Resolving the post-Emancipation labour dilemma in British Guiana
By Mellissa Ifill
July 12, 2001
One of the main dilemmas confronting post-emancipation Guyana had been to secure adequate and suitable labour. The planters, who were used to slave labour, were unwilling to address the reality that employment contracts were now based upon remuneration for labour. Meanwhile, the African labourers were fully aware of their value and therefore deliberately controlled the supply of labour to the plantation, while constantly requesting competitive wage rates.
Even though slavery had been abolished, it was nonetheless still expected that the plantation economy would be maintained. However, its continued existence relied on the accessibility of a docile and cheap labour force. Consequently, great efforts were made to ensure that African labour remained reliant on the system.
The labourers showed their objections to this agenda in a number of ways. They purchased villages and lands and attempted to create their own agricultural economy that was independent from the white-owned plantations, they moved into the urban areas to seek employment and into the hinterland as porknockers. Those who remained and worked on the white owned plantations organized themselves into task gangs and offered their labour to the most competitive employer. By purposely generating a labour shortage, they produced conditions that persuaded planters to offer competitive wage rates. The planters initiated a number of measures designed to frustrate these efforts. These included indiscriminate expulsions, harsh rents and the refusal of farming and grazing privileges on plantation lands. Despite these measures instituted by the planters, labour remained expensive and inadequate, and, coupled with the high production cost, industries and plantations became increasingly uneconomical and many became bankrupt. By 1841, most plantation owners were confronted with bleak economic prospects and were convinced that the labour shortage, even though artificially created, demanded an immigrant labour force.
It was initially determined that the required labour supplies would be sourced from the surplus population in the West Indian colonies. A small number of liberated African labourers were therefore obtained from the Bahamas, Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Anguilla and Nevis. However, it was soon realised that the small numbers of labourers imported from the West Indian islands did not compensate for the high costs incurred to acquire and transport them to British Guiana and the ever-increasing needs of the plantations were not met by these small numbers.
Attempts were also made to secure African labourers from the African continent. Despite the reservation that the introduction of freed Africans into the West Indies could create the conditions for the re-enslavement of Africans by European colonists, the indenture of these Africans started in the early 1840s. The British gave full and official support for this African immigration scheme however, when there was a pause in Indian immigration up to 1845. An examination of the discussions among colonists during that period reveals that there were several main reasons why African immigrants were brought into British Guiana. A notable number of Indian immigrants were being lost due to death as a result of contracting malaria and yellow fever. Moreover, the British reasoned that this immigration scheme would accommodate those Africans who were being illegally traded and whom they had liberated and held on the African coast at the British administrative headquarters in St. Helena and Sierra Leone. Those Africans that were liberated after the capture of foreign vessels in the new world were also part of the group of liberated Africans who were indentured in the British West Indies, including Guiana. The preceding is not to suggest that the emigration of the Africans was purely voluntary. While coercion was prohibited in acquiring immigrants for this transatlantic voyage, some amount of force was nonetheless employed in some instances, since the colonies were greatly reliant on this source of labour.
The continuous supply of sufficient numbers of African labourers from both the West Indies and the African continent was not forthcoming and attention was quickly focussed in other directions. Between 1835 and 1839, small numbers of immigrants were imported from Germany, Ireland, England and Scotland to augment the African importation.
Another source of labour supplies was Portugal. When compared to other immigrants to British Guiana, Portuguese immigration was relatively significant. Between 1835 and 1850, 17,098 Portuguese from Madeira emigrated to British Guiana, while between 1851 and 1881, when the last group entered, 13,535 Madeirans and 164 individuals from the Azores were imported into Guiana. There were two main stated objectives guiding the introduction of Portuguese immigrants which were clearly expressed by Governors Light and Wodehouse in 1846 and 1857: to form a white middle class; and to acquire a consistent and dependable supply of inexpensive labour to complement and set an example of industry to the African labourers. The motivation guiding the first objective was to enlarge the total white population so as to boost the numerical strength of the white segment of the society, and in so doing to counterbalance any social progress that the former slaves would most likely have achieved as a result of their recently won freedom. It was expected that the Portuguese labouring population would constitute a hard-working buffer group between the dominant whites and the Africans and would support the conditions for the maintenance of white domination in the colony. At the same time, the second objective would be accomplished if an adequate number of Portuguese could be acquired to fill the void caused by the departure of an appreciable number of ex[slaves from plantation labour, thus preserving the continuation of the pre-eminence of the plantation in the economy and creating an example of industry to the blacks.
From a labour perspective, the Portuguese immigration scheme was deemed unsuccessful, with the Portuguese more inclined to engage in trading and peddling at the end of their contract rather than manual labour.
The suggestion that British Guiana should consider China in order to secure free labour originated in a Report of a Committee of House of Commons in 1811. The Committee at that time commented that it was totally impressed with the great benefits to the West Indies that might result "from the introduction of a class of free people so distinguished by their orderly and industrious habits". However, this suggestion was not acted upon in British Guiana at that time - in fact, it was ignored until the abolition of slavery in 1834.
The initial licences to bring Chinese labourers into British Guiana were given in November 1843, with the first experiment being held from 1850-1854 and the second from 1854 to 1858. Contract emigration from China to British Guiana ceased in 1874-75. This was followed by a brief but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in free emigration from China to British Guiana in the late 1870s. This immigration experiment without contract aroused great interest in the colony, however, the planters deemed the results unsatisfactory. Consequently, the experiment was discontinued and Chinese immigration came to an abrupt and swift end. During the period of Chinese indenture, 15, 720 Chinese immigrants landed in British Guiana and the majority of these were repatriated after their contracts had expired.
Prior to the steady importation of Indian labourers, the abovementioned attempts at importation were unsuccessful and there continued to be the need for labour on a considerable scale and on an organized basis. This need was clearly expressed in December 1839, when 800 inhabitants - including planters, merchants, clergy and other prominent citizens - signed and sent a petition to the King pointing out the need for immigration to prevent the destruction of the colony's industries.
The idea of using India as a source of labour in British Guiana was proposed when it was known that there were instances on record of the employ of Indian labourers in other countries. For example, Mauritius was making use of this source to secure labourers and India was perceived to present a very acceptable field for the recruitment of labourers. The first vessel to arrive with contracted labourers from India was the Hesperus, and this landed in Guiana on 5th May 1838. Of the 170 persons who boarded the Hesperus, 156 made the 90?day journey safely to Guiana from Calcutta. These first immigrants were placed in Plantations Vreed-en-Hoop, Vreed-en-Stein, Anna Regina, Bel Vue, Waterloo and Highbury. During the period of East Indian indenture, which lasted from 1838 to 1917, 238,979 Indians were introduced to Guyana. At the conclusion of their indenture, 65,538 persons requested repatriation, however several hundred of those returned after a short stay in India.
Indian immigration provided the solution to the labour crisis that the planters faced in British Guiana. The planters now had a steady supply of labour that was relatively inexpensive to acquire. They also had control over their labour force, which enabled them to reduce wages. In addition, they successfully divided the work force and prevented any collaborative attempts at wage negotiation by the introduction of labourers from different parts of the world.
Undoubtedly, one of the most distinguishing features of British Guiana - both before and after emancipation - was the overpowering dominance of the society and economy by the plantation. In this colony, the plantation represented the chief socio-economic institution and a single crop produced on the plantation - sugar - dominated the economy. The African, Portuguese, Chinese and Indian immigration into British Guiana after emancipation was one clear indication of the extent to which the white governed plantation civilisation directed the evolution of the colony even after the majority of the population - the Africans had gained their freedom.