Friday, May 29, 2015

Was slavery different in Trinidad?

As an institution, slavery in Trinidad was essentially the same as in the other Caribbean colonies, especially those belonging to France and Britain. Enslaved people were legally chattels who were bought and sold like any other type of property, advertised for sale in the Trinidad newspapers, and listed on estate inventories along with the livestock and the equipment.

Slavery was hereditary, inherited through the mother (so the child of an enslaved mother and a free man was born a slave), and lifelong. Manumission (the grant of freedom) was quite rare even in the last years of slavery when Britain was supposedly trying to encourage it. Harsh laws determined how the enslaved were controlled and punished. Enslaved people had no legally respected rights to marriage or family, and were (before 1824 in Trinidad) more or less at the mercy of their owners, just short of the power of life and death.

I want to emphasise, as I've done on many previous occasions, that it is only a myth that slavery in Trinidad was somehow more "benevolent" than elsewhere in the Caribbean. It is true that Spain had a reputation for being a more humane slave-holding power than Britain or France, and Trinidad was Spanish to 1797. But the methods of managing the enslaved which prevailed in Trinidad were those of the French immigrant planters, not the Spanish, and they brought with them some brutal practices of punishment and terror.

Fear of poisoning by slave Obeahmen, and the frightening memory of what had happened in French Saint Domingue (Haiti) after 1791, were especially strong among the French planters who set the tone for the new slave society that emerged in Trinidad in the 1780s and 1790s. The British, after they took the island in 1797, followed suit. Severe punishments and brutal reprisals for those accused of resistance, conspiracy to rebel, or poisoning were meted out in the 1790s and early 1800s.

The harsh frontier conditions endured by the enslaved in these decades, when tropical forests were cleared by manual labour and new plantations carved out of the bush, resulted in very high rates of disease and death among them. Once the transatlantic trade was ended, Trinidad's enslaved population declined steadily. There were about 20,000 enslaved in 1802; by 1838, roughly the same number were emancipated, despite the arrival of many thousands from Africa up to 1807, and from the Caribbean islands thereafter.

It wasn't just that enslaved death rates were very high, for infants, children and adults. Birth rates were very low indeed. Most enslaved women had to labour in the fields, doing hard manual labour; they were poorly fed and often suffering from diseases. So their fertility was low, and miscarriages and stillbirths must have been very frequent.

So the main lines of slavery as an institution were the same as elsewhere in the Caribbean. But there were some significant differences in the Trinidad experience.

First, Trinidad was a slave society—that is, a society in which slavery was the dominant labour system and social institution—for a fairly short period, about fifty years, from the 1780s to the 1830s. This, perhaps, was the shortest such experience of any major Caribbean territory, and contrasts sharply with Barbados or Martinique, for example, with their 200 years of slavery.

Second, Trinidad never did become a classic or mature slave society, with huge majorities of enslaved people, often well over 90 per cent in islands like Jamaica, or Tobago. In 1797, when the British captured the island, just over 50 per cent of the population were enslaved, in 1810 it was 67 per cent, and this was probably the highest percentage up to emancipation. From the 1780s on, Trinidad had an unusually large free coloured and free black group. So the huge enslaved majorities and very small white and free coloured/free black groups—typical of mature slave societies—never appeared there.

Third, in Trinidad the core group, the original cohort of enslaved Africans, were Creoles, people born in the French West Indies and Grenada, brought with their owners in the 1770s to the early 1800s. They spoke Patois, had gone through mass baptisms in the Catholic faith, and brought an Afro-French Creole culture with them. Captives from Africa came later, after 1790, with a peak in 1797-1806. This meant that Trinidad had a high proportion of African-born people well into the 1820s-1830s, unlike say Barbados.

Finally, a high proportion of slave-owners in Trinidad were small or medium estate owners, so the enslaved tended to live in smaller units (under 50) than in Jamaica or Barbados. A significant number were urban: nearly 25 per cent lived in Port of Spain in 1813. Few lived on really large plantations and many lived on coffee, cotton and cocoa estates. This meant that Trinidad was different from many of the Caribbean islands where the great majority of the enslaved lived and worked on large sugar plantations, as in Tobago. Moreover, many were owned by free coloured/free black people.

These differences did shape a somewhat different legacy for post-emancipation Trinidad, even though slavery itself was as brutal and as dehumanising there as anywhere else.

* Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at the University of the West

Indies, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad

and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades.