THE VILLAGE MOVEMENT
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Immediately after Emancipation the European planters and the Government took a decision not to sell land to the free Africans. The general aim was to ensure that the Africans continued to be a source of labour on the plantations.
But economic circumstances forced the planters, shortly after, to change their position. Many cotton plantations in particular became unprofitable by 1838 because Britain began to purchase cheaper cotton from the United States where there were very large cotton plantations which used African slave labour. The smaller cotton plantations in Guyana could not survive in such a situation and some of them were abandoned. The owner of Plantation Northbrook, a cotton plantation on the East Coast Demerara, decided to sell it to a group of 83 Africans for 30,000 guilders, equivalent to 2000 British pounds or $10,000. These Africans, like many others, had saved money that they had earned from over-time work over the years. They were mainly headmen and mechanics from Grove, Paradise, Hope and Enmore; and since much of the money they had saved was in the form of coins, they had to transport the payment in wheel-barrows to the seller.
Shortly after, Queen Victoria agreed to a request from the new owners to rename the plantation Victoria, in her honour.
By 1839, Africans purchased plantations of Lichfield, Golden Grove, St. John and Providence in West Berbice. Lichfield was bought by one person, Cudjoe Mc Pherson for $3000, and he later divided the plantation into 12 sections which he sold to other Africans for a profit.
By this time the planters realised that many Africans had accumulated much savings, so they immediately raised land prices. When 61 Africans bought Beterverwagting, a plantation smaller than Northbrook, they had to pay $22,000 for it. New Orange Nassau, a plantation of 800 acres, was purchased by 128 persons for $50,000 in 1840 and it was renamed Buxton in honour of Thomas Buxton who championed the cause of Emancipation in the British Parliament. In 1841, another group paid $80,000 for Plantation Friendship, located next to Buxton.
Some planters used other methods to make quick money by selling portions of their estates to African labourers. On the Essequibo Coast, for instance, the owners of Dageraad, Mocha and Westfield divided the front lands into lots and sold them for $100 to $200 each. Soon, a thriving "proprietary" village of Africans developed in that area and was named Queenstown in honour of Queen Victoria. In the same manner, the front lands of Plantation Aberdeen were divided and sold to Africans who established the village of Williamstown. In a very short time, other "proprietary" villages were established throughout the coast of Guyana.
In 1840, the White sugar plantation owners decided to reduce the wages for African field and factory labourers. They claimed that they had to do so because the export price per ton of sugar had dropped below the cost of production. The owners also discontinued the allowances of food and medicine to the workers, most of whom had continued to live on the plantations. To deprive the workers of other forms of subsistence and to force them to accept the lower wages, they also prevented them from fishing in the canals, and destroyed their pigs and chopped down the fruit trees growing on their small cultivation plots. If the African labourers did not comply meekly to this new situation, they were expelled from estates.
In response to these developments, the African workers on the Demerara and Essequibo estates went on strike from January to March. This strike greatly affected sugar production, since the indentured Indian, Portuguese and other imported African labourers were still insufficient to handle all the work.
The Africans were of the view that they had no economic future if they continued to reside on the sugar plantations. They were seeing other Africans buying up the abandoned cotton plantations, and they felt that they too must acquire their own land. During the period of the strike, 65 of them pooled their savings and purchased Plaisance for $39,000. The estates of Peter's Hall, Farm and Garden of Eden on the East Bank Demerara, and Danielstown and Bush Lot on the Essequibo Coast were also acquired in 1840 by groups of Africans.
Another strike in December 1847 to protest another cut in wages, forced more Africans to abandon the sugar estates. Some of them moved to the existing villages while others who had no savings squatted on Crown lands.
The moving away of Africans from the estates placed added pressures on sugar production and the planters used devious means to force them to return to work there. One of these means was to let loose water from the estate canals to flood the nearby African villages. The planters, no doubt, felt that if the Africans' farms were damaged, they would return to the estates to work.
The African villages also faced administrative problems during the 1840s. The shareholders, or proprietors, possessed no experience in cooperative management, and since they used up their savings to purchase land, they had nothing left for maintaining the roads, bridges, sluice gates, and drainage canals. As a result, the conditions of the villages and the communal plantations deteriorated.
The land buying by Africans continued until 1852. There were at this period over 82,000 Africans of working age and roughly half of them lived in villages and worked from time to time on the estates. By that time, too, Africans had established 25 villages on lands that they purchased for over one million dollars. Africans also owned over 2000 freehold properties.