the 1856 protest in British Guiana under the leadership of Orr, was a direct target of the Portuguese. In addition, in the St.Vincent protest of 1862, the disturbance broke out in Charlotte and St. George, the areas where most of the immigrants lived, and  as a result a wage decrease for the black labourers.[18]

Another important issue for the labourers which resulted in protest action in the 19th century is land. Following the period of apprenticeship in the British West Indies, for the labourers owning land was the beginning stages of being independent. For many, it meant that their dependence on the plantations for work would be lessening. However, owning land did not come easy and sometimes the  labourers lose provision plot given during slavery and continued after apprenticeship.  For the smaller colonies, where the plantocracy controlled the land such as Barbados and St.Kitts, land for labourers use was rare. In this writer’s belief the issue of land links with the issue of rent because it explains the reasons clearer why the labourers protested in the 19th century. In a move to curtail the labourers independence, many planters devised methods to get the workers to stay on the plantation. Land when sold for sale were mediocre and expensive, therefore most labourers stayed on the plantations [exception for larger colonies such Jamaica and British Guiana and in Dominica where they opted to stay]. On the plantations rent was expensive such as in Jamaica, the labourers  rented  the provision grounds and houses they lived in. In an effort to survive many worked longer hours or more regularly on the plantations. These obstacles significantly affected the growth of an independent peasantry. Workers frustration grew and they began clamouring for land of their own. In this writer’s belief the workers protest in St.Kitts in 1834 showed that they determined to not only work and for a decent wage but also to get access to land.[19] Land was a source of not only economic but political power because in that period the right to vote meant one was a land/property owner.

Furthermore, one of the most important issues of the 19th century was the blatant disregard the plantocracy and the local Office had for the labourers’ rights as workers and participants in the sugar economy. It also shows the lack of justice that the labourers endured during mentioned earlier. In my belief it is disrespect when an employer has employees and he decides to cut their wage or take away their provision grounds without telling them about it. Maybe it is because the planters did not regard the black labourers as workers but still enslaved persons of a few decades before. Furthermore, as David McNally says “customary rights on common land constituted a significant supplement to the wage.”[20] The labours grew crops on their plot of land – either given to during slavery or rented to – as a way to curtail buying food on their meagre wages. However, without informing the labourers of St.Vincent on Mt.Bentrick plantations, the owner confiscated their provision ground and crops if the labourers quit plantation work.[21] Thus, added to the other problems of wage reduction, they demonstrated and with reason! Another incident that addresses the disregard for the labourer was the Contract Act in Barbados in 1838. Workers did not want to sign any contract with planters for work because experience made them mistrust  the planters.  Hence, there was an island wide strike in 1838 and 1840 to protest the Contract Act.[22] Furthermore, the strike of 1842 in British Guiana clearly shows the disregard the planters had for the value of workers labour, when they enacted the new rules and regulations. [Wage reduction, abolishment of task-work, fines for petty grievances etc][23] Whilst the rules circulated, planters told the labourers depart from the estate if they disagreed with the conditions. If they remained, it was a sign that they accepted the condition. Rightfully, the labourers did not accept the rules because they thought it was oppressive but they remained on the plantations. In addition, they refused to work and demanded that the planters revoked the rules. Furthermore, James Rule explains that in Smelser’s collective behaviour theory, when a group experiences constant injustice, they may protest against the injustice because in the social system the demands are not accepted.[24] When the planters failed to discuss the concerns of the labourers, the labourers reacted. In 1842, 20,000 labourers folded their arms refusing to work for two months. The labourers unity  in British Guiana in 1842, is one that was not seen throughout the 19th century. It was this act of unity which made the planters realized that their initiative was a lost cause and after gave into the labourers demands.

Work Cited

Brereton, Bridget. “Post-Emancipation Protest in the Caribbean: The Belmana Riots in Tobago.” Caribbean Quartely n.a September to December 1984: 110-123.

Carter, Henderson. “Food Riots and Labour in Post-Slavery Barbados: An Analysis of the 1863 Riots.” Worker Protest and Resistance in Post-Slavery Barbados. Bridgetown: Association of Caribbean Historians, 1996. 27.

Chan, V.O. “The Riots of 1856 in British Guiana.” Caribbean Quarterly, 16 n.p n.p 1970: 39-50.

Frucht, Richard. “From Slavery to Unfreedom in the Plantation Society of St.Kitts.” Tuden, Vera Rubin and Arthur. Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1977. 379-387.

Gurr, Ted. Why Men Rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Marshall, Woodville. “Vox Populi: The St.Vincent Riots and Disturbances of 1862.” Higman, Barry. Trade, Government and Society in Caribbean History. Kingston: Heinemann, 1983. 85-115.

McNully, David. Political Economy and the Rise of Capitalism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Rose, James. The Strike of 1842. Turkeyen: History Society, University of Guyana, 1989.

Rule, James. Theories of Civil Violence. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

Thompson, E.P. The making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Wilmot, Swithin. “Emancipation in Action Workers and Wage Conflict in Jamaica.” Shepherd, Hilary Beckles and Verene. Caribbean Freedom: Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present. Kingston: Ian Randle, 1993. 48-54.



[1] E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), 711

[2] Bridget Brereton, “Post-Emancipation Protest in the Caribbean: The Belmana Riots in Tobago 1876,” Caribbean Quarterly: Vol.30, (Kingston: University of the West Indies, 1988), 113

[3] Woodville Marshall, “Vox Populi: The St.Vincent Riots and Disturbances of 1862,” Trade, Government and Society in Caribbean history, 1700-1920, ed. Barry Higman (Kingston: Heinemann, 1983), 94

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 100

[6] Thompson, 711

[7] Swithin Wilmot, “Emancipation In Action Workers and wage Conflict in Jamaica 1834-1840,” Caribbean Freedom: Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present, eds. Hilary Beckles  and Verene Shepherd (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1993), 48

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 49

[10] Swithin Wilmot, “Emancipation In Action Workers and wage Conflict in Jamaica 1834-1840,” Caribbean Freedom: Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present, eds. Hilary Beckles  and Verene Shepherd (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1993), 48

[11] Richard Frucht, “From Slavery to Unfreedom in the Plantation Society of St.Kitts, W.I,” Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies, eds. Vera Rubin and Arthur Tuden (New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1977), 384

[12]James Rose, The Strike of 1842 (Turkeyen: History Society, University of Guyana, 1989), 7

[13] James Rose, The Strike of 1848 (Turkeyen: History Society, University of Guyana, 1989), 6

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wilmot, 52

[17] Ted Gurr, Why Men Rebel  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 13

[18] Marshall, 87

[19] Frucht, 384

[20] David McNally, Political Economy and the Rise of Capitalism (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 13

[21] Marshall, 95

[22] Henderson Carter, “Food Riots and Labour Protest in Post-Slavery Barbados: An Analysis of the 1863 Riots,” Worker Protest and Resistance in Post-Slavery Barbados (Bridgetown: Association of Caribbean Historians, April 17, 1996), 6

[23] Rose, 1842 Strike, 9-10

[24] James Rule, Theories of Civil Violence, Volume1 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 160


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