By George Alleyne
August 29, 2012 – newsday.co.tt
The argument has often been put forward by politicians and would be politicians that persons of Indian descent own a far greater degree of property in Trinidad than people of African descent, because they had saved and used their money wisely.
It is an attempt to create misunderstanding between the two major ethnic groups. What led to today’s disparity in land ownership is well documented and rooted in Trinidad’s colonial past. The end of slavery in 1838 and the movement by freed slaves to urban and suburban areas and away from the sugar estates, with which they had for so long identified with their suffering, meant that the sugar planters had to source new labour.
Wages demanded by ex-slaves, who remained, were in the order of some 36 cents a day. Planters, with the example of Indian indentureship in Mauritius, looked to India for the restocking of their labour force.
Lord John Russell, then United Kingdom Secretary of State for the Colonies, would refer to the proposition for the introduction of Indian labour to the West Indies in a letter to Sir Henry Light, Governor of British Guiana, dated February 15, 1840. “It is stated” Lord Russell wrote, “that the wages of a day labourer are in Guiana one shilling and six pence 36 cents per day and in Hindostan (India) not more than two pence.”
While there had been a limited use of Indian indentured labourers in Guiana, between 1837 and 1839, indentureship had not been introduced in other areas of the West Indies. On July 25, 1842, Lord Howick moved a resolution in the British House of Commons: “That is the opinion of this Committee (the House of Commons Committee on the West Indian Colonies)” that, inter alia, “one obvious and desirable mode of endeavouring to compensate “for the diminished supply of labour,” is to promote the immigration of a fresh labouring population, to such an extent as to create competition for employment”.
It should be pointed out that as early as 1814, 24 years before the end of slavery, a planter in Trinidad, William Burnley, had proposed the bringing of free labour from India “on a large scale”, as Dr Eric Williams would note in From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean (Page 347). This proposal carried with it a sense of urgency as the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had effectively blocked a traditional means of supplying labour to the sugar plantations.
Sir Ralph Woodford, who was Governor of Trinidad at the time, would recommend to the Colonial Office “the introduction of East Indian immigrants” — Eric Williams. With the bringing into operation of indentureship, a crucial provision of the agreements between parties had been the repatriation of indentureds to India at the end of their contracted stays, with the expense to be borne by the planters. But because sugar planters had found the cost of passages of indentured labourers back to India to be expensive, they made offers to the labourers of either money or land in Trinidad in lieu of return passages.
More than 100,000 accepted. Many of those who accepted cash, purchased land. The entire process would see some 100,000 indentureds becoming land owners. It would provide a financial jump-start and ladder that not even the calculated up to 1970 denial of commercial bank loans, in all too many cases, could negatively affect.
Ironically, following on Emancipation, instead of former slaves being given money for their years of having been forcefully and brutally exploited, money which could have given them the same jump start, the sum of 973,442 pounds sterling was paid out by the British Government to the planters in Trinidad as compensation “for the loss of their slaves”! It was a dismissal of the former slaves and was a statement that only the interests of sugar planters really mattered.
Indeed, the only freed slaves who received grants of land in Trinidad were those who had fought on the side of the British in the 1813 war in Virginia. They were given land in an area South of Princes Town known today as Fourth Company, Fifth Company and Sixth Company.
Meanwhile, despite the efforts of some politicians, Indian and African descent Trinbagonians are committed, as other ethnic groups, to the development of their country.