History: West Indian and African Migration to British Guiana (Guyana) from 1834 – By Odeen Ishmael

Map of the Caribbean

West Indian and African Migration to British Guiana from 1834

With the passing of the Emancipation Act in 1833, the sugar planters in British Guiana (Guyana) anticipated a labour shortage even though the apprenticeship system would force the ex-slaves to continue to provide free labour. As a result they made plans to recruit labourers from the West Indies and elsewhere. (recruitment of Portuguese indentured labour was featured earlier in Guyanese Online HERE).

Because of the close proximity of the West Indian colonies, the planters felt it would be more economical to bring a paid labour force from those islands. Between 1835 and 1838, about 5,000 labourers were recruited from Barbados, St. Kitts, Antigua, Montserrat and Nevis. These islands either had no apprenticeship system or they had a fairly large free African population by 1834. The employment of West Indian full-time wage labour was carried out by the private sugar planters who competed sharply among themselves for the available migrants.    

Many of the newly recruited migrants were openly induced by other planters who offered them higher wages to leave their employers.

Migration to Guyana was creating a shortage of labour in the West Indian islands and thus pushing up wages. Naturally, the West Indian planters tried to discourage migration since they wanted a full complement of labour force in their own islands.

In 1839 a Voluntary Subscription Immigration Society was formed by the British Guiana (Guyana) planters to bring labourers from the West Indies in particular. Members of this Society received immigrants in proportion to the share capital they invested. The Society brought into Guyana over 2,900 labourers mainly from Barbados during 1840 to 1841.

From 1841 the British government became involved in the migration scheme when the “bounty” system was applied in recruiting labour from the West Indies. But after objections from the West Indian planters, the British Government discontinued the system with regard to recruiting labour from their islands. The island governments also banned recruiting agents on their territories in an effort to prevent migration to British Guiana (Guyana).

The Guyanese planters also looked to Africa to obtain an additional labour force after 1834. In the period that followed, slaves from Africa continued to be transported to the United States, Cuba and Brazil. Some of the slave ships were boarded by British warships and the Africans removed from them. Most were returned to Africa, but some of them were taken to British Guiana (Guyana) and the West Indies as indentured labourers.

Permission was also granted by the British Government for the recruitment of contract labour from West Africa. This recruitment and emigration from West Africa was closely controlled since there were fears that if too many persons were contracted it could stimulate an internal slave trade in that region. From 1841, agents began to recruit labourers from Sierra Leone, most of whom had been liberated from the slave trading ships boarded by the British. Between 1838 and 1865, a total of 13,355 Africans came to British Guiana (Guyana) as contract labourers.

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