uestion: Examine the methods employed by planters to induce “labourers” to work on sugar estates after emancipation.
Full emancipation of the slaves was achieved in 1838 in the British West Indies and 1848 in the French colonies. The post-emancipation period was viewed with fear by planters who believed that mass of ex-slaves would exodus the plantations, robbing them of their labour supply. In many cases this was so. However, one can argue that the British West Indies experienced a greater labour problem than the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Therefore, the coercive measures put in place in the French colonies were unjust, an example of over-exaggerated panic on the part of the planters, and a form of maintaining control over their declining power over labour.
The term “freed people” refers to persons who were not enslaved to anyone, who had open to them various opportunities previously closed, who maintained complete control over their movements and in general their lives. According to the historian Rawle Farley, many ex-slaves saw the estates as an oppression of this particular meaning of freedom and hence left as a form of resisting it. To desert the plantations the ex-slave had to take into consideration land availability, population density and the flexibility to move from one profession to another or even to one with similar characteristics, such as small scale farming.
Within low density colonies like British Guiana where land was plentiful, ex-slaves left to settle on small plots. Many ex-slaves also left to their original plantations to work on others where pay was high, some even ventured into other professions such as hucksters, butchers, skilled workers and managers. In some low density colonies like St. Lucia, conciliatory measures like the metayage system was employed so as to make plantation work more appealing. In these cases planters provided the tools, and the ex-slaves, the labour. Both parties shared in the produce at crop time making the ex-slave more eager to not only be present at crop time, but to do the premiere labour efficiently. However, in many other islands planters created a problematic situation for ex-slaves.
In high density colonies like Antigua, coercive measures were put in place as a demonstration of power by planters. Even in the low density colony of Jamaica coercive measures dominated and undermined the entire concept of freedom. According to the historian, William A. Green, Jamaica suffered from not a labour shortage but a labour problem, that is, there was a labour force but they did not want to work on the plantations. Douglas Hall furthers this argument with the statement that, “[Planters] were likely to exaggerate the withdrawal of ex-slaves from the estates”. This leads one to blame the planters for being the creators of their own problems. In a panic, they attempted to force the ex-slaves to remain on the estates by applying the coercive measure of lowering wage rates while raising rents. This was intended to diminish net earnings from sales of provisions in local markets and so make the ex-slave dependent wages for his livelihood.
It was this “rent question” that really was burning issue between employer and employee. In some cases rent was levied on each occupant of a cottage, while in other cases no rent was collected at all so that the labourers could be ejected at a moment’s notice. All requests by ex-slaves for annual tenacy was denied. Many labourers were faced with the situation whereby rents were paid form their wages. In addition this the tenant and his family household must still work for the landlord. According to Swithin Wilmot, “rent was manipulated in such a fashion that it was a penalty rather than a charge for the use of estate property… [and]…refus[al] to pay [resulted in] increased rental”.
This coercive measure applied to keep freed persons on the estates had the opposite effect. Ex-slaves abandoned plantations to squat on crown land or purchased land and engaged in various agricultural endeavours for subsistence and market. If these “escapees” required additional income, they engaged in providing casual labour for the nearby plantations. Many ex-slaves bought land and formed “freed villages”. These “freed villages” were a danger to the sugar economy since peasant farmers provided competition with their crops.
Within the French colonies labour laws were passed with the intention of controlling the peasantry. In Martinique in particular, where land availability was scarce, ex-slaves were forced to comply with many of the insufferable regulations, for example paying the personal tax, tolerating the pass system and maintaining a domestic passport.
The personal tax was created before 1848 with the aim of restricting the movement of Blacks to the towns and served to restrict movement from the countryside. The law imposed a sum payable annually by inhabitants, the boroughs receiving higher taxes than those living in the countryside. In 1848 the personal tax jumped from 10 francs 50 centimes per year in Pointe-a-Pitre, to 15 francs. Even in the country areas, the personal tax rose from 4 francs 50 centimes to 5 francs. The creation of this tax was intended to both restrict the Blacks movement to that of the plantations while forcing them to work to pay for it. The need for the Blacks to pay taxes is extremely interesting, especially since, according to historian Dale Tomich, most planters could not afford to pay freed men wages.
On February 15, 1852 the pass system was introduced to attempt to force the ex-slaves to adopt contractual labour. Rosamunde Renard notes that under this system, “every individual working for a salary or a daily wage, or every holder of a work contract of less than one year should possess a pass”. If they did not own a pass then they were sentenced to working in the workhouses.
The authorities tended to play a greater role in supporting planters in the French colonies than in the British West Indies. Ex-slaves however responded at first with violence, attacking anyone trying to remove them from their homes or take away their freedom, and later engaging in passive resistance. When they had to register, they gave a different name for everything, the governor de Gueydon declared they “…baptized under one name, married under another, taxed under a third and unknown under all these names…”. The Blacks also loitered and refused to accept contractual work when ever they could.
Though the planters mainly used coercive measures, they also attempted to apply conciliatory measures. In Martinique a system of medals for model workers was devised so as to encourage work on the plantations. Gold and bronze medals were distributed among the pupils of religious institutions who had done fairly well in agriculture. Schools were created with the purpose of training plantation workshop leaders and good workers. The freedmen were not fooled. They responded with increasing hostility towards these new attempts to make them stay on the plantations.
In conclusion, the term “induce” tends to mean, according the dictionary to persuade. However, planters were seen applying more often force, that is, coercive measures rather than conciliatory measures to attempt to keep ex-slaves on the plantations. Within the high density colonies the coercive measures were not really necessary but rather a demonstration of planter control and power. Within the French colonies, if one is believe Perrison, there was absolutely no reason to apply the coercive measures the historian Rosamunde Renard described. For Martinique, one can question the sensibility of a slave revolt resulting in emancipation just before it was officially declared.
Not surprisingly, an increasing distrust of the slaves exploded directly after emancipation was declared together with fear of economic ruin for the society. Planters and the Authorities joined forces against the “savage, uncivilized” Blacks whose nature inclined them away from the “delights of working in the blistering sun on the plantations” and more towards their “crude and uninformed version of what freedom was about, like liberty of movement”. These hostile attitudes of planters and authorities alike are responsible for the exodus of ex-slaves in both the British West Indies and the French colonies.