Free Villages

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Free Villages

In the early postslavery period after 1838, freedpeople in the Caribbean viewed the acquisition of land as one of the most important badges of freedom. As was the case elsewhere in the Americas, the Caribbean freedpeople's vision of freedom incorporated much more than the mere absence of slavery, for emancipation provided them with an opportunity to exercise control over the rhythms of their own lives. Crucial to this control was establishing residences outside of the plantations, even when economic survival made it necessary to seek employment there. Land availability was a critical determinant to this process, and it was mainly in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, where plantations had not yet monopolized the landscape in the 1880s, that the freedpeople of Cuba had the greatest opportunity to access land. Similarly, freedpeople in Guadeloupe had more access to land than in Martinique, where sugar production dominated cultivable land. In the Anglophone (English-speaking) Caribbean, the freedpeople's hunger for land was manifested in the rapid emergence of free villages, particularly in Jamaica and Guyana, but also in Trinidad and the Windward Islands. In these areas they established settlements on their own initiative or with the assistance of various missionary intermediaries, despite various strategies that restricted access to land, such as legislation, the planters' refusal to sell, and prohibitive prices.

In the first decade after 1838, the Jamaican freedpeople constructed a society beyond the boundaries of the plantations in partnership with several groups of white evangelical missionaries, particularly the Baptists, though the Methodists, Moravians, and Presbyterians were also active in assisting freedpeople settlements. The freedpeople contributed their labor and invested their material resources in the establishment of "Christian villages" that revolved around the chapel and the school. Generally, the missionaries viewed the free villages as an immediate refuge from the planters' coercive labor recruitment policies as well as an opportunity to transform the freedpeople's characters and cultures. Reflecting the accepted gender order, the missionaries anticipated that the male villagers would look to the estates for regular employment, albeit on agreed terms, and that the freedwomen would devote their energies mainly to the family and the growth of provisions. The children would attend school. As Catherine Hall has noted, these villages were to be utopias where the missionaries could create "a new moral and material world in which Christianity and freedom reigned" (Catherine Hall, 1992, p. 254) in a new society constructed on the ruins of slavery.

In the early euphoria of the immediate postslavery period after 1838, the freedpeople in Jamaica embraced the missionaries' vision, and through family networks and church linkages freedpeople pooled their financial resources and invested in their own piece of ground. For instance, by 1842 freedmen and freedwomen in the parish of Trelawny spent about twenty thousand pounds sterling (the equivalent of about $100,000 US dollars at that time) in purchasing land and in erecting homes. In the neighboring parish of St. Ann, freedpeople connected with the Baptist church had, by 1841, spent ten thousand pounds on purchasing land, much of which formed new free villages bearing the name of abolitionists, such as Buxton, Clarksonville, Sturge Town, and Wilberforce. Generally, whether with the missionary as intermediary or on their own initiative, freedpeople in Jamaica rapidly bought up small freeholds. Consequently, whereas in 1840 there were 883 freeholds of less than ten acres, by 1845 there were 20,724, and about a third of the former enslaved population had relocated to new settlements. Clearly, the freed-people's actions based on self-help and community effort reconfigured the Jamaican countryside. Utilizing their skills as agriculturists and artisans, freedpeople expanded internal trading networks and provided the foundation for new interior market towns that flourished around the new settlements. In addition, some of the new villagers gained the political freehold franchise and assisted free blacks, free coloreds (blacks and coloreds who were never enslaved), and Jewish elites in altering the racial and ethnic composition of the island's political institutions by the 1850s.

After 1838, Guyana witnessed the unique development of communal villages as whole plantations were bought by large groups of freedpeople who became joint stockholders of the purchased estate. By 1850, twenty-five plantations, with a total of 9,050 acres, were under new collective ownership in Guyana. Significantly, despite the vast amount of land available in the hinterland at lower prices, the freedpeople generally preferred to remain within the cleared, settled, better-drained, cultivated parts of the country, where they benefited from the proximity to markets, churches, schools, and the plantations where they supplemented their income. These Guyanese communal free villages breached an aspect of the white power structure, as elements of "cooperative self-government" characterized the villages' administrative arrangements in their infancy. However, the planter legislature reasserted itself after the 1850s by way of legal restrictions of group purchases, and a series of Village Ordinances curbed the early experiments in local government. Further, the communal villager settlements became problematic because of drainage problems and uncertain land tenure arrangements.

Wherever possible, freedpeople constructed new communities and settlements beyond the plantation, knowing that independent landownership underscored their struggle for autonomy of the estates and increased their bargaining power. Additionally, growing and marketing of provisions were well established during slavery and were crucial to the freedpeople's strategies of combining wage labor with family-based independent farming. This enabled women to withdraw from regular estate labor while contributing significantly to family income. Indeed, in the construction of the new communities beyond the plantations, freedpeople drew on their own material, spiritual, and intellectual resources, placing the goals of family and community above the assertion of simple individual autonomy. Finally, the rapid establishment of free villages represented one of the most enduring lessons from the postslavery experience in the Caribbean, for they exhibited the earliest examples of the dynamic possibilities of sustained, self-help projects founded on community action.

See also Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean; Nationalism and Race in the Caribbean


Brereton, Bridget. "Family Strategies, Gender, and the Shift to Wage Labour in the British Caribbean." In The Colonial Caribbean in Transition: Essays on Postemancipation Social and Cultural History, edited by Bridget Brereton and Kevin A. Yelvington. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1999, pp. 77-107.

Hall, Catherine. "Missionary Stories: Gender and Ethnicity in England in the 1830s and 1840s." In Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, London: Routledge, 1992, pp. 205255.

Hall, Douglas. Free Jamaica, 18381865: An Economic History. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1959. Reprint, Barbados: Caribbean Universities Press, 1970.

Moore, Brian L. Race, Power, and Social Segmentation in Colonial Society: Guyana after Slavery, 18381891. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1987.

Rodney, Walter. A History of the Guyanese Working People, 18811905. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Underhill, Edward B. The West Indies: Their Social and Religious Condition. London: Jackson, Walford, and Hodder, 1862. Reprint, Westport, Ct.: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

Wilmot, Swithin. "'A Stake in the Soil': Land and Creole Politics in Free Jamaica, the 1849 Elections." In In the Shadow of the Plantation: Caribbean History and Legacy, edited by Alvin O. Thompson. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2002, pp. 314-333.

swithin wilmot (2005)

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