Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 14th 2013 Contents B2
Sunday Guardian www.guardian.co.tt July 14, 2013
Many types of speculation have
long been rife as to the conditions
of slavery in T&T. Relatively little
documentation exists on this mat-
ter and it is left to historians to
piece together scraps of evidence
to arrive at the truth.
With the decimation of the native
Amerindian population from Euro-
pean diseases, a small group of hap-
less Guinea natives were imported
into Trinidad in 1701 to provide
forced labour for the small cocoa
plantations which then comprised
the entire economy.
In 1783 a wily Frenchman named
Philippe Roume de St Laurent, with
the support of the Spanish crown,
introduced a Cedula of Population
which offered lands to Catholic set-
tlers in proportion to the number of
slaves they owned, with the alloca-
tion halved for coloured proprietors.
As a result thousands of slaves from
the French Antilles came to the
island. In 1786 Picot de Lapeyrouse
planted the first sugar cane crop in
the area of the cemetery which still
bears his name, and the sugar plan-
tocracy was born.
In Tobago, a long period of conflict
between the European metropoles
that lasted from the 1630s to 1762
culminated in the first permanent
British settlement at Georgetown,
which is present-day Studley Park.
Eight years later, from the shadow
of Fort Granby, Godney Clarke
shipped the first load of sugar from
the island which had been cultivated
by slave labour.
Although living memory associ-
ated work in the sugar cane fields
as characteristically "Indian," it must
not be forgotten that for almost a
century prior to the introduction of
indentured labour, slaves watered
the cane with blood, sweat and tears.
The early 19th century saw a rapid
expansion of the sugar industry in
Trinidad, whilst that of Tobago was
already well-developed with almost
all the arable lands on the island
being under waving fields of cane.
The lack of cultivation in Trinidad
meant that the new sugar lands were
almost all clothed in dense forest
that had to be cleared.
Some areas, like the Caroni Plain,
were mosquito-and caiman-infested
swamps which had to be drained.
This river was used as a highway to
the sea and the Guiseppi family of
Valsayn set their slaves to carve a
channel through a sandbar which
obscured the mouth.
Once the brute toil of clearing the
forests was done, the work of plant-
ing began. Fields were dug by hand
and laid out in rows and furrows.
Holes were delved at intervals and
slips of cane planted in them.
Though sugar cane can be allowed
to ratoon (grow from established
rootstock) for several years after
propagation, a profitable estate would
see a total repeat of the hole-ing or
replanting every three years to avoid
loss of sucrose content. The growing
canes had to be weeded and
manured with animal waste.
It was at the beginning of the dry
season, however, that the truly ardu-
ous labour began.
Fields were fired to clear them of
trash and cut. Very few estates had
a steam engine mill before 1840 and
thus canes were fed by hand into
windmills, watermills or animal-
mills where mules or cattle were
tethered to a turntable of two huge
stone crushers. This was dangerous
work and pulverised limbs were
The extracted cane juice had to
be boiled. In those days sugar was
the muscovado type---sort of like a
wet lump---and crystals would not
be seen until the vacuum pan system
was introduced in the 1860s.
Slaves would be compelled to work
in boiling houses, over large copper
basins (many of which still survive
as garden ornaments) that were
mounted in brick stoves over roaring
fires. The boiled juice had to be ladled
by hand in a series of stages until
clarified and reduced enough to be
packed in hogshead barrels to cool.
Scalding was common and work at
the boiling house was on a 24-hour
basis until all the sugar cane had
been cleared and milled.
After the crop had been processed,
a crop-over festival was held,
although this innocent pleasure was
often subject to the will of the
planter. In Tobago, the massa would
be expected to give a young bull for
the feast as well as some of the rum
distilled on the plantation, whilst
the slaves brought in ground pro-
Although this tradition died out
in Trinidad with the coming of Indi-
an indentured labour (and the post-
emancipation move of Afro-Trinida-
dians away from the canefields), it
remained part of Tobago life until
the middle of the 19th century.
Life of a plantation slave
The Speyside watermill and
boiling house ruins (1928)
which are typical of the sugar
plantation fixtures of Tobago
during the plantation era.
Slaves planting sugar cane (possibly at Champs Fleurs Estate). Lithograph
from West India Scenery by Richard Bridgens, 1836.
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