The Belmanna Riots, which took place in 1876 in Tobago, a small British colony in the southern Caribbean, were typical of post-emancipation protests by black laborers and peasants in the English-speaking West Indies. The cluster of grievances that lay behind these riots were paralleled in nearly all of the impoverished plantation colonies in the nineteenth century.
The events of 1876 can be quickly summarized. Unrest developed among workers at the Roxborough Estate, on the southern coast of Tobago, early in that year, especially among immigrant laborers from Barbados. Fires were set on the estate on May 1, and policemen under Corporal Belmanna attempted to arrest the arsonists on May 3. A crowd resisted and attacked the policemen, and Belmanna fired into the people, killing a Barbadian woman. This triggered a major riot outside the Roxborough Court House, during which Belmanna was beaten to death and other officers were injured. The disorders briefly spread to other estates in the Windward District, but order was restored within a few days, especially after a British warship arrived with a contingent of Barbadian policemen.
Belmanna's firing into the crowd was clearly the catalyst for the violence that followed, but the underlying causes of the riot were the classic labor grievances of the post-emancipation era: disputes over wages; arbitrary wage stoppages by management; the estate shop, or truck, system (where an estate owner runs a shop and forces the resident laborers to purchase their supplies from it, usually at higher prices than could be found elsewhere); and the objectionable, contemptuous behavior of the estate owner and manager towards the workers. Other grievances included the lack of proper medical care and the laborers' difficulties in obtaining lands. The lieutenant governor of Tobago believed that wage disputes were the chief source of unrest, reflecting what he called the "chronic want of sympathy between capital and labor" that had long existed in Tobago (Brereton, 1984, p. 118). Discontent over these issues, common to most labor protests in the region at this period, was heightened for the Barbadians at Roxborough by news of the serious riots in Barbados a few days earlier (the Confederation Riots).
This was, then, a classic plantation labor protest. There is some evidence that the trouble at Roxborough Estate was triggered by its owner's attempt to withdraw "privileges," such as the right to pasture livestock on estate land and to cut and use timber from the estate, free of charge, that had become customary. He had also instituted a new wage policy that the laborers resented. Again this was a common cause of agrarian protest in the region—similar acts were responsible for the riots on the island of St. Vincent in 1862. But there is no evidence that the riots were long premeditated or well organized, or that the rioters intended to do harm to Tobago's small white community or "take over" the island.
Nevertheless, this was what many resident whites feared, for they had not forgotten the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica eleven years earlier. The outcome of the Belmanna Riots was, in fact, quite similar to that of the Jamaican uprising: in August 1876 the members of the legislative assembly agreed to give up their right to elective representation and to accept a "pure" Crown Colony constitution, with a wholly nominated legislative council. They believed that if Tobago was a pure Crown Colony under direct British rule, they would be better protected (by Britain) against future threats from black laborers and peasants. Thus, the way was cleared constitutionally for Tobago's unification with Trinidad (as a British colony), which occurred in two stages between 1889 and 1899.
Brereton, Bridget. "Post-emancipation Protest in the Caribbean: The 'Belmanna Riots' in Tobago, 1876." Caribbean Quarterly 30, nos 3–4 (1984): 110–123.
bridget brereton (2005)