The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 44, Issue 2

Article 4
Confined Spaces, Constrained Bodies: Land, Labour and the 1836 Emigration Act of Barbados

Dawn Harris


In this article, I examine act number 597, “An Act to regulate the Emigration of Labourers from this Island [Barbados]”, that the Barbados Assembly passed on 30 November 1836. By applying Thomas Hobbes’s ideas about liberty and natural laws, I argue that this act, passed during the apprenticeship period, compromised the promises of freedom that were made in the 1833 Abolition Act. Moreover, by drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, particularly his contributions in his well-known text Discipline and Punish,1 and using Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model as a methodological lens, I contend that this Emigration Act had a disciplinary function, in that it rendered the notion of the Black labourer a fixity. Although this act was prima facie an Emigration Act, I show that it was also a restrictive labour act that complemented other similarly constrictive labour legislation and socio-economic practices like the tenantry rent system that tied labourers to the plantation as a site of employment, and to the plantation economy more generally. The very deployment of this act and its enforcement, by placing restrictions on the outward migration of Barbadian labourers, exposed a highly vulnerable segment of the Barbadian population to the vagaries of the plantocracy, while at the same time attempting to create an immobile labour force that was shackled to an economy characterized by low wages.