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La Educación
Número: (121) II
Año: 1995

Education in the British Caribbean Before Emancipation

The British Caribbean before emancipation has been described as “a barbarian community.”2Except perhaps for Barbados, which had a relatively large and stable white population, the plantocracy in the various territories made no serious attempts to establish permanent institutions of any kind, and made no systematic provision of education for the children of any social group during the slavery period. Charles Leslie, reviewing the state of education in Jamaica during the early years of the 18th century wrote, “Learning is here at the lowest ebb, there is no public school in the whole island, neither do they seem fond of the thing . . . to read, write and cast accounts is all the education they desire and even these are but scurvily taught.”3

The society was essentially hierarchical in structure with four recognizable social groups. At the top of the pyramid were the white planters, professionals and men of business who concentrated most of the political and all of the economic power in their own hands. Immediately below this group and united to it by color were the white tradesmen, book-keepers and poor whites who farmed a few acres. Next came the growing body of free blacks and colored people who were becoming increasingly prosperous and whose main social objective was to approximate as closely as possible the white upper class in manner, dress, appearance and behavior.4 At the bottom was the large mass of unpaid unlettered slaves—destined to form the working class in post-emancipation society.

During slavery there had been no formal provision of education for the slaves, except perhaps for that offered by non-conformist missionaries towards the end of the period. In the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy planters had bequeathed property and funds to establish foundations to educate poor white children and coloreds who could be classified as white. Their own children were educated privately at home or in the public schools and universities of Great Britain. Cundall refers to a list of 268 men born in Jamaica who were known to have matriculated at Oxford University between 1698 and 1885.5

There were occasional private schools that were usually headed by clergymen and catered mainly to less affluent whites. One such school was that pioneered by the Rev. John Wray in 1805 in Guyana with Hermanus Post, a Dutch planter, as trustee.6