The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51
Depression in the West Indies. — Free Trade the Only Remedy
Depression in the West Indies.
Free Trade the Only Remedy.
The depression in trade which has been more or less felt all over the world for some time past, has its origin in well-known, but complicated conditions of supply and demand in the various markets and centres of production. As no arrangements, however elaborately made, will enable a community to be forever exempt from the ill consequences of bad seasons and unsatisfactory markets, or guard it from the effects of the competition and rivalry of other people, it is important to note the countries whose economic laws and conditions best enable them to meet adversity. The methods employed may be such as to enable a community to struggle through difficulties without any eventual loss of power and energy, and to bear with calmness and courage the ills that cannot be avoided. Anyone who has a practical knowledge of the condition of the industrial classes in continental Europe and in England will be struck with the fact that in the latter, where the pressure of population is felt even in the best of times, where competition is keenest, and where, perhaps, habits of personal saving and general family thrift are by comparison little practised, food and clothing and the complicated necessities of an advanced civilisation are more abundantly available, are of a higher standard, and are used page 4 by the people in larger proportions, than in any other country in the world, except the United States and some of our colonies. The people of England are evidently better off under a bad condition of markets for the sale of the products of industry, and when earnings are low and the labourer only partially employed, than their continental neighbours. If we consider the constant increase and consequent pressure of the population compared with France, for instance, where there is no increase, and, therefore, no such pressure, the distinction becomes striking. For our neighbours are exceedingly thrifty, hard-working, and intelligent workers. The vast majority of the British nation has accepted this result as practically and entirely due to free trade, which has enabled the working classes to procure food and the chief commodities of life at lower rates than can be had in almost any other country.
I hope to show in this short pamphlet that the same system which has made it possible for England to hold her own against the world, and against specially adverse conditions, will also enable our West Indian colonies to emerge eventually from their present dangerous state into a prosperous future.
The general impression about the industries followed by the people of our West Indian colonies is not a correct one. The popular notion is that the work to be done is purely agricultural and that it is exceedingly easy for a human being to exist comfortably out there by doing little work and earning little money; that, in fact, food can be almost picked up by the way-side and the struggle for existence is reduced to a minimum. As a matter of fact the industries pursued are quite half manufacturing industries. The making of sugar or rum from the cane, as it ought to be made, and as it must now be made to command a market, is not a less elaborate process than that which is followed in many of our factories page 5 In fact the preparation of almost any produce for the great markets is daily becoming a process depending more and more on skill and machinery, and is a very different affair indeed from the growing of corn and digging of potatoes. The ideal notion we mostly have of how the black man lives is also equally far from the stern reality. Nature is great everywhere, and her greatness and potential riches are perhaps more abundantly observable under tropical suns than in temperate climates. There is clearly more foliage if fewer flowers. Fruits and some natural productions, that man may eat but cannot subsist on, may be occasionally more abundant and richer to the sight; but it is open to doubt whether they are, on the whole, more substantial than what may be picked up in our English woods. At any rate, the clearing away of ancient forests from the proximity of his abode, and the ownership of most of the good land by individuals, as well as the necessities of civilisation, have made it as impracticable for the negro of our West Indies to count on nature to help him in the way of food as for the modern Englishman to look to acorns and nuts as a supplementary diet. I have found it necessary to say this because of the false impression abroad, due to statements made by people who know better, but who seemingly cannot avoid saying again how easy it is to live in the tropics, simply because it has been always said.
The food of the people of our West Indian colonies has to be imported from foreign countries in a far larger proportion than is the case even with England, and there would be starvation in the Islands of the West Indies within a short time were the supply to be cut off by untoward circumstances. In some of the Islands, however, a portion of the population undoubtedly does subsist almost wholly on roots of their own growth and on salted fish. The appearance and physique of these people is inferior. Anæmia is page 6 largely and widely prevalent among them, they are physically unfitted for a severe remunerative labour, and diseases and leprosy are prevalent. These facts were reported by Commissioners some years ago, and the last Royal Commissioners also stated: "Medical evidence is strong on the subject of signs of decreasing vitality in the negro race." (Jamaica Report, page 63.) Some people seem to imagine the negro so made by nature that he can be treated differently to men of other races, and that heavy and reliable labour can be got out of him without the expense of getting him the same food other men want. But nature is inexorable and her laws are not to be thus trifled with; she has already done much for the black labourer in enabling him to work in tropical heat and under burning suns; but this is very wasting work for the frame even of a black man. It is not necessary to study the question profoundly to see that the only cause of the loss of vitality complained of in the negro race (which must and will always continue to be the chief labouring population of the West Indian Islands) is entirely due to the want of a sufficiency of proper food. It is practicable enough, no doubt, to exist in the tropics on little food, as may be done elsewhere, but the labour a man can give will be exactly proportioned to the sufficient or insufficient quality and quantity of his food. A low-class food means a low-class energy. To this cause may be distinctly traced the want of energy and the listlessness so much complained of among the labouring population of the West Indies. Even in Europe, where the incentives to labour are as powerful as they can be made among communities of men, the working classes, when they find the necessaries of an adequate and decent subsistence are almost beyond the reach of ordinary labour, are liable to fall away in energy, intelligence, and general aptitude for work. All life, movement, spirit of progress and love of work disappear, page 7 and the people, and perhaps the race, are held culpable for a condition of things which Englishmen themselves would succumb to under similar circumstances.
The negro is a powerful man by nature, one of the most powerful that exist. It is, indeed, doubtful whether races can be found anywhere of greater physical strength than those to be met with in Africa. This characteristic has been built up by generations of men whose surroundings were favourable to physical development. It was doubtless due to this that the African race was so sought after as slaves and they fetched higher prices as slave labourers than any other people ever did before. They transformed the West Indies into gardens, and made millionnaires of their owners.
The same race now peoples the West Indies in larger numbers than ever, and yet the condition of the Islands is unsatisfactory; their industries are not well-sustained, and the position of all classes is precarious. Why is this? How comes it that islands by their position within easy reach of the best markets in the world, having the most suitable soil and climate for the raising of every description of valuable produce, inhabited by a labouring population of unsurpassed qualities, and with England behind them as the mother country, should be verging on bankruptcy and ruin?
The answer is simple enough. By artificial means food is made so scarce and dear, and the inflow of capital is so restricted, that both the money necessary to support the people's industries and the food the labourer should live on are placed out of reach; the local planter cannot keep up his cultivation to its proper standard for want of capital, and the local labourer cannot live decently because of the high customs tariffs. The market prices of most tropical commodities are now so low that the grower and manufacturer find it difficult to place them at a profit, at the same time these commodities page 8 supply scarcely any nourishment to the labouring population, while customs duties make bread-stuffs artificially dear.
"If by making food and other agricultural produce dearer, the general remuneration of capital and labour is increased, the farmers and their labourers must share the advantage with the rest of the community, and there will be an advance both in agricultural profits and in agricultural wages. If, on the contrary, it can be shown that by making food dearer, every industry is carried on under greater difficulties, and labour and capital become generally less productive, then the farmers and their labourers will not be able to escape the loss caused by this decline in industrial prosperity, if the returns in their capital and labour be diminished. It can, I think, be conclusively shown that the inevitable consequence of making food dear must be to diminish the productiveness both of labour and capital, and that in all industries including agriculture there will be a decline both in profit and wages. It is not more certain that the returns to industry will be lessened by making food artificially dear; than it is that the efficient working of a machine will be impeded if unnecessary obstacles are thrown in the way of its free movement. Suppose, for instance, that, by restricting importation, bread, butter, cheese, and other such articles of general consumption were all made 40 per cent, dearer, a labourer would find that what he was able before to purchase for 5s. now cost him 7s. In this event one of two things must occur. If his wages are not advanced in consequence of this rise in the price of food, a most serious loss will be inflicted on him. His wages, though nominally the same as before, are really greatly reduced, for he finds that all that portion of his wages which he spends in procuring food and other articles which are made artificially dear, has lost a considerable part of its purchasing power. The loss which will be thus inflicted on him will be more serious than that which others will have to bear; but it can be readily shown that the injury which is done to the labourers, will spread far and wide over the rest of the community."
The charges on bread-stuffs in the West Indies, on importation, make them 40 per cent, dearer, as a rule, than they would page 9 be were there no customs charges. The revenues raised throughout these Islands have trebled during the present generation. As about a quarter of these revenues are raised or imported food, the charges on the labouring classes have largely increased. Wages, meanwhile, have remained stationary where they have not declined.
"When the commodities which are subjected to a duty are those in general use, the effect of this duty is precisely the same as if an income tax were levied from the entire community. Such a tax cannot be adjusted or equalised as is the case with the income tax in our own country; small incomes cannot be exempted, for, however poor a man may be, the tax will fall with unerring certainty on all that portion of his income or his wages which are expended in the purchase of those articles which are protected."
It must be borne in mind that the West Indian industries are practically manufacturing industries. An agricultural people are supposed to grow food chiefly, and have enough for themselves in the first instance. Sugar and other produce is grown and prepared mainly for export, indeed entirely so, and all the arguments against food tariffs that obtain in a purely manufacturing country apply therefore in even greater force to these Islands.
All the evils which were exposed years ago in the course of the free trade agitation in England exist in the West Indies, and prove the necessity for the application of that kind of fiscal legislation which here is predominant.
"The greatest want of the country is cheap living. I have seen men after two or three hours' labour in a complete state of exhaustion and staggering from weakness. I attribute this to the want of proper food. I am speaking of the class who really labour, but from the dearness of imported articles cannot procure for themselves, and those dependent on them, the necessaries of life."
"The total abolition of duty on flour would place it in the power of people to buy a barrel of common-grade flour at 20s., and any half measures will benefit the importer only."*
Of course those who held that the negro did not require breadstuffs believed the tariffs did no harm. There are, however, other classes of people in the Islands, who have very limited means indeed, and to whom breadstuffs are even now the staff of life, and these people—the whites and the half-castes—feel the high prices keenly, and they and their families suffer much in consequence.†
* Lower-grade flours only are imported into the West Indies. This causes the duties of customs—which are specific duties—to tell heavily on them. The Jamaica duty of 8s. a barrel is often equal to 40 per cent, added to the first cost of flour at New York. The proposed reduction of the duty to 4s. 2d. a barrel will be equal to about 25 per cent, added to its price, at the present cost of flour. The customs duties levied on cornmeal are equal to a tax of 18 to 20 per cent, on its value at New York. The Royal Commissioners recommend the retention of these duties.
† Thirty years ago provisions were much cheaper in the West Indies, and in many instances they could be purchased for half their present cost.
"If it had not been for duty on wheat, they would have imported it, used their own machinery, and made bread cheaper."
What are the amounts of the duties complained of? They are high. In some of our richer and greater colonies there are import duties equally onerous. But wages are also very high in these places, and this enables the people to meet the heavy cost of living. The duties levied on wheat and Indian corn and their flours, on biscuits, rice, salt fish, and meat in the West Indies averaged £288,000 a year for the years 1880-1-2. It must also be borne in mind that these duties tell more heavily than they would in England, because in the tropics provisions are more perishable, and the duties have to be paid at once in coin where cash is scarce and commands a very high value, the importer adds charges which much enhance the cost of food—often as much as 50 per cent, to the consumer—and at times there is a scarcity and the quality is bad. It is unnecessary here to give all the complicated details of the elaborate customs tariffs of the West Indies. It will suffice to say that from 20 to 30 per cent, of the revenues are raised on corn, flour, rice, fish, and meat. It is as if the people of Great Britain paid over £20,000,000 a year customs duty on the food imported. It is proposed to lessen these charges in the Islands where they are highest to a common uniform standard by which only about 20 per cent, of the revenue will be derived from this source. It is almost certain the change will bring but little relief to the labourer, for any duty on such articles will act as an impediment to their importation, and the difference in the retail price will be only slightly observable. In the Islands where the duties are now least prices are often as high as in those Islands where the tax is at its maximum. The lb. of bread varies in price page 12 from 2½d. to 3½d., the greater weight for the money and the lesser cost being often due to adulteration by manioc-flour and other starch flours.*
* Present cost of food in Jamaica:—Inferior quality rice, 2½d. to 3d. per lb.; cornmeal, 4½d. per quart; wheaten bread, 3d. per lb.; butter, 2s. per lb.; fresh beef, from 6d. per lb.; mutton, 1s. per lb.; salt beef and pork, 9d. per lb.; fish, 3d. to 6d. per lb., according to quality.
There is another aspect of the question, of much importance, that has now to be dealt with. It is, one may say, the common opinion, and it is also the opinion of the Royal Commissioners, and of many of the people examined by them, that breadstuffs are not necessary for the food of the West Indian labourer. It is said he prefers sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, and other tropical roots and fruits for his chief diet, and after that he prefers cornmeal, but that bread is not his natural food. There is a good deal of truth in this, inasmuch that he has never been able to get bread. In Africa the black man has manioc, and many substances prepared from its flour, as well as sweet potatoes, yams, and other roots, but he has also a good page 14 deal of rice and Indian corn, and large quantities of palm-oil. It is astonishing what a quantity of food a powerful full-grown negro will consume. But the question also involves the further point whether there is a sufficient and constant supply of these roots and fruits of good quality and at low prices to meet all the wants of the West Indian labourer, assuming that he can thrive on them alone while working on a sugar estate. This is where the whole evidence in favour of a root diet breaks down. It is abundantly evident that the quantity of root crops locally grown is in most localities wholly insufficient for the wants of the population, notwithstanding the complaints of planters that the negro spends much of his time in raising such crops for his wants and thereby denudes the labour market of its proper supply of hands, and makes labour irregular, and sometimes scarce at critical periods. People also seem to forget that economic laws work the same in the West Indies as in other parts of the world; where bread and corn are dear, other food articles, more or less, even if it be some distance off, keep a proportion to them in value; for the West Indian labourer, after all has been said, does eat bread when he can afford to get it. But the difficulty of getting bread forces him to seek the other food, and thereby renders it more generally sought after and more costly to him than it would be were breadstuffs available. Sometimes these very root provisions are exported from an island where the people would be glad for them to remain, to another island where there is a higher market for them. The evidence from tropical labour generally overwhelmingly proves that the severer forms of such labour cannot be accomplished persistently and satisfactorily on a root diet; that is to say, the kind of labour now wanted in a cane-field by a planter who hopes to sell the produce he raises at a profit.
"We regard it as the merest illusion to suppose that the severe drudgery of sugar-planting will be ever efficiently carried on in the West Indies by really free labour."
This is not an unnatural sentiment, and it would occur to any humane man who saw the work being accomplished by the half-starved and ragged gangs of semi-exhausted human beings. But if he goes to the States, and elsewhere where the black labourer has ample food, he will see the same and even severer labour cheerfully and well done.
The people of the Southern States, where the labour is chiefly performed by the African race, do not admit that roots, and some salt fish with a limited supply of corn-flour, suffice to make a labourer efficient The dietary there is chiefly bread and butter, fresh and salt pork, fried or boiled beef once or twice a week, baked or boiled potatoes and other vegetables, and a pint of coffee and milk. This without limit, and given three times a day. The efficiency of a man for hard work depends much on how he lives, and there is nothing in the climate of a warm or tropical country which will enable a man to work hard on a low diet. If the experience of the Southern States, where the people are comparatively prosperous, goes to prove that a liberal diet is necessary, the experience of the West Indies, where the people are not prosperous, is a proof that the inferior diet and lower standard of living make labour bad, or at all events so unreliable as to be inefficient.
What are the wages a labourer may earn in order to meet these conditions of life? In Jamaica the average for good labour on well-conducted estates is 1s. to 1s. 3d. a day (6s. to 7s. 6d. a week), according to class of labour, in the fields. page 16 Able-bodied women earn 10d. a day when their labour is wanted. In crop time, by extra work, 6d. to 1s. a day extra may be earned. In all other islands wages are about the same as in Jamaica; sometimes they may be a little higher and sometimes lower. We know that food is dear in the West Indies, and difficult to obtain by the labourer, and in the Southern States it is cheap and abundant. The wages paid to coloured labourers in the Southern States* are $12.10 a month in South Carolina, $18.2O in Louisiana, $12.86 in Georgia and North Carolina, $13.96 in Virginia, and $16.40 in Florida—quite an average of 2s. a day. In crop time this is doubled. With these figures it is easy to see that in the future it will be difficult for the West Indies to compete with these fertile districts where produce-growing is skilfully and energetically conducted and gives good profits. They will be beaten hereafter in the markets of the United States unless the complexion of things be altered; unless the people get cheap food to put them somewhat on a level with the others, to enable them to work better and earn more wages.
* " Encyclopaedia Americana "for 1883, article "Agriculture."
The freeing of breadstuffs, fish and meat, in fact what is—or ought to be—the food of the people, from any customs charges, will, of course, cause a serious loss of revenue. The difficulty is no doubt great, but it has been exaggerated. There are forms of taxation available that are now untouched. The facility of raising revenue by customs tariffs in the West Indies, where there was no educated public opinion strong enough to curb the fatal tendency, has resulted in an unusually large proportion of revenue being thus raised. Free trade principles are dominant in Great Britain, and are practised here because the people so will it, and are well informed enough to see the advantages and necessity of applying them. The influences that prevail in the West Indies are sectional, and the power is practically in the hands of classes who, in England, would not hesitate to reestablish protection, had they a like influence and control, and deemed it in their own interest to do so. The public mind of the Islands is also ignorant of what is really wanted; the people feel the pressure, but do not know of the remedies.
Fewer customs charges will cause a diminution of the expenditure of collection, and the force of events would, in the course of time, lead to a less public expenditure, not by diminution of salaries and less effectiveness of service, but by a further and needful concentration of offices. The various governments in the West Indies were founded when communication was difficult, and each island had therefore its own complete page 19 staff of officials. Recent federations have not altogether broken through long-established usage. With the aid of steam and the telegraph, administration might be made cheaper by concentration and the employment of fewer hands.
Taxes on real and personal property could be made to contribute a far larger share of revenue if they were imposed in the manner adopted by most civilised countries. A tax on food falls ultimately on the proprietor and cultivator, through his available labour being made inefficient. Customs charges are mostly unobserved in their immediate effects by the ignorant, who feel the pinch but do not trace Whence it comes, and the well-to-do are directly little affected by them. The indirect consequences are those which are most mischievous. In their present low condition any direct taxes on the people would be exceedingly unpopular and perhaps be resented; they would deem them fresh charges and look upon any promised relief from other quarters as delusive. They see the cost of government increasing every decade, while the prosperity of the Islands shows no stable advance in any direction, and often a falling away. On the whole no conclusive reason has been shown why land should not pay more of the public revenue. If a choice of evils has to be made, there can be no doubt the food taxes do irreparable and far-reaching injury. While the Islands were undergoing the transformation into free trade centres of industry, by the abolition of these tariffs, it may be that an Imperial loan would be required to aid the administration. But the prosperity that would certainly follow on the adoption of our fiscal system in the West Indies would enable them before long to repay the aid given.
The West Indies are very anxious to have sure and remunerative markets in the United States and elsewhere for their produce, but it will be in vain to expect to have this boon permanently anywhere unless they can also take some- page 20 thing equal in value in return. Payment in coin does not lead to so permanent a trade as payment by other commodities. No one owes the West Indies anything, and they cannot expect to be favoured above other people by selling what they produce at a profit and not taking a full equivalent. The West Indian food tariffs, as it happens, interfere with industries quite as much as protective tariffs and bounties do in other countries, but with more fatal results, for in the case of the West Indian Islands, it lessens the power and influence they would undoubtedly otherwise command in the markets of the United States and elsewhere as consumers. The entire abolition of vexatious and injurious tariffs long ago would have been the means of establishing a much larger trade with the States in necessary bread-stuffs, which it would have been the interest of every one to keep up, and sugar and other produce would have naturally gone in payment. The West Indian Islands may be sure of this, that no compact or treaty or arrangement with any Government will establish trade permanently on a sound basis, unless it be the interest of the several dealers to carry it on. They can make it the interest not only of the dealers in the United States, but of those of the world generally to do business with them by adopting free trade principles, and abolishing tariffs that keep out commodities necessary for the people's welfare. They have now to buy their food dear, while they must sell their produce low, and they are consequently more heavily weighted than others in the competition. But can they expect permanently to establish a sound basis of prosperity by dealing with the question superficially, by the application of palliatives, and by special treaties with one State? If they set to work on sound principles of free trade with every country, they will not have to depend on any one market for their existence; they will be sure of themselves and of the products of their industry finding buyers in every market.page 21
The tariffs on food not only interfere with and hinder the natural flow of supply and demand and the interchange of commodities, and therefore check trade and intercourse, but they lower the value of labour by lessening the purchasing power of wages, on which its physical strength depends. Mr. Mundella said in Parliament on the 31st of October last: "They must make Englishmen the most intelligent, the most thrifty, and the most competent workmen in the world, and then they would have nothing to fear from foreign competition." If the West Indies overlook the interests of the labourer so completely as they do now, they must not expect to succeed in competition with other countries which work on different lines.
Most of our West Indian settlements levy export duties on produce shipped from their ports. In their origin these duties were mostly intended to supply funds to support a local militia and yeomanry—sugar estates furnishing men, and the owners receiving for each man a grant of £25 or £30. Some of the export duties were imposed for the purposes of keeping up the Established Church and for assisting planters to get coolies from India. Taxes of this nature, for whatever object imposed, had little or no injurious results in the days of high prices for sugar, but in these days it is unnecessary to dwell on their ill-effects. The Imperial expenditure in the maintenance of the land and sea forces in the West Indies cannot be less than £400,000 a year, and the few militia and yeomanry maintained at local cost would be of no use whatever in case of war and invasion. Some people deem such forces useful should it ever become necessary to suppress risings or insurrectionary movements among the people. All evidence up to date shows not only the inexpediency of keeping up such a force for such an object, but that it would be valueless at an emergency. A reliable civil police should be all that is wanted to keep internal order in a British colony.page 22
In Jamaica an export duty of 5s. 9d. is levied on every hogshead of sugar, 4s. 6d. on every puncheon of rum, and 6s. on every tierce of coffee, &c. In Trinidad the export duty is 6s. on a hogshead of sugar. Antigua, under three separate ordinances, charges 5s. for every hogshead of sugar exported. St. Christopher charges export duties not only on sugar, but also on rum, molasses, and cotton. St. Vincent and Grenada include cacao, arrowroot, and spices. The small island of Monserrat taxes everything exported. The Virgin Islands, having no other produce to levy an export duty on, tax the cattle and food they send to the neighbouring market of St. Thomas.
The Royal Commissioners have recommended the abolition of export duties in all the West Indian Islands.
Unless the principles which political and social science deem essential to progress, are inapplicable to our West Indian colonies with their mixed races, it must be evident that our laws with reference to land in these Islands are in themselves almost sufficient to account for their adverse condition. It is doubtful whether any continental nation would have admitted into its colonies a system of monopoly such as Free Trade England has allowed her merchants to hold in the West Indies. As some of our own institutions are more the result of unconscious and unobserved development than the product of direct legislation, so in these Islands, the Encumbered Estates Court, when formed in 1854, was a necessary and valuable institution, and the legislators who formed it, and the administrators who recommended and introduced it, had a well-founded hope that it would have had most useful results. It was intended that the owners of heavily encumbered estates, who were unable to cultivate them or pay their debts, should be forced to sell if their creditors so willed it, and the purchasers were to get a valid and unencumbered page 23 title. This was a sound measure, and should have had the beneficial effect of bringing free trade principles to bear on the transfer of land and in all dealings connected with it. But the practical working of the measure, after it had passed out of the hands of those who framed and introduced it, fell into the hands of men whose notions on the subject were not the same, and whose principles of justice had a somewhat different standard. The action of the Court has consequently had a quite different result from what was intended.
The West Indian Encumbered Estates Court was established in 1854 (17 & 18 Vict. cap. 117), and amended and continued (35 Vict. cap. 9). The Commissioners appointed under the Act first compelled the sale of all estates in England, but local commissioners were afterwards appointed in the Islands to see that sales should be carried out there if the applicant so desired it; but of course the applicant, if he be an English merchant, very rarely does desire this. An appeal lies to the Privy Council. It seems that the Court from the beginning applied a rule, founded on a decision of Lord Elgin in 1808 (Scott v. Nesbitt—14 Ves. 448), which gives priority of claim to what is called the "consignees' lien" over any previous debt, or claim, or encumbrance, even if guaranteed by mortgage, or founded on a will or, a settlement This "consignees' lien" is, in other words, the amount, on a balance of account, that may be owed by a proprietor to a merchant who happens to be dealing with an estate—buying the sugar and giving advances in the regular course of business. If, therefore, any person who knows and has confidence in the owner of an estate lends him money to cultivate it, and it becomes consequently of value, he may find his investment a secure one for years; but if the owner has dealings afterwards with a merchant, and gets involved, this merchant—who is perfectly aware of the incumbrance existing on the estate page 24 before he dealt with its owner—can force the sale of the estate in the Encumbered Estates Court, and obtain priority for all his claims over all pre-existing claims. Sometimes no one bids for the property at the auction in London, and the merchant then buys it in for the amount of his debt, and the Court gives him a new and perfect title. The mortgagee loses everything. Should the estate by any will or settlement be charged with any payments for the benefit of widow or children, such claims will also be overridden by the merchant's lien, and entirely lost, unless, indeed, the amount realised by the sale should be in excess of the amount clue to the merchant, an improbable contingency. It is obvious that a great injustice has been done to these Islands; they have been handed over, as it were, to a powerful corporation, and the consequences of this monopoly are seen in that want of development and that stagnation which is the only end possible to such a state of things.
"The West India Committee in London, a body interested in, but certainly not resident in, the Islands, has on occasion claimed sufficient influence to advise the Imperial authorities that Ordinances passed by the Local Legislatures may be disallowed as being opposed to what this Committee consider to be the best interests of the Islands."
This great influence, wielded by absentees, and the representatives of one interest only, and that an interest often even opposed to the best interests of the people of the Islands, is entirely due to the action of the Encumbered Estates Court, which has thrown the land into the power of the mercantile class and has frightened away all other capital. There is another and obvious evil consequence arising from this monopoly, and that is that planters are forced to deal with merchants for advances, as being the only parties who can be page 25 secure of their money; consequently, the merchant can make what terms he pleases for the sale of produce and for freight. What is wanted here is the abolition of the Encumbered Estates Court, and let land be dealt with in the same way as any other form of property. Free trade principles applied to the land are absolutely essential to the prosperity of these Islands and their inhabitants.
The recent lamentable incident in the Island of Trinidad has drawn public attention in England to the fact that we have in some of our West Indian settlements large numbers of coolies.
"It was the duty of the Anti-Slavery Society to keep watch on the condition of our freed negroes, freed slaves in the West Indies and also at the Cape, and it was abundantly their duty to keep a jealous eye on the efforts to introduce slavery in another form—sham emigration and sham contracts."
This is a very pregnant and suggestive statement. I shall here only deal with that part of it which refers to the bringing of coolies to our West Indian Islands, where there already exist more than enough black labourers (freed negroes and their descendants) for the purposes of cultivation.
Free trade principles applied to labour must mean that the rates of wages paid shall be left to work to their natural level by the ordinary rules of supply and demand. In the majority of the West Indian Islands the liberated Africans refused to work for planters on the conditions offered to them. It has been shown in this paper that these conditions were insufficient. The planter, thereupon, with the aid of the public taxes, and assisted also by the authority and weight of the Imperial Government, sought labourers in India, where wages are very low, and brought them to the West Indies, where wages are much higher. The imported coolie labourers are bound to work for their employers for a term of years. In recent times page 26 they have been well treated, and, for East Indians, well paid, well housed, and well fed. Coolies have not so many children as the liberated Africans; they have, consequently, not the same family obligations, and they pay no taxes.
The result of this system of coolie importation may be seen in the creation by it of two classes of colonies. We have colonies outwardly prosperous, such as British Guiana and Trinidad, but where all cultivation is practically carried on for absentee proprietors by coolies under indenture, and if there are time-expired coolies working for hire among them, the wages of these latter will be more or less determined by the rate of remuneration accorded to the indentured coolies. We have also colonies where Africans are more largely in the majority, but these people refuse to work except irregularly, because the wages offered them are less than they demand. Coolies have also been imported into some of these latter settlements—into Jamaica, for instance—with the result of yet further demoralising the African labourers. Had the English Government left the employers of labour in our West Indian Islands to their own devices, they would undoubtedly have found means to conciliate the liberated Africans in these Islands, because the necessities of both parties would have urged them to reconcile their interests. The labourers would have received more pay, or the food taxes would have been abolished, or a superior method of cultivation would have been adopted, or all these three results might have been brought about, as has been the case in the United States.
"The negro race does the work of the country—the sowing, hoeing, ploughing, picking, and reaping—apparently better than it ever did, and the black population has increased from 5,639,749 in 1871 to 9,000,031 in 1880."
"There is no difficulty in obtaining black labour of good quality by those who pay wages regularly in cash."
The blacks of African race are showing themselves capable citizens in every form of industry.
"Unless the mass of citizens have sentiments and beliefs in something like harmony with the social organisation in which they are incorporated, the organisation cannot continue."
In our West Indian Islands the native races are all Christians, and if they were given a fair chance they would work and prosper materially, as they do in the States. The Indian coolie is either a Mahomedan or he belongs to one of the religions of India, and he has nothing in common with the people he is brought along.
The Royal Commissioners recommend a large State-subsidised and State-supervised importation of coolies into all the West Indian Islands, because they consider the native labourers to be non-available for planting purposes. At the present prices of food and rate of wages the Commissioners are perhaps right page 28 in concluding that the African will not work. But the West Indies will never be prosperous colonies under a system of emigration which is only a disguised form of giving a bounty to the planter. An African able and willing to labour can do the work of two coolies. He is appreciated elsewhere, and he is leaving our Islands for Central America in thousands. Are we sure the coolie, when he is able to do so, will not follow him when he finds he also can get better wages by so doing? The statement that the African will not work is disproved by all we see in the Southern States; it is also disproved by the example of Barbados, an island into which no coolies were ever imported, and it is now the most highly-cultivated and the most civilised and enlightened of all our West Indian settlements. Mr. Mackinnon, the Manager of Government Railways in Jamaica, stated to the Commissioners that he preferred black men (Africans) to whites, because they did not drink, and were more reliable and cheaper. In Jamaica 60 per cent, of the total value of exports is the produce of the sugar-cane; but out of the whole population of the island—580,000—only about 5 per cent., or 29,000 people, are engaged in its cultivation. With such figures it is impossible to substantiate a claim for the introduction of coolies into the island after the manner indicated. Even in Trinidad and British Guiana, where labour was much scarcer, it would have been perhaps wiser to have relied on native labour only, and by fair terms to have attracted free labour from other places where it was not fully employed. Had favourable conditions been held out to them, had the Government not interfered, the African population of the West Indies would have largely increased, as they have done in the Southern States, and it would be now equal to supply a far larger demand for labour than is likely to be made by planters.
Vital statistics are to some extent a gauge of the condi- page 29 tion of a people. The West Indian climate being remarkably suitable to the negro race, the returns of births and deaths have much value because they bear directly on the question of food. The causes that operate among the poor in cold countries necessarily result in a considerable mortality, but deaths among infants are largely owing to the severity of the weather. In the West Indies the climate is favourable for children. Yet in England out of every 1,000 children born 736 are alive on the 5th birthday. In Jamaica there would be only 600, and in Antigua only 500. These serious circumstances have led to the establishment of public nurseries, and in Antigua it is provided likewise that an inquest shall be held on every child dying within a year of its birth. A more certain remedy would be cheap and abundant food. The negro mother is fond of her child, but she is often unequal to the strain of rearing it.
If imports and exports are in any way indicative of the well-being of a population, the returns show considerable differences between the Islands.* The Leeward group export produce at the rate of £4 8s. 4d. ahead; Barbados, £5 18s. 3d.; the four Windward Islands, £4 4s. 6d.; Jamaica, £2 7s. 6d.; Trinidad has been returned as high as £13 4s. 2d., but the average for produce has recently been about £12. The exports of British Guiana for twelve years have averaged £2,550,000 a year, but the produce is almost entirely raised by coolies from India. The average exports of the West Indies may be roughly taken at £9,000,000 a year, or £5 12s. 6d. per head; and the imports at £7,800,000, or £4 17s. 6d. per head. They thus lose about £1,200,000 a year, which may be considered the profit made by the merchants and others who work the estates but live abroad. This profit contributes nothing to the public revenue.
* The following figures are averages for the ten years 1873—1882.
Taken as a whole the West Indies are showing but little signs of progress or vitality, while the trade of Venezuela has quadrupled within a few years and the people of the various states of Central America have been displaying much activity and enterprise. A large amount of American capital is invested in Campeachy and Yucatan, amongst which about five millions of dollars in the cultivation of the Agave Americana, yielding the sisal hemp of commerce.* Sugar, coffee, fruits, and all the most valuable products of tropical climates are being also largely raised; but above all it is evident that considerable capital is being sunk in these countries in cultivation which will tell hereafter. In order that our colonies may hold their own and also progress, it will be necessary to apply to them the system we find so efficacious in England. The adoption of free trade principles in dealing with land will attract the necessary capital and enterprise, and a form of impost founded on the system of untaxed bread-stuffs will give to labour such advantages that it will prosper and the Islands will speedily be raised to a high stage of prosperity.
"What may be the future of the negro race (in the West Indies) is one with which we are only indirectly concerned. What does concern us is that we should do our duty by them. Let them have freedom, let them have a fair chance, let them be fairly matched in the race of life; and whether they win or lose our responsibility is covered. We are not answerable for their doing well; we are answerable for putting no obstacles in their way to prevent them doing well."
* The strong lustrous fibres of the Agave Americana are superior to every other species of Agave for ropes and cordage.
Cassell & Company, Limited, Belle Sauvage Works, London, E.C.