The Socio-Economic Context of the Morant Bay Uprising
By Charlotte Maus, Assistant Curator
“The people were freed in 1838, but the material basis of real freedom was denied them.”
(Historian Don Robotham)
The Morant Bay Uprising would highlight the hardships of the post-emancipation period in Jamaica. With the termination of the conflict-ridden Apprenticeship period from 1834-1838, full emancipation from slavery was achieved in the British West Indies on August 1st, 1838. However, the social and economic hardships continued after 1838, as the newly freed fought for land and labour rights.
Access to land was a critical issue in the post-emancipation period, as the ownership of land meant true emancipation and freedom from working on plantation estates. The emancipated expected rights to estate provision grounds and Crown lands. However, planter-landlords did not want to see the freed people acquire land and become independent farmers, but rather benefited from keeping them tied to the plantations as wage labourers; a landless, tenant workforce. Restrictive legislation was introduced by the House of Assembly to discourage the freed people from moving around freely, acquiring land, and establishing new settlements. Vagrancy, tenancy and trespass laws tied the freed people to their former estates.
“Acquiring land was the true indicator that freedom had been properly achieved.” (Historian Lorna Simmonds)
Free villages did develop beyond the plantation in the post-emancipation period, laying the foundation for new interior market towns and an expanded internal trading network. However, despite this, only a small minority of people owned land after emancipation, and most remained employed as labourers on the estates. For the majority of those farmers or freeholders who did own land, they were only small plots and most had to work on plantations as estate labourers as well to supplement their income. The harsh reality was one of low wages, high taxation, unemployment and landlessness.
“No labourer likes to live on the estates, nor will he do so unless necessity constrains it, for fear of being turned off when any dispute arises, and the whole of his provision grounds be forfeited. Service must be rendered to the planters on whose land he resides; he dare not choose any other master. The rent paid for provision grounds is 20s. an acre; land is rented only for provisions. The people plant their own land with sugar cane, or cultivated coffee upon it, or other exportable articles; for proprietors of estates will not lend land for those purposes.”
(Edward Underhill, English Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1862)
The island suffered an economic downturn during the 1850s, with the decline of sugar estates. One of the main factors contributing to this was Britain’s new free trade policy, which profoundly affected the sugar industry. With the equalization of sugar duties through the passing of the Sugar Duties Act in 1846 and the Sugar Equalization Act in 1854, West Indian sugar imports in Britain were reduced. This led to unemployment and a lowering of wages on the sugar estates, creating an economic crisis in Jamaica at the time. The price of food imports from the United States also sharply increased on the island as an effect of the American Civil War taking place from 1861-1865, leading the Jamaican economy farther into recession. Immigration of indentured labourers from Africa and India, as well as China, during the period, and the labour competition they represented, also added to the unemployment and economic hardships of the freed people.
In the context of an economic downturn and continuing hardships after two decades of emancipation, unrest was widespread. In 1859, there were two significant instances of prolonged local rioting in Savanna-la-Mar and Falmouth against toll-gate taxes and land evictions, events which historian Don Robotham has characterized as a “dress rehearsal for Morant Bay” and historian Gad Heuman as “precursors to Morant Bay”.
In St. Thomas-in-the-East itself, a number of the main planters and officials targeted and killed during the Morant Bay Uprising were involved in land and labour disputes with the poor black workers in the months leading up to the uprising. The Custos Baron von Ketelhodt was involved in wage disputes with his labourers; the Reverend Victor Herschell from Bath and Augustus Hire of the Amity Hall estate were both involved in land disputes.
The burning issues of land, political power and injustice would boil over in 1865, with the Morant Bay Uprising challenging the entire social, political and economic order of post-emancipation society.