Free Villages

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Free Villages is the term used for Caribbean settlements, particularly in Jamaica, founded in the 1830s and 1840s independent of the control of plantation owners and other major estates.

Pioneering the concept[edit]

Starting in the 1830s, in anticipation of emancipation from slavery, the Jamaican Baptist congregations, deacons and ministers pioneered the Caribbean concept of Free Villages with the English Quaker abolitionist Joseph Sturge. Many plantation owners and others in the landowning class made it clear they would never sell land to freed slaves, but provide only tied accommodation at the rents they chose. The aim of the estate owners was to prevent free labour choice such as movement between employers, and keep labour costs low or negligible upon abolition of slavery. To circumvent this, the predominantly African-Caribbean Baptist chapels approached Baptist and Quaker contacts in England to instruct land agents in London to buy Jamaican land and hold it for establishment of Free Villages not controlled by the estate owners.

For example, in 1835, using land agents and Baptist financiers in England, the African-Caribbean congregation of the Rev. James Phillippo (a British Baptist pastor and abolitionist in Jamaica) were able to discreetly purchase land, unbeknown to the plantation owners, in the hills of Saint Catherine parish. Under the scheme, the land became available to the freed slaves upon emancipation, by division into lots at not-for-profit rents, or for full ownership and title, where they could live free from their former masters' control. Phillippo’s success in St. Catherine further emboldened him and led to the establishment of a Free Village in Oracabessa later that same year. [1]

Jamaica's first Free Village[edit]

Henry Lunan, formerly an enslaved headman at Hampstead Estate, purchased the first plot in the very first Free Village or Baptist Free Village scheme to come to fruition at Sligoville (in Saint Catherine parish and named after the Marquess of Sligo, the Jamaican Governor at the time of abolition), ten miles north of Spanish Town. In 2007, a plaque was erected at Witter Park, Sligoville on May 23, as a Labour Day event - to commemorate Jamaica's first Free Village.

Other examples of Free Villages[edit]

There are many similar Free Villages in the Caribbean established through the work of Nonconformist chapels, particularly in Jamaica. These include:

  • Buxton (named after the abolitionist Englishman Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton) finance being raised through the process pioneered by Rev. John Clark's Baptist chapel, with the support of Joseph Sturge.
  • Clarksonville (named after the abolitionist Englishman Thomas Clarkson); also arranged through the process pioneered by Rev. John Clark's Baptist chapel.
  • Goodwill, on the border of Saint James parish, arranged through Rev. George Blyth, a minister of the Scottish Missionary Society and funded by his congregation. Unusual, in being established subject to a raft of local rules and regulations devised by Blyth, or established with his approval.
  • Granville (named after the abolitionist Englishman Granville Sharp), in Trelawny, arranged through Rev. William Knibb's Baptist chapel.
  • Kettering, (named after the birthplace of William Knibb).
  • Maidstone, arranged through Moravian missionaries where, to this day, some of the inhabitants still bear the family names of the original settlers.
  • Sandy Bay, a little seaside village on the way from Lucea to Montego Bay. Founded as a Free Village for emancipated slaves, it was a mid-1830s initiative of the congregation of the Baptist pastor Rev. Thomas Burchell, whose deacon had recently been Sam Sharpe until he died for the cause of abolition and freedom. Today the Free Village's playing field is named 'Burchell Field' after Thomas Burchell.
  • Sligoville, the first free village in Jamaica
  • Sturgeville or Sturge Town, eight miles from Brown's Town and named after the abolitionist Englishman, Joseph Sturge; also arranged as above.
  • Trysee (the name is believed to derive from 'try and see'), an early Free Village in the Brown's Town area.

It has been noted (Contested Sites by Pickering and Tyrell, 2004), that although many of the Free Villages were named after someone of widely accepted influence or importance to a conventional British audience, which no doubt helped with raising a proportion of the funds in England, the Jamaican Baptists and Joseph Sturge were Moral Radicals and Nonconformists rather than in the political mainstream.

One village was named after Anne Knight, a female Quaker abolitionist; this is seen by Pickering and Tyrell as "a brave initiative that honoured women in an active, albeit gendered role as reformers at a time when custom frowned on their participation in the public world".

Sadly no Free Villages were named after these emerging African-Caribbean local leaders, although emancipated African-Caribbean men became ordained as deacons in many of the Baptist chapels, conducting the schools and public services in chapels where there was no fully English-trained minister available (as did Henry Beckford at Staceyville before and after his visit to London in 1840).[2]

Conditions for those left on the estates after Abolition[edit]

Although the concept of Free Villages proved an immediate success, and many were set up, their establishment depended partly upon success in raising money in England through the Baptists, the Quaker Joseph Sturge, and other Christian or abolitionist circles. For those who remained on the plantation estates, conditions could sometimes be harsh; so much so that some left to live as best they could in the wilderness of the hills. An English Baptist minister, arriving in Jamaica for the first time in 1841, described his surprise at the bleakness of the situation after emancipation:

Another circumstance, my dear sir, which has occasioned much surprise, is the frequency with which the most flagrant acts of oppression are practiced by the overseers. Within the last few days the tales of cruelty to which I have listened, have been numerous indeed; for the people, knowing how much advantage is taken of their ignorance, are sure to repair to their ministers for sympathy and advice. In some cases, where the wages have been withheld for months, the people are summoned for the rent of their dwellings which are upon the very property where they have been labouring. Last week from the mere caprice of the overseer, a family on one estate were ejected from their dwelling at a moment's notice, although their rent had been paid. [Baptist Magazine, 1841, p. 364].

References[edit]

  1. ^ James Phillipo Jamaica: Its Past and Present State, Publisher, J. Snow, 1843, pp.68 [1]
  2. ^ Baptist Magazine, 1841, p. 368

Further reading & sources[edit]

  • The Baptist Magazine, London: 1841
  • Contested Sites: Commemoration, Memorial and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, Paul A. Pickering & Alex Tyrell (editors), Ashgate Publishing: 2004, ISBN 0-7546-3229-6