Disaster and Desire in Tobago: The Hurricane of 1847

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Dr Rita Pemberton –

Dr Rita Pemberton

The first decade after emancipation was a defining period in Tobago’s history, when it was clear that free African workers were unwilling to tolerate terms and conditions reminiscent of the era of slavery.

The planting community, which had shown reluctance to adjust its modus operandi, sought to use a number of mechanisms, including immigrant labor programs, to force workers to agree to their terms.

These processes were abruptly interrupted by a disaster that struck the island, to which the authorities’ response is instructive.

On the night of October 11, 1847, a hurricane – which officials say is more correctly described as a tornado – swept through Tobago from end to end with increasing force after 8 p.m. until dawn. .

Throughout the prolonged blows, the hurricane left a trail of destruction. The ships were thrown out to sea, then returned to shore like wrecked monuments by the force of his visit. The community was taken by surprise, as the island was considered out of reach of hurricanes, having not experienced any since 1790. The complacency in the face of disasters was reflected in the building practices: buildings on the island no. were not reinforced to withstand hurricane force winds.

The lieutenant governor and his officials sent detailed reports to the imperial authorities on the situation and the measures taken to mitigate the impact of the disaster.

This set of correspondence reflects two trends. First, it provided details of the destroyed buildings, in particular the sugar factories, estate buildings, and the homes of plantation owners and managers, and indicated the nature of the support they required from the imperial government.

Of the 70 estates in operation on the island, 26 factories and 30 large residential houses were completely destroyed, and 33 structures and 31 houses damaged.

This left only ten areas with the capacity to continue making sugar. This was to underscore the magnitude of the need for financial support to revive the island’s sugar industry, a theme that dominated the content of letters to the imperial government about the hurricane.

Fortunately, there were only 17 victims, including four children of planters.

The second trend was reflected in the communication about the free African population. While it was reported that this class also suffered heavy losses – 465 houses were destroyed and 180 lost their roofs or were badly damaged – the lieutenant governor praised the behavior of the people, who, a- he said, posed no threat to the security of the island. Members of this group showed no signs of discouragement and were vigorously engaged in repair and reconstruction.

With their ongoing self-help process, it can be inferred that unlike the planting community, the freed Africans did not need Imperial aid, which, of course, was not provided. Governor Graeme has planned a day of thanksgiving and humiliation to support the obvious positivity of the people.

The lieutenant governor said the Fort King George barracks, which housed the island’s main security forces, had been destroyed and the men had been taken to safety; later, “having full confidence that the peace of the colony would not be disturbed,” he authorized the movement of troops into Trinidad.

Having also made arrangements to house the homeless, he assured the imperial authorities that the peace of the island was assured. Then came the contradiction.

It is ironic that after praising the conduct of the African people, Governor Graeme found it necessary to issue a proclamation on October 15 that called on all people to maintain the honesty and good conduct for which the island was known and warned all those who might be willing to take advantage of the situation to appropriate the scattered property of others to find that all these acts are illegal and would be head-on if such objects were found in their possession.

These people would be quickly prosecuted for crimes and all magistrates, ministers of the Gospel, police officers and peace officers were required to disseminate this proclamation to the people with the aim of protecting the property of those who had already suffered many losses. because of the hurricane, that is, the planters.

In support of this proclamation, the Council and the House of Assembly submitted a bill to the Colonial Office for approval on October 20, 1847, which presented a completely contradictory view of the conduct of the African population compared to that initially presented by the Lieutenant Governor. Entitled “Act for the summary conviction of persons detected in the theft or theft of goods, timber, etc.” exposed or dispersed by the hurricane ”, its preamble said that there were many idle and disorderly people moving around the country, refusing to work and apparently seeking to take the opportunity to loot, faster court proceedings was necessary to deal with such violations and protect property than existing laws permitted.

The act identified as illegal acts: stealing or taking away money, securities, property or movable property, merchandise, wood shingles, staves, bricks, tiles, copper, zinc , lead, tin, iron or other construction material from any building, or any other location or attached or detached from any building affected by the hurricane. The law empowered two justices of the peace to send such persons to court, to ordinary courts or on summary conviction, on the basis of the oath of one or more reliable witnesses, to try the person guilty of the crime and of sentence her to whipping with the nine-tailed cat with up to 39 lashes and for women, imprisonment with hard labor for three months.

The law, which was to be in effect for three months, reveals how much the Tobago planting community has remained committed to the labor practices of slavery in order to maintain the sugar industry.

The hurricane disaster, which catapulted the labor issue to greater importance at a time when the industry was plagued by general post-emancipation issues and economic challenges, revealed the deepest desire for ‘a struggling sugar plantation fraternity: forcing Africans to accept planters’ terms and serve the sugar industry, to which the existing hurricane disaster added salt. It was a desire that was destined to remain unfulfilled.


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