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The metayers of Tobago
Emancipation in 1834 did not hit Tobago nearly as hard as Trinidad since Tobago had no free crown lands for ex-slaves to squat upon and thus those who did not emigrate were compelled to continue working for the planters. In order to keep sugar estates going, the metayage system, which was a form of sharecropping, developed. Under the system, the metayer (sharecropper) occupied a piece of land on which he/she planted cane.
At harvest time, the estate owner supplied carts which drew cut canes to the mill where they were processed into rum and sugar of which the metayer received a percentage. In addition, the metayer was often allowed permission to build a cottage on the estate and provision grounds.
Over a decade later (1847) falling sugar prices and the failure of estates in the West Indies for want of labour saw the bankruptcy of the West India Bank which provided credit to many of Tobago planters. The lack of financing for machinery upgrades and labourer wages meant that the planters were more dependent on the metayers than ever. Even so, the production of sugar plummeted.
By 1862 the following could be written: “The metayer system was first introduced in this island in 1843 by Mr Cruickshank, the then proprietor of the Prospect estate; and it was generally resorted to in 1845. Such was the depression at that time, that had not the labourer been induced to work for a share of the produce, the estates, for want of means to pay in money for labour, must have gone out of cultivation.
“Under such a system of cultivation there can be no farming; the labourer cultivates his field so long as it remains in heart; it is not his interest to manure it; for as soon as it ceases to produce what will remunerate him for his labour he moves off to a fresh field; there is an entire absence of implemental husbandry; and, owing in a great measure to the bad faith in which, on both sides, the contract is too often carried out, what it done is imperfectly done, mind from many causes yields little return. I have known canes so planted to remain on the land two years without being cropped.”
The collapse of the West India Bank meant that estates had to be sold in Tobago at low prices. It saw the emergence of a black planter class wherein men who were formerly slaves and who had amassed considerable savings became estate owners. Some estates were forced to sell small plots to peasant cultivators which saw the establishment of an agrarian peasant class which survives with a strong and independent spirit in the current generations of Tobagonians.
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