Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana as Free Labor Colonies

Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana as Free Labor Colonies

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Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana as Free Labor Colonies


The main concept of this paper is to show how Britain turned three of its colonies (Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana) into "free labor" colonies after gradual emancipation of slaves was introduced in 1833, and full emancipation was accepted in 1838. British West Indian colonies could be put into two categories: established colonies and new colonies. Jamaica had officially been a British colony since 1670, while Trinidad was converted to British rule in 1802 and Guyana in 1814. The age difference between the two categories resulted in different situations for the colonies and that is what will be discussed here.

Before Emancipation

At the end of the 18th Century into the beginning of the 19th Century, Britain was moving toward industrialization, which in turn led to a movement towards free labor from its citizens. Britain was also expanding is enterprises within it’s East Indian Trade Company. The East Indian countries had the raw materials that the new textile industry needed. Free people are also a better market for the textiles than the slave populations of the West Indies would. [1]

The movement towards industry and Britain’s concentration in East Asia hindered the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. All of this caused a movement towards emancipating the slaves in the Caribbean. But the movement towards industrialization increased the need for sugar. [2] When the slaves were freed, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana all had to deal with the new need for labor.

Jamaica was already an established sugar producer and was at one point the jewel of the British West Indies. Jamaica was not a crown colony, however, and was organized by independent citizens, while Trinidad and Guyana, on the other hand, were recently acquired Royal colonies and had different economic circumstances than Jamaica. [3]

Jamaica was about 2,848,000 square acres of land and only one quarter of land was unfit for cultivation. An estimation of about a quarter of the land was cultivated and only about a third of the available land was tilled in 1842. [4]

Trinidad was considered the most fertile of any of the British colonies and second largest island after Jamaica.

Of about 1,400,000 acres, it was estimated that only one-thirtieth part was unfit for cultivation; but not more than 209,000 acres had been appropriated, and of these less than 44,000 were under tillage. Sugar-planting had been a few years in operation when the island came into out possession in 1802.

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Five years later, the African slave trade was abolished, and the extension of agriculture had ever since been retarded by want of labor. [5]

Unlike Jamaica, there was not an established and flourishing sugar industry, and they didn’t even have a large slave population, so the need for labor was great. Trinidad was a large and untilled yet had the best and most fertile soil within the West Indies.

Although Guyana was on the mainland of South America, it was generally considered part of the West Indies. Guyana was a large colony, nearly three times as large as Jamaica, but "there were 600 sugar estates (in Jamaica), whilst in British Guiana in 1839 there were only 222." [6] Guyana was in dire need of labor much like Trinidad, but it had four times the amount of freed slaves and produced nearly three times the amount of sugar than Trinidad did, but Guyana’s wages were lower than Trinidad’s. [7]

Jamaica was an old established sugar-producing colony with a large amount of slaves and a good amount of land still uncultivated. Trinidad was a smaller newly acquired colony, which possessed the richest and least cultivated land of the West Indies and had the least amount of slaves compared to the other two. Guyana was the largest West Indian colony and was very fertile. It was the newest colony in the West Indies. It had a small sugar industry with a small amount of slaves within the colony, but the most of the slaves went away from the plantation after emancipation. [8]

Colony Number of slaves
Jamaica 311,070

Guyana 82,824

Trinidad 20,657

After Emancipation

When Britain decided to emancipate the slaves, they did so in a round about way. They wanted to assure the planters of labor, after emancipation, so they created an apprenticeship system, where slaves older than six years of age were "‘entitled to be registered as apprenticed labourers and to acquire thereby all rights and privileges of freedom.’ In return for food, clothing and lodging, but without wages, they were to work for their former owners three-fourths of the day…" [9] This apprenticeship was a quasi-slavery system designed to keep the slaves on the plantation, but give them their "freedom".

The apprenticeship system didn’t work for everyone, however. "In that large island [Jamaica] and in British Guiana with its vast hinterland many apprentices decamped into the interior." [10] With many of the former slaves leaving the plantations in Jamaica and Guyana, the colonies asked Britain for assistance with labor in the form of immigration. Trinidad, with its rich soil and little labor force, also needed an immigration plan for success to occur in sugar production. [11]

There were very few immigrants, which came to the islands during the apprenticeship period. If they did come, it was at their own expense and not the government’s. Once complete emancipation occurred, the government stepped in and took action. "Trinidad led the way, an ordinance being passed as early as November 1838, and similar measures were taken in 1840 in Jamaica and Guiana." [12]


Immigration from Africa was allowed in 1840, but only to Trinidad and then later to Jamaica and Guyana. The source of the labor was from Sierra Leone. "Emigrants to the number of 170 were landed at Trinidad in May 1841; a vessel with 199 reached Guiana in the same month, and another with 225 in September; and two vessels brought 592 to Jamaica in June." [13] There wasn’t a sufficient number of immigrants coming to the West Indies, so the government decided to look elsewhere, "and in July 1843 their ‘Acting Committee’ began to interview and memorialise the Colonial Secretary in prosecution of their claim to hire free labourers wherever they may be found." [14] They really meant Africa and other parts of it, but settled for anyone who would come, specifically Indian or Chinese. [15]

Over 7,000 East Indians immigrated to the West Indies before 1841, but the British government stopped the mass immigration, because it looked too much like the old African slave trade. But "by 1845 the West Indians had succeeded in reversing the decision. In consequence, up to 1917, 239,000 Indian immigrants had arrived in Guiana, 134,000 in Trinidad…and after a late start, 33,000 in Jamaica." [16]

In 1850 Chinese immigration occurred, mainly in Guyana, but some went to both Jamaica and Trinidad. A number of Europeans, including British, Portuguese, and German, immigrated to the West Indies during this period as well. [17] Almost all of the immigrants came to the West Indies during this period came as indentured servants. [18]

At the time of emancipation, Jamaica’s newly freed slaves held an advantage over their former masters. Labor was in short supply and there was a lot of land available for purchase. The plantation owners tried to cut wages by 59% and collect high rents, as well as, limit the ex-slaves use of gardens and such. [19] Many slaves left the plantations and pursued other things. The result was a 50% drop off in the number of sugar plantation. [20] Jamaica didn’t invest as much in the immigration of foreigners as did Trinidad and Guyana. "…and its failure was attributed to the poor quality of the immigrants, unusually wet seasons, bad management and the lack of competent interpreters. [21]

Trinidad was still a "new" colony at the time of emancipation. They tried hard to get immigrants into the colony to "begin" the cultivation of the vast, highly fertile lands that were untouched. But "Trinidad had spent much too lavishly on immigration, and was said indeed to have subordinated to it every other interest. The planters had nothing left for improvements in agriculture…" [22] By 1851, Trinidad was still very scarcely populated compared to other islands in the Caribbean. "Its [Trinidad] population density in 1851 stood at only 28.4 per square mile, compared to 137 (St. Lucia), 246 (Grenada), 304 (Antigua), and 817 (Barbados)." [23] Trinidad had lost to offer for investment, but a large amount of capital was needed to begin the venture. "Thus, whereas in the late 1860s there were 153 sugar estates in the island, by 1897 that figure had fallen to 90, and the number of owners had been reduced from 60 to 22, with the largest six firms controlling 78 per cent of sugar production." [24] Had Trinidad spent more capital on improvements for the plantation and not as much on getting labor they might have expanded the sugar production tremendously.

In Guyana, the large influx of Portuguese quickly left the field work and established themselves as shopkeepers. "The Portuguese were extraordinary in that they virtually took over the retail trade of the colony in the very first years after their arrival." [25] A little later a large amount of Chinese immigrated to Guyana and also shortly left the plantation system for the retail business and integrated into society. [26] "Concerned about the plantations’ shrinking labor pool and the potential decline of the sugar sector, British authorities…began to contract for the services of poorly paid indentured servants from India." [27] The number of East Indians that were brought to Guyana was by far the most out of all the ethnic groups. They were also the ones that stayed at the plantation and became the sugar labor force. [28]

Immigration wasn’t the concrete answer the colonial authorities were looking for in the end. Jamaica didn’t immigrate as many people as the other countries did, and what resulted was shrinkage of their sugar economy. In both Trinidad and Guyana, East Indian labor was the result of all of the immigration to the colonies. Although massive amounts of other ethnic groups immigrated to the colonies, the East Indian was the only group, as a whole, to stay on the plantations and keep the sugar industry alive. The industries didn’t expand in numbers, but with changing technology they were able to expand individual plantations and expand their industry from there. Immigration did more diversifying the nations of Trinidad and Guyana than it did to spur the sugar economy as much as hoped.
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