CONSEQUENCES OF THE LABOUR SHORTAGE
Despite the fact that the apprenticeship system forced the ex-slaves to continue to provide a great proportion of free labour on the plantations, the amount of available labour (free or paid) was not sufficient to maintain a steady level of production. The situation became even more acute after 1838 when apprenticeship ended.
In 1829 there were about 230 sugar and 174 coffee and cotton plantations, almost all of which were fully cultivated. But by 1849 these were reduced to 180 sugar and 16 small coffee plantations. Cotton cultivation on a commercial scale no longer was feasible because of competition from slave-produced cotton in the United States. The cotton mills in England preferred to purchase cotton from the United States because the prices were lower.
Whole districts were being abandoned and taken over by bush. Where flourishing estates existed, there were now only small scattered provision grounds cultivated by the ex-slaves who lived in small villages.
In the area between the Abary and Mahaicony Rivers the large cotton plantations which had existed were abandoned and overrun with bush. This situation also existed in the district between the Mahaicony and Mahaica Rivers and even on the previously more flourishing area on the west bank of the Mahaica. There was an almost total neglect of roads, bridges and canals. The freed Africans who lived in those districts established small squatting villages on some of these abandoned plantations, or through their own savings, managed to collectively purchase some of these lands from the European owners especially after 1838. In the backlands, they cultivated small farms to produce fruits, ground provisions, plantains and vegetables. They also kept a few cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry.
On the East Coast Demerara, the labour shortage was more strongly felt after 1838, when the Africans withdrew their labour and opted to move to the villages which they established outside the limits of the existing plantations. The three best estates in the entire country - La Penitance, Ruimveldt and Houston - suffered badly from decreased production through intermittent labour shortage.
The West Demerara area did not fare better. On the West Bank Demerara, the abandoned coffee lands became occupied by African squatter settlements.
The situation was even worse in Essequibo. Leguan which had 23 sugar and 3 coffee plantations before 1834 had only 8 producing plantations in the 1840s. A significant reduction of sugar, coffee and cotton cultivation on Wakenaam, Hogg Island, Tiger Island and the Essequibo Coast also occurred.
With regards to the situation in Berbice, it was no different. After 1838, of the rural population of 18,000 over 12,000 were living on small freeholds and bush and squatter settlements. By the 1840s, almost all the cotton plantations were abandoned. The West Coast Berbice district which was one of the greatest cotton producing areas in the entire country became a desolate area with the complete abandonment of the plantations. As with the eastern part of Berbice, only a few sugar estates continued to show some form of progress.
Meanwhile, the planters were losing money because of the wages they now had to pay to the labourers on their estates. In 1842 they announced a reduction in wages, and the African labourers immediately retaliated with a strike that lasted for six weeks. The planters were forced to reinstate the wage structure before the strike was called off.
But most of the Africans were not too interested in working on the estates. They continued to occupy the houses they lived in during slavery, cultivated their small farm plots and caught fishes in the canals. They thus maintained themselves by this form of subsistence. Whenever they needed money, they grouped themselves under a headman and bargained with the planters for a quantity of work for the highest pay possible. After completing the task in three or four days, they would then disperse until another task was arranged for them.
While some planters were selling off their unprofitable estates, others devised a system to ensure that cultivation continued. This system was known as metayage, under which planters divided up their estates into plots which they gave to individual labourers to cultivate sugar cane. Half of the sugar produced was to be kept by the labourers, but any rum that was manufactured was to be retained by the planters.
But after a very short period the system failed because the African labourers preferred to work for short periods for cash payments; they were not prepared to face the risks of crop failure or a drop in the price of sugar.