The Immigration of Africans into the British Caribbean
By Arlene Munro
June 20, 2002
The movement of ex-slaves from the plantations after Emancipation in 1838 led
to a labour shortage in the British West Indian colonies, especially British Guiana
and Trinidad. Therefore, immigration of indentured labourers was encouraged.
One of the options was African indentured immigration. The British government
supported the idea because it was one way of finding 'permanent settlement' for
Liberated Africans who were being sheltered at Sierra Leone and St Helena at its
expense. These Liberated Africans had been freed from slaveships captured by
the British in their anti-slave trade campaign.
African immigration was desirable in 1840 because East Indian immigration had
been suspended. The immigration of Europeans was prohibited in 1841 because
of their high mortality. Madeiran Portuguese immigration was also unwelcome for
the same reason.
In 1840, the British Government legally permitted emigration from Sierra Leone
to the West Indies. It should be noted that migration of Africans in small numbers
had started before this date. However, the British government was encouraged to
permit emigration partly because some Africans had expressed their desire to
journey to the West Indies. After consultation with Lord Russell, the British
Government allowed Liberated Africans to proceed to British Guiana, Trinidad
and Jamaica. In March 1841, one year later, Lord Russell advised the British
Government to direct the emigration process.
Consequently, Govern-ment Immigration Agents were employed. Rules were
created to guide procedure and organisation of African emigration. In addition,
Immigration Ordinances were passed in the colonies. Eligible African emigrants
had to be either African citizens or Liberated Africans from slavers. Liberated
Africans were subtly pressurised into emigrating by the deliberate creation of
certain laws. Ships were required to have surgeons. Regulations were made for
the 'provisioning of ships' and for maintaining the health of the emigrants. Only
one female emigrant was allowed to every two men on board the ship.
In the first year of emigration under British supervision small numbers were
involved. British Guiana received 1,733 immigrants, Trinidad received 170, and
Jamaica received 686. The numbers later decreased because of the dismal
reports given by returning headmen who had accompanied the African emigrants
to the West Indies. In addition, employers and missionaries in Sierra Leone
discouraged the emigration of Liberated Africans. The low ratio of females who
were allowed to migrate did not encourage African males to do so either.
Shortly afterwards, a Report of the Select Committee on the West Coast of
Africa was submitted which was very influential in determining migration policy.
This committee indicated that there were enough Liberated Africans to support
emigration. Gambia had 1500, while Sierra Leone had 40,000 Liberated
Africans. The committee concluded that it would benefit the resident African as
well as the Liberated African to travel to the West Indies to work as indentured
labourers. It also discussed the possibility of the revival of the slave trade and
advised that the British colonies pay for free return passages of African emigrants
to the West Indies. Tight control of government agencies over emigration was
also recommended. These suggestions were made to prevent the revival of the
slave trade through African immigration.
It is noteworthy that there was a correlation between the growth of the Brazilian
slave trade and the increase in the number of Liberated Africans at Sierra Leone.
The slave trade in Brazil had increased after the passing of the Sugar Duties Act
of 1846, which encouraged the expansion of the sugar industry in Brazil and led
to an increased purchase of slaves. The Commissioners of Immigration made
arrangements to take advantage of the surplus of Liberated Africans and to
transport those who were willing to the West Indies. It was during the period
1848-1850 that African migration reached its peak.
From 1851 the African immigration movement declined because the Brazilian
slave trade ended. The African slave trade did not revive again until the late
1850s, when the Cuban slave trade increased. The pool of Liberated Africans
from captured Cuban slavers became the source of the African indentured
immigrants. The second revival of African immigration came to an end with the
termination of the Cuban slave trade in the 1860s. By 1865, African immigration
to the British West Indies had ceased.
Indentured African immigrants entered the Caribbean in the following numbers:
13, 970 to British Guiana; 10,000 to Jamaica; 8,390 to Trinidad; 1,540 to
Grenada; 1,040 to St Vincent; 730 to St Lucia; and 460 to St. Kitts.
Where did these African immigrants originate? 400 came from the Kru (Kroo)
Coast, 16,290 from St. Helena, and 15,630 from Sierra Leone. Of these the
most interesting group hailed from the Kru Coast.
Originally, the Kru had engaged in a profitable trade in malagueta pepper, ivory
and rice. However, when these economic activities became less lucrative or
impossible the Kru chose to migrate overseas in search of employment. Working
overseas was one way of accumulating the bride price needed for marriage. The
Kru possessed skills of seamanship for which Europeans were prepared to pay a
fee. They were hired by European ships in West African waters and were used
to carry messages between ships. After the abolition of slavery, they worked in
the Liverpool docks in the mid-nineteenth century. By 1817, some Krumen lived
in a section of Freetown (the base of the West African British squadron) from
where they poured forth each day to work at sea or to serve as coachmen,
servants, dockers, porters, boatmen, and cooks. This is evidence that the Kru
were accustomed to migrating overseas to work. They were also employed by
the Royal Navy to work on its ships during the British 'campaign against slavers.'
Furthermore, they participated in the British Niger expeditions of 1832 and
However, the Kru women did not migrate. They remained at home to plant crops
and to manufacture salt from brine. The custom of male migration was part of the
Kru way of life by the dawn of the nineteenth century. The young Kru made his
first voyage overseas after puberty. He was apprenticed to a headman who
arranged his work contracts overseas. This headman also received part of the
first earnings of the young man who also had to give portions to his father and to
the village chief.
From 1842, the West India Committee started urging the British Government to
allow migration from the Kru Coast. After the removal of the preference on West
Indian sugar in 1846, fresh energetic attempts were made to procure labour and
to tap the resources of this area. Interestingly, one historian observes that the
Kru, more than any of the other indentured immigrants to the West Indies, "felt
themselves in a position to state terms" to their employers.
There are varying statistics of migration pertaining to the Kru. Roberts estimates
from his study of official returns to Parliament that only 400 Kru travelled to the
West Indies. In contrast, Wood contends that between 1,000 and 1,200 of them
worked in British Guiana, Trinidad and Jamaica during the 1840s and 1850s. He
estimates that 950 went to British Guiana, 150 to Trinidad and less than 1,000 to
Jamaica. His figures were derived from various Guianese records. One can
conclude that between 400 and 1,000 Kru entered the colonies.
When the Kru arrived in British Guiana they were placed on plantations in
Demerara and on the West Bank and East Coast of Berbice where they naturally
gravitated to sailing cane punts. They received ten dollars each month for
manoeuvring punts on sugar estates. They were also inclined to leave the estates
to work elsewhere. It was observed that the Kru were unwilling to part with their
earnings, which they would be required to submit in part to headmen and chiefs
on their return to Africa. British Guiana had the largest number of Kru in the
The Kru were influenced by their new home. They started purchasing land in the
villages and cohabited with Guianese women who bore children for them.
Fifty-three Krus returned to Africa in 1853 with their sons for the purpose of
having them undergo initiation ceremonies.
It appears that some Kru rulers in Africa became concerned about the welfare of
their fellow Kru in British Guiana.
Another important consideration was the fact that the Kru society was too small
to lose so many able-bodied earners of income. The possibility of the Krus
seeking citizenship in British Guiana was very real.
The visits of Prince Freeman and Prince Jumbo to British Guiana are attributed to
these considerations. They arrived in British Guiana in 1845 and 1853
respectively to observe the working conditions of their fellow Kru. Apparently,
Prince Jumbo expressed the fear that the Kru would wish to remain in British
It appears that some Kru became part of the Creole population of British Guiana
because years later it was observed that Kru boatmen were working on the
rivers of British Guiana. They had chosen to settle in the colony.