The development of Free Villages

No matter how many blacks became small landowners, they could not resist the oppressive system unless they cooperated as a group.This is why the formation of free villages was so important. For the first time Africans who had been bought and brought to the Caribbean could interact with one another as a free people together with a sense of community. Hence the free village movement started. Free villages developed when ex-slaves moved out of plantations and settled in 'free villages'.

It is also important to note that by 1840 most of the black people of the West Indies were following one or another Christian faith and many of them were attending churches. Shared beliefs brought people in free villages closer together and since emancipated Africans had been unable to practise or had never known African religions, Christianity became an important binding force. The church was also the main institution through which blacks could make political protests or learn to read and write.

Some free villages had been established long before emancipation, by runaway slaves in the forests of Guyana and the mountains of Jamaica- these were Maroon settlements. The planters had argued that after emancipation the former slaves would join these villages or flee to remote areas and set up new villages. This did not happen.

The formation of free villages happened quite rapidly. In Jamaica,the first free village called Sligoville, was set up by a Baptist Minister just one year after Emancipation, in 1835. When emancipation was declared, about 100 families went there. In 1838 another village called Sturge Town, built on land purchased by the Anglican church was started on the north coast of Jamaica. A church and school was built and 70 families came. By 1842, there were over 200 free villages on the island with about 20,000 inhabitants. These villages occupied about 100,000 acres of land which had cost the ex-slaves about 70,000 pounds to purchase.

Factors which determined the establishment of free villages

  • Availability of land -
    British, Guiana, T'dad and Jamaica had much unused land and hence had more free villages. Smaller islands such as Barbados, St Kitts, St Vincent etc had little available land and hence had fewer free villages et up.

  • Attitudes of freemen to plantation labour- In countries like Jamaica where anti- plantation sentiments were strongest, the free village movement was strongest as well.

  • Attitudes of colonial government - Some governors encouraged the movement. For example Colebrooke in Antigua in 1837. On the other hand, the Guyanese planters and governor legislated against the growth of these cooperative estates from 1852 to 1856.

  • Attitudes of the planters - They opposed the freemen's acquisition of land by attempting to stop the sale of Crown land.

  • Missionaries tried to protect their congregations - They tried to protect them from abuse such as increased rents on estate houses and expulsion from the estates by assisting with the establishment of free villages

  • Co-operation among freemen - Freemen created their own co-operative villages by pooling resources to buy and operate abandoned plantations. This happened in Guyana from 1839 for example.

Conditions in the different territories

The free village movement took place in every British Caribbean territory to a lesser or greater degree. Factors that inhibited the growth of such villages included poor quality lands and high cost of available land. Colonies such as Jamaica and Guiana (that had alot of land) saw many villages established by the end of the nineteenth century.

British Guiana also had free villages soon after emancipation. By 1848, about 10,000 people owned and occupied their own cottages. Free villages in Guiana were called Negro Colonies, blacks bought land and built communities. Some grew out of squatting settlements on Crown Land though it was illegal.

By 1858 in Antigua, there were 67 villages with 15,644 inhabitants. By 1857 in St Vincent, there were 8,000 people living in their own houses and in Grenada over 10,000. Many of the villages were named after anti-slavery activists; Wilberforce, Clarkson, Sturge and Sligo.

Smaller islands such as St Kitts, Tobago, St Vincent, Montserrat etc had limited land and thus free villages were built on whatever available land there was. Montserrat is very mountainous and plantations were built on the flat areas, so free villages were built on the remaining mountainous land.

In Trinidad there were free villages in the centre and south of the country mostly, these were also called Negro colonies. Also ex-slaves built settlements in Port of Spain.

The role of missionary societies on the development of free villages

The largest number of free villages were established in Jamaica with the help of such missionaries as William Knibb and Elder Phillipps who were Baptists and Joseph Sturge who was a Quaker. In 1838, Knibb helped ex slaves purchase land towards the development of villages. In 1835, Philip bought land and divided it and sold it to black members of his congregation.

The missionaries normally obtained funds from individuals and missionary societies in England to purchase large pieces of land then re-sold these cheaply after dividing them into small plots of an acre or less per family. Under supervision of missionaries the peasants cultivated and sold their own produce, built houses, schools, churches and in general maintained fairly independent communities e.g. Sturge Town, Buxton and Bethany in Jamaica.

Missionaries did not build free villages in order for blacks to stop working on plantations but rather to ease their problems with high rent and over work in plantations. Planters tended to try to trap freemen on plantations and over work them and missionaries wanted to help them establish a new life.

Effects of free villages on the labour supply on sugar estatess

1. The small plots owned by villagers could not support totally independent peasants, hence they still had to work for wages on the estates a few days each week, but they could negotiate for higher wages and improved working conditions.

2. Jamaicans dislike of estate work coupled with the free village movement resulted in inadequate and unreliable labour supply that reduced sugar production. Likewise there was a scarcity of estate labour in Guyana and Trinidad which was remedied by immigration.

3. Antigua's successful example of encouraging the growth of semi independent settlememnts linked to the estates assured a reliable labour supply. This was followed in Montserrat, Nevis and St Kitts.

Related past paper questions

1. Name 1 free village in the British Caribbean set up by ex-slaves after 1838.

2. Give 2 reasons why ex-slaves were able to set up free villages in the British Caribbean.

3. Give 2 effects that the free villages had on the supply of labour to the estates in the British Caribbean after 1838.