Tobago is a bit different from Trinidad, in that its slaves had no significant French heritage and thus were subjected to the brutalities of British plantocracy. Whereas slave trading in Trinidad was largely on a peer-to-peer basis, Tobago is known to have had a slave auction at Market Square in Scarborough, where hapless victims of the flesh trade were hawked to planters like cattle. Tobago also differs from Trinidad in that unlike the latter which only counted one insurrection (barely after the end of slavery in 1837) and one stillborn plot in La Cuesa valley, Tobago had several violent slave rebellions, in 1770, 1771 and 1774. This may have had the effect of making slavery conditions in that island all the harsher.
Still, there were some general similarities in the conditions of slavery in Trinidad and Tobago, which were, until 1889, separate territories. Sugar was the dominant force in both economies, although Trinidad also produced a fair amount of cocoa and other crops like cotton. Shelter was generally allocated in a series of huts on the estate. These were constructed in the cheapest manner possible, of tapia or woven bamboo walls with cane trash or carat thatch roofs. At least one pre-emancipation village is believed to have survived into the early 20th century at Bourg Congo, which was on the lands of the La Paix Estate in Chatham. Bourg Congo is now an abandoned place, with the last person who remembered it as a settlement dying just a few years ago. Food was often bad and in scanty supply. Planters were required to provide a stipulated ration of dry provisions, but this varied considerably. It generally consisted of a few pounds of cornmeal or flour with a bit of salted meat or fish. This was halved for women and children.
The whole was doled out on Saturdays and expected to last an entire week. It was poor stuff for days of superhuman labour but could be supplemented by gardening on estates which cared to spare a bit of wasteland for kitchen gardens. This produce was the property of the slave who could sell it and earn enough to buy manumission. Major Capadose recounted of Tobago in 1833: “Long before emancipation the negros had the exclusive right of the sale of ground provisions; namely, yams, tanniers, sweet potatoes, cassava; and they had that monopoly because no other people would cultivate them in Tobago, and consequently they affixed what price they pleased. The legislature in vain tried to control them in that respect; even whilst slaves they answered the Decree of the House of Assembly, affixing a tariff, by withholding the supplies, and the markets were destitute of the necessary commodities till the decree was rescinded.”
A liberal (in the barest sense of the word) slave owner might regale his slaves for Christmas with a few extra barrels of flour, some fresh meat from a butchered pig and a few gallons of rum.
Clothing allowances were similarly meagre. Twice a year the men were to receive a cloth jacket, shirt, hat and pair of trousers and the women a coarse skirt, woollen wrapper, petticoats and a handkerchief. Children had no allocation and were clothed in the castoffs of their parents. Those who tended gardens and sold produce could buy lengths of bright cotton print and headkerchiefs, which evolved into a signature Martiniquan style.
The Amelioration Act of 1823 passed in the British Parliament was supposed in theory to provide a legal framework for the treatment of slaves and included such clemencies as the banning of corporal punishment for females, recognising the rights of slaves to personal property and, most importantly, the district magistrate could issue licences for the marriage of slaves. Formerly, an owner had the right to deny a slave his freedom. The Amelioration Act made this illegal and moreover removed an oppressive tax which had formerly existed that had to be paid by the slave who wished to purchase manumission. This legislation was often ignored but paved the way for the eventual end of a system of bondage which is a blot on human history. The provisions of the act saw the introduction of a salaried officer called the Protector of Slaves. This man, who was supposed to ensure that slaveowners adhered to the law, was a corrupt personage and thus saw fit to ignore his duties. The office of the Protector in Trinidad was on Edward Street in Port-of-Spain.