LAND HOLDINGS: GRANTS, PURCHASES & SQUATTING (TRINIDAD)
The Cedula (1783) and Catholic Immigration
The Cedula (Spanish royal proclamation) of 1783, offered generous grants of land in Trinidad to all foreign Catholics, who
were subjects of countries friendly to Spain and who swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown. Although England was in
alliance, at the time with Spain, it was French Catholics who benefited most from the terms of the Cedula, coming in large
numbers to Trinidad. They were joined by small numbers of English and Irish, who eventually merged with existing Spanish
Catholics, thereby greatly strengthening the position of the Catholic Church in Trinidad.
The first group of French consisted of ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ emigrés. The Libro de Becerro (Registration Book) showed the
white emigrés as belonging to the ‘petit noblesse’, according to metropolitan standards. However, in Trinidad, they held titles
like 'Comtes’, ‘Vicomtes’, ‘Chevaliers’ and ‘Barons’. They shared a common regional culture, originating from Bordeaux.
The Cedula Land Grants
Thirty-two acres of land were to be granted to each ‘white’ person of either sex, and half that quantity of land for each slave
brought by the settlers to Trinidad. Free French ‘Africans’ and persons of ‘colour’ were granted sixteen acres of land, again
with an additional half the quantity for each slave arriving with them.
The Cedula linked the ownership of land with the ownership of slaves. The more slaves the settler brought in, the more land
he received. The majority of these slaves were patois-speaking Creoles from the French Islands. Others were bought, stolen
and kidnapped from neighbouring islands, especially Grenada, and bought direct from British slavers.
Disputes over land were a source of friction between the ‘native’ Spanish families and the Governor, Don José Chacon. Some
of the ‘natives’ argued strongly against Chacon’s granting of ‘Crown’ land to the new largely French Caribbean immigrants on
the grounds that although they, the natives, held no title to the land in question, in fact, it belonged to them. They claimed
ownership on the grounds of immemorial possession, in many cases, having fixed their own boundaries. In most cases, the
Crown land, granted in previous years to the ‘native’ Spanish, had neither been surveyed nor had any ownership been
Most of the land that the native Spanish setters claimed was uncultivated and they hoped to sell this at high prices to the new
settlers. Chacon declared that there was scarcely any land remaining which was not claimed as property and consequently
declared that immemorial possession was no longer sufficient title to land.
The inadequacy of the land records and surveys meant that the ‘native’ Spanish found it difficult to prove the titles to their land.
This resulted in great inconvenience and discontent and was not beneficial to either the ‘natives’ or intending settlers. The
consequence of this record keeping neglect was that, over the years, it became evident that, at times, the same piece of land
had been granted to different persons.
Governor Chacon tried to reduce this confusion by forcing the the ‘native’ Spanish to give up any of ‘their’ uncultivated land.
According to Spanish law, all land grants should have been recorded in a register, known as the ‘Libro de Becerro’. However,
this regulation was not implemented properly and many of the original grants were never registered. Chacon stated that lands
claimed without a properly registered title, and which were not cultivated, would be forfeit to the Crown, unless the claimant
registered the title within three months and gave evidence of his intention and ability to cultivate.
By 1797 there were 4476 free ‘coloureds’ and free ‘blacks’ and 2151 ‘whites’ in Trinidad. The most important group within the
large French Catholic free ‘coloured’ population had been attracted by the land grants offered in the Cedula. They were also,
of course, planters and slave-owners, and they established flourishing estates, especially in the Naparimas.
The British and the Anglicans
Following the advent of British rule in 1797, Trinidad became an attractive colony for British immigrants, particularly as the
country still contained large areas of virgin, uncultivated land. By 1803, 1,000 new settlers had arrived and the continuing
uncertainties regarding the legal ownership of land created much confusion. It was not, however, until Governor Ralph James
Woodford (1813 - 1829) was appointed that this problem was solved by the enforcement of the existing powers, whereby land
would revert to the Crown, under certain circumstances.
A most unpopular measure of the Governor was his investigation into the previous grants of land by the Crown of Spain,
following the 1783 Cedula, and also with those of the old Spanish inhabitants who had experienced difficulties with their titles
with Governor Chacon. Governor Woodford called on the old occupiers of land to prove their titles, or take out new ones at
some expense. In addition, he attacked those who possessed lands by virtue of the Cedula of 1783. This document
recommended that the grants be registered in the 'Libro de Beccero', but Chacon had not enforced this regulation, resulting in
a majority of the post Cedula grants also being unregistered. Moreover, many of the land grants were either badly or not
surveyed at all.
The Spanish law of Trinidad, under the Cedula, also required that at least one-fifth of the land granted should be cultivated.
This clause had not been enforced, and Governor Woodford demanded a payment of five shillings, for each quarré of land,
threatened fines and the cancellation of a part or the whole of the grants, this policy rekindling the discontent reminiscent of
It was argued by those affected that the Governor’s actions were a major disincentive: he was taxing the very colonisation and
development which the Cedula of 1798 had intended to encourage. In the proclamation of 7 November, 1815, the law required
every man should own at least one slave for every five quarrés of land, and this stipulation to be enforced under pain of
forfeiture. All these policies depressed business confidence and caused great alarm to the affected British mortgagees as they
had become very aware that few people would lend money on land where the Crown might resume ownership.
By a proclamation of the 6th of November, 1816, the ‘quit rent’ was rescinded on lands granted before the British conquest of
the island; and by a proclamation of 1 December, 1818, the quit rent was reduced to three shillings per quarré on all lands.
The question regarding grants of land was generally badly managed and after much litigation and debate, and an expensive
commission, the British government, 12 years later, rescinded all the various proclamations relative to the land grants, and
returned the reclaimed lands. Few of the persons fined, however, were reimbursed.
Spanish law contained special provisions for the rights of illegitimate children and married women. Ordinances in 1843
amended the laws that prevented free disposal of property by will, and took away the special ‘ganancial’ rights of a married
woman to property she brought to her husband on marriage. By 1846 English civil law had been substantially introduced.
After Emancipation in 1838, the year of full freedom, the former slaves in Trinidad were more fortunate than those in the
neighbouring colonies. As they were fewer in number and there remained in Trinidad vast areas of undeveloped land, they
were able to demand higher wages. Alternatively, they could buy small areas of land from those estate owners who had to sell
to save themselves from bankruptcy during the financial crisis of the late 1840s. Some estate owners agreed to sell small
amounts of land to former slaves in the hope that they would remain in the area and continue to provide the estates with labour.
It has been estimated that by 1859, 83% of the former slaves who had left the estates had become land owners, holding 1 - 1 0
acres. For others, they either moved to the towns, engaged in petty trading or became small shopkeepers. Others squatted on
Crown lands or abandoned estates, the latter problem not being addressed effectively until the 1860s.
The Availability and Disposal of Crown lands
The official policy for the disposal of Crown lands was laid down in London in 1836 to keep it out of the reach of the masses,
in order to maintain continuity in the labour supply after Emancipation. At the end of the Apprenticeship, the smallest parcel
of Crown lands that could be bought was fixed at 640 acres, or 1 square mile. The former slaves could not possibly raise the
purchase price and so some squatted wherever possible.
Land policies, generally, were determined by the interests of the plantations and not the peasants. This can be seen in the
disposal of Crown lands. The smallholder wanted easy and cheap access to the Crown lands, and a good system of roads to
the newly opened areas. Such access to the Crown lands would discourage labour, both Creole and Indian, from providing
labour for the plantations, so between 1838 and 1869, the Crown lands were placed beyond the financial reach of the small
It was not until 1869, during the period of office of Governor A. H. Gordon, that this policy was changed, and the conditions
under which Crown lands were sold. The new rules for the disposal of Crown land were intended to help their orderly sale and
settlement in the future. The price was reduced to £1 per acre and the minimum lot to 5 acres, the transaction being carried out
locally at the Warden’s offices.The consequence of this was the opening up the Crown land for sale to the peasant farmers.
Some of Gordon’s successors, as Governor, changed the rules for the sale of these lands and made the process more difficult,
but they could not reverse his achievement.
After 1869, inspite of the rule changes, more Crown land was steadily sold, mostly to small buyers who purchased between 5
and 20 acres. In 1875 - 1885, 3,350 grants were made with a total acreage of 54,193; the average grant was 16 acres. In
1890 - 1900, the average annual sales totalled 6,800 acres and in 1899 alone 14,600 acres were sold.
Between 1885 - 1891, land policy changed again under Governor William Robinson who made Crown lands more easily
available to the labouring classes and the non-indentured Indians, an increasing number of whom took advantage of this during
the final twenty years of the 19th century.
Ordinance No. 6 of 1858: 'To Amend Real Property' (Replaced by No. 18 of 1939.)
Ordinance No. 14 of 1870: 'Real Property' (Replaced by No. 8 of 1889.)
Ordinance No. 8 of 1889: 'Real Property Ordinance' (Replaced by No. 44 of 1895.)
Ordinance No. 16 of 1890: 'Real Property' (Replaced by No. 44 of 1895.)
Ordinance No.44 of 1895: 'Real Property' (Replaced by No. 20 of 1945.)
The final three ordinances may be found at the National Archives of Trinidad & Tobago, but
On the question of squatting, Governor Gordon, through his appointment of Robert Mitchell as Warden and Commissioner of
Crown Lands in the district of Montserrat, which became a Ward Union in 1867, showed that squatters would become lawful
land-owners if reasonable terms were offered.
Mitchell soon reported that 408 Montserrat squatters had applied for 5,533 acres, and new settlers had applied for 3,000 acres
of unoccupied land. These squatters included peons, Creoles, British West Indian Immigrants, Yoruba, Ashanti, Congo and
Mandingo. Mitchell’s report for 1868 showed that the ‘African’ squatters had co-operated in buying the land they occupied,
some moving voluntarily to new settlements. Mitchell observed that most of the squatters were prepared to pay for legal title to
the land. By the end of 1870, Mitchell concluded that most of the squatters had either paid for the land or abandoned it, and by
the end of 1872, he reported that there were few new cases of squatting.
The ordinance under which the indentured Indian came to work in Trinidad placed him under a Protector of Immigrants. This
ordinance was changed numerous times over the years. The indentureship term was for five years’ duration after which the
indentured immigrant was entitled to a free passage home.
In order to persuade them to stay, the ordinance was changed to allow for grants of land being offered in exchange for the free
passage. Consequently, in 1869 a scheme started whereby male Indians who had lived in Trinidad for 10 years could be
granted 10 acres of Crown lands in lieu of a settlement of all claims to a free return passage to India. This resulted in Governor
Gordon being able to offer twenty-five ‘free’ Indians grants of Crown lands in lieu of their return passages to India.
As many Indians accepted the offer of land, the Governor felt that this policy was a development of great significance to
Trinidad and, consequently, this land commutation scheme was continued until 1880. The lands granted were usually close to
existing estates. Between 1869 - 1880, 2,643 male immigrants and their families had been settled on 19,055 acres.
Notwithstanding the land commutation scheme, most Indians obtained their land by purchasing Crown land in the normal way.