The men went to Cayenne to carry loads through the forest from the canoe-landing place to the placer mines, and they earned 10 shillings per day. It took them two days to bring a load up and return. They were paid £1 per load so that they could earn £3 per week. Some worked in the mines on their own account, but as hired labourers they were paid three shilling a week with board.
One John Quinlan, a land surveyor from Gros Islet, who had been to Cayenne, told the Royal Commission in 1897 that “in Cayenne he found St. Lucians suffering much, though they made more money than at home. Few people from the island can face the hardship, some ran away and Barbados will not face it. Living costs five or six shillings a day for food. One bread costs two shillings, coffee one shilling and the smallest quantity of sugar one shilling. Still at ten shillings a day wages they made some profit.”
Did you know death and disease were ever-present? Many men managed to send regular allowances home. Most eventually returned to St. Lucia with money in their pockets. Treasurer Garraway reported that these savings were utilised in the paying off of old debts, purchasing of land, erecting improved dwellings and making of deposits in the colonial and savings banks.
Did you know most migrants had to borrow money for their journey with very high interest rates? Fr. Tapon declared that to be usury. John Quinlan testified that men borrowed money to go to Cayenne with interest rates of 100 to 200 percent interest, some borrowed £3 to pay their passage and in six months paid £6 upon their return to the island. Although they brought cash back to the island, the migration of so many people in the prime of their lives served to temporarily or permanently aggravate the crisis in St. Lucia. Hundreds of men either died overseas or for other reasons did not return, leaving their dependent destitute and worse off than before.
An estate owner named Emmanuel Duboulay claimed 300 to 400 of his labourers from the Dennery sugar factory migrated to Cayenne, forcing him to reduce the cane fields from 900 to 630 acres, and therefore reduced sugar production from 1,500 to 850 tons. George Hudson, attorney at Errard and Bazile Estate in Dennery, also complained that as a consequence to the exodus to the Cayenne gold fields, St. Lucia could not find adequate men to do the small quantity of agricultural work they offered.
Did you know the gold fields of Cayenne, Venezuela, and Demerara continued to attract St. Lucians well into the 20th century? The more they experienced new ways and standard of living overseas, the less willing they were to resubmit themselves to the awful wages and working conditions in St. Lucia. Those who returned either became farmers in their own rights or continued to search for opportunities overseas. Although lives in the gold fields were rough, travel, however, widened the people’s social and political horizons.
Source: A History of St. Lucia by Harmsen, Ellis & Devaux – 2012.
This feature runs every Tuesday and Thursday. It is written by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]