In 1848, nearly fifteen years after the abolition of slavery, Lord Harris, the governor of Trinidad, declared in a dispatch to the Colonial Office that ‘a race had been freed, but a society had not been formed”. Harris was recognizing that although fundamental changes had been wrought in the basic rights of the black population ‘little attention had been paid to any legislation having for its end the formation of a society on true, sound and lasting principles’. The abolition of slavery had established a constitutional setting in which economic and social progress for the bulk of the population was now possible, but abolition alone could not promote that progress.
The abolition of slavery did not dissolve vested interests, established patterns of thought, or the unchallenged place of plantation owners and shareholders at the top of the hierarchy. Freedom in its basic sense did not mean for the black population freedom from the pressures and established advantages of a socio-economic system marked by massive gulfs in the distribution of wealth and privilege. Furthermore the termination of slavery did not itself bring about immediate changes in agricultural practices. The period of apprenticeship (1834–8) held the former slaves to the estates, and when release came the labouring population moved away from the plantations over a period of years. In Trinidad it would appear that labour shortages on the plantations did not become acute until the early 1840s.
As the labouring population moved off the plantations and began to establish itself as an independent peasantry it had to compete, within the framework of colonial society, with the established interests which had long controlled agriculture and land ownership.