Thursday 1 December 2011

Absentee Owners

In memory and honour of Dr. Philip Sherlock, whose historical and sociological talks on Radio Guardian made Sunday evenings in the early 1960s very interesting!

One of the striking things about the 18th century West Indian Plantations was that many of the owners lived in England. Dalby Thomas whose “Historical Account” of the West Indies was first published in 1690, wrote of the West Indians of his day that “It was impossible for them to forget from whence they come from or even be at rest (after they have arrived on a plentiful estate) until they settle their families in England...” This practice was not found to such a marked extent in the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, where agriculture was more diversified with a comparatively large number of small holders growing crops like coffee and cacao. There were fewer absentee proprietors also in Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent while they were French. After they were ceded to Britain in 1763 sugar production increased at the expense of crops like cacao and coffee, on which the British Government had put high import duties.
There were many reasons for the increase in the large number of absentee proprietors as the years passed. Life in England was more comfortable, and far removed from the uncomfortable fact of slavery. Many of those owners who lived on their plantations had their children educated in England, so that they grew up without any special attachment to the West Indies. Also, some of those who owned plantations obtained them by inheritance without ever having seen them, while others might have taken them over as a result of some business transaction such as the foreclosing of a mortgage. Whatever the reasons, absenteeism was widespread. When Governor Nugent made a tour of Jamaica in 1803 that out of 80 estate owners in one part of the island only 3 were in residence. On occasions governors in some Windward Islands found it difficult to hold Council Meetings because they could not get a quorum, and it sometimes happened that one man held several public offices because of the lack of people qualified to hold public office. The Beckford's with their mansion at Fonthill in Wiltshire, Robert Hibbert with his Bedfordshire country seat, George Hibbert took a lead in building the West India Docks, Charles Long with his Suffolk home, John Gladstone of Liverpool, the Pinneys of Dorsetshire represent one side of the picture, the building up of a West India interest in Britain with very powerful political interests.
The other side is given in a letter written from Antigua in 1787 describing how the attorneys (those who held the power of attorney from the proprietors and had the duty of looking after the estate) used slave and lands of the owners for their own benefit.” The Governor of the Leeward Islands in 1811 complained bitterly that “of the few white inhabitants who remain, managers, overseers, self-created lawyers, self-educated merchants - the acquirements of education among many of this description of persons are very unequal to the task of taking a share in the governments.” The owner as well as the country, suffered through absenteeism, since he spent more money living away in England and the attorney rarely looked after the estate as if it were his own. Absenteeism therefore, by reducing a planters resources, sometimes caused him to fall into debt.
Debts there were plenty. The lavish display and stupid extravagance of some absentee planters caused a sensation in English society. Adam Smith remarked on the fact that the tobacco colonies did not send back to England such wealthy planters as came from the West Indies, and there were periods of great prosperity. In the period immediately after the war in 1748, for instance, profits were high. Even so, however, it is doubtful if the profits in a good year rose much above 7% and the appearance of extreme prosperity is often false and unreal. Most planters were in debt. In the 18th century it was not difficult for a West Indian planter to borrow money on the security of his land. He often had to raise capital in this way, perhaps to buy slaves or purchase additional land, perhaps to meet losses caused by poor management or by his extravagance. In the long run the estate might carry quite a heavy load of debt that was made still more burdensome by the bequest and annuities to members of the family. Besides, the business of the plantations was carried on in a way that made it easy to slip into debt.
The planter had a factor or agent in England - in Bristol possibly or London - who looked after his business and often helped with his private business. He bought the supplies, salted the meat, clothing, equipment and the like, and then had them packed and shipped to the West Indies. Often he employed the overseers, bookkeepers and other white employees that the estate required, found a school in England for the planters children, advanced money on his behalf, and acted as his banker, lawyer and general factotum.
But its time for me to stop. If you would like me to follow this further get hold of a copy of “West India Fortune” - story of the Pinney Family of Nevis, By Pares.

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