Metayage: a self-inflicted wound on Tobago’s planter class – Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton –


The distress faced by planters in Tobago plunged to new depths during the second half of the 19th century. The need to maintain plantation operations caused planters to seek recourse in another system of labour, the metayage system – a system of share cropping in which the planters provided equipment, carts, mills and machinery and curing house.The workers, called metayers, were responsible for all activities, from planting to the manufacture of the sugar using the equipment on the plantation. The final product was shared between planters and metayers in variable proportions.

These agreements were made by unwritten contracts which varied from estate to estate, and when estates changed hands, from one owner to another. The system was first introduced in Prospect and Mary’s Hill estates in 1842, and was not initially popular with the workers. Due to concerns about the unwritten contracts which left them vulnerable to exploitation, they avoided metayage arrangements opting instead to rent land and establish their own independent cultivation.

The twin crises of the 1846 Sugar Duties Act and the competition from the emergence of new sugar producers were crippling blows to Tobago planters. The hurricane of 1847, the collapse of a number of merchant houses which serviced the trade in the region, and the collapse of the West Indian Bank, the only bank Tobago in 1847, didn’t help the situation much. This caused absentee owners to sell or abandon their estates and new resident owners took over the island’s sugar industry. The number of estates in operation was reduced, while for those that were barely functional, the threat of abandonment loomed. The end result was an increased dependence on metayage and a weakening of planter control over Tobago’s land resources.

As the century wore on planters’ problems multiplied. Finding themselves short of capital to repair buildings, maintain their operations and pay wages to their workers, the favoured solution was to reduce the already paltry wages and terminate free medical attention and other incentives to their workers. The workers went on strike across the island and planter/metayer tensions became more inflamed.

The termination of the garrison in 1854, which was the main source of cash injections on the island, was another serious blow to planters who simply could not pay wages. Rather than accept the low wages, workers moved off the estates to live in independent villages. They registered to work as metayers on several estates and in the Windward areas, and there was migration to Scarborough where the opportunity to buy land was greatest.

In desperation, planters became more dependent on the despised metayage system and metayers were able to obtain additional rights. Among these were the rights to pasture stock, to gather wood and grass on estate property, and increased access to provision grounds. The shortage of credit to planters increased the bargaining power of the workers for access to land.

The metairie system was fraught with conflicts because there were no laws governing its operation. Some conflicts were suppressed either through fear of planter reprisal action (usually the removal of privileges), or the unaffordable cost of litigation. There were conflicts over the distribution of costs between estates and metayers and there was no protection for the metayer who was subject to arbitrary changes to the agreement.

Metayage contracts offered no security of tenure and the agreements could be terminated if the planter determined that the metayers did not cultivate in a “planter-like” manner. Thus, they lost both job and whatever crops remained on the allocated ground. Planters used taxation as a weapon to control and reduce the income of the metayer. Heavy taxes were imposed on houses, carts, mules and asses of the metayers while those of the estates were exempt and a direct tax was imposed on sugar produced by metayers in 1850.

Although the number of disputes increased, the system persisted and by 1866 all estates on the island operated on the metayage system. Despite the fact that they needed it, planters hated the arrangement because it made the metayers too independent. Additionally, the workers preferred to engage in metayage agreements rather than estate labour which paid lower wages.

The metayers responded by engaging in multiple metayer contracts on different estates. They utilised family labour by bringing women and children back to the fields. They obtained contracts from the estates and formed jobbing gangs in which labourers were employed to perform the job and were paid twice as much as planters offered for similar jobs. While planters paid labourers eight pence (16 cents) per day, metayers who employed labour paid one shilling and four pence (32 cents) per day. Metayers made use of the Tobago len’ hand system, to assist each other to clear and plant their metayer pieces that were inter-planted with food crops.

With increased earnings and the facility to buy land in instalments, meteyers became land owners, despite the restrictive measures of the ruling class. Some acquired small parcels of land while others became estate owners. Among these were Brutus Murray who owned Pembroke and Cardiff Estate; Daniel Gordon who bought Adventure and Roselle Estates, and owned considerable properties in Plymouth and shops at Plymouth and Black Rock; Paul Tobago, a shopkeeper at Buccoo who owned Prospect Estate; and JB Swalls of Moriah who became a merchant and proprietor.

The crash of Gillespie and Company in April 1884 made metayers more powerful since planters had no choice but to hold on to the system they despised. Their efforts to make the system work to their advantage generated further tensions on the island. In order to establish the system in a manner that suited them, in 1884 the Agricultural Society established an advisory committee. Later, administrator Dr John Carrington appointed a Metairie commission which produced The Metairie Ordinance of 1888. It was never implemented.

While labour conflicts continued unabated, Trinidad and Tobago were unified in 1889, bringing two more unwanted developments for planters. Firstly, metayers were able to increase their earnings through access to a more lucrative market for their food items in Trinidad. Secondly, the Trinidad chief justice John Gorrie, heard cases in Tobago and reduced legal costs, resulting in the court being flooded with claims from aggrieved metayers. Gorrie’s favourable judgements to metayers boosted their confidence and made them more militant, while the angry planters sought his removal from the colony.

In the very charged atmosphere, a number of planters decided to sell their properties and give up the unprofitable sugar production. There were more sellers than buyers and significant numbers of estates were abandoned when the attempted sales proved futile. Abandoned estates fell to the crown and were subdivided and sold in five-acre plots to the very eager population. This created a class of landed peasant on the island.

The worst fears of the planter class were realised as Tobago’s land resources were released from total planter control. It was ironical that the very system that planters introduced in the effort to solve their problems served a contradictory purpose by providing the platform for the freed Africans to realise their ambitions. Through the agency of metayage, that “undesirable necessity,” pressure was applied to the planters, resulting in metayers attaining greater access to land. The freed Africans and their descendants became land owners who contributed to the displacement of the island’s old plantocracy. Metayage proved to be a self-inflicted wound on Tobago’s planter class.