Joshua Mullenite is Assistant Professor and Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Wagner College in Staten Island, NY. Their teaching and research focus on human-environment geographies and the racial politics of infrastructure in the Caribbean and the U.S. South.
Prefiguring Freedom in Caribbean Sugar Plantations
In November of 1839, five years after the end of slavery in the British colonies, a group of 83 laborers—including five women—from the East Coast Demerara sugar plantations of Douchfour, Ann’s Grove, Hope, Paradise, and Enmore combined their meager resources and purchased 500 acres of land about 17 miles outside of Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana). With this act, they established the first collectively owned free village in the country. The preceding years had seen several small pieces of land at the edges of sugar plantations sold to Black laborers to keep them as a reliable labor source for the sugar economy, but this moment marked something new. Rather than each of the 83 laborers holding a private title to a specific plot of land, the entirety of the former cotton plantation Northbrook was now owned by a collectivity of individuals. The new owners could do whatever they pleased with the land. The newly established village, called Victoria, was the beginning of a new moment in the history of the Caribbean, where non-white people owned land in the eyes of the colonial system of law. It would be decades before this happened elsewhere.
Prior to the establishment of these new villages, white plantation owners sought ways to undermine Black freedom and ensure that Black workers would remain reliant on them. On the small pieces of land in which the formerly enslaved lived, they were able to grow a small number of provisions (typically plantains, yams, and collards), raise livestock, and fish in the canals. As plantation owners’ and overseers’ fears over labor issues grew, these privileges were rapidly taken away, with the owners and their officers killing livestock, pulling up foodstuffs, and banning fishing, while simultaneously lowering wages (Ishmael 2005). In the year that followed, more villages would spring up along the coast, offering places of refuge for those who had been kicked out of their estate homes for defying new rules and for those who simply wanted to live in a different world, one outside the reconfigured structure of the slave plantation. By 1840, the free villages of Golden Grove (500 acres, 14 owners, West Coast Berbice), St. John (252 acres, 46 owners, West Coast Berbice), 250 acres of the plantation Perseverance (109 owners, West Coast Berbice), and Lichfield (500 acres, one owner who then subdivided the land, West Coast Berbice) had all been settled. The result of this new period of mass Black land ownership was newfound political and economic independence.
The move by the plantation owners that forced Black Guyanese into their own villages backfired. In 1842, with thousands of workers now living in spaces completely independent of the sugar economy, the industry saw its first general strike since the abolition of slavery. With villages providing space to grow food for their own subsistence, workers no longer needed to accept the wage and provision deductions the sugar plantation owners saw as necessary for their continued profits. Villages created an opportunity for formerly enslaved people to prefigure a world in which they had political, economic, and social freedoms otherwise refused to non-white people in the colonial world.
This period was so significant that in 1853, John Brumel, a colonial magistrate and landowner, wrote a reflection on the transition away from an economy built on slavery. In this letter to then governor of British Guiana, Henry Barkly, Brumel laid out a position characteristic of the time, describing the newfound freedom afforded to villagers as “as the bane and ruin of the [sugar] estates; for the simple reason that the labourer who worked with a certain degree of regularity and industry, as indispensable conditions of occupying his employer’s cottage, no sooner becomes an independent householder, than he ceases to work, except when agreeable to himself” (Brumel 1853, p. 52). The colonial historian, James Rodway (1912), similarly and repeatedly cites the claims of plantation owners, that abolition would and did ruin the country’s sugar industry. Rodway argued specifically that the new financial options available to the formerly enslaved population meant that plantation owners could not afford the costs of free labor.
The reality of the situation was more complicated than Brumel and Rodway were willing to admit, with villagers maintaining lands for their own uses and colonizers actively creating and using flooding, taxation, and infrastructural neglect to force workers back into the sugar estates (see Mullenite, 2019). However, villagers’ ability to grow their own food, and maintain their own access to housing and water, did create new opportunities to live in colonial society on more of their own terms. Their attempts to prefigure autonomy, in which they could grow their own food, work when they pleased, and live in a collective society with common ownership of the land failed. But the spirit of their movement continues today, in attempts to change Guyanese politics, with specific reference made to the worlds of autonomy and solidarity that these villages attempted to create (Chabrol, 2019; Williams, 2018).
- In the example above, villagers attempted to prefigure a society in which they had autonomy over their labor. Can you think of any recent examples of prefigurative politics in action?
- Prefiguration often fails in achieving its ultimate goals—formerly enslaved people did not gain freedom to the extent they sought, in part because of new laws and tax structures enacted in response to villages. Do you think prefiguration or prefigurative politics are useful despite these types of failures? Why or why not?
- Prefiguration tries to change future conditions by taking direct action in the present. Do you think this requires a specific, shared vision of a future to work toward? Or is prefiguration a critique of the present that only requires a vague idea that another way of life is possible? Can it be both? Does it have to be either?
- How would you describe prefiguration to someone who knew nothing about it?
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Chabrol, D. 2019. “Afro-Guyanese pushing for return to village councils because NDCs have taken control,” Demerara Waves, 19 May, https://demerarawaves.com/2019/05/19/afro-guyanese-pushing-for-return-to-village-councils-because-ndcs-have-taken-control/
Ishmael, O. 2005. The Guyana story. http://www.guyana.org/features/guyanastory/guyana_story.html
Mullenite, J. 2019. “‘A mild despotism of sugar:’ Race, labor, and flood control in British Guiana.” Geoforum 99: 88-94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2018.12.009
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Williams, B. 2018. “Op-Ed: Village Revival” Guyana Chronicle, 2 December, https://guyanachronicle.com/2018/12/02/op-ed-village-revival/