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  • Writer's pictureChristine Nunes

Brief History of Land Ownership in Jamaica

With the recent commemoration of Emancipation in Jamaica, one could not help but reminisce on what land ownership meant for the newly freed enslaved Africans in 1838, four (4) years after slavery was declared abolished and the Apprenticeship period had ended. Now here we are, more than 150 years later; so much has changed, yet so much remains the same.

This article will give a brief overview of the historical ownership of land in Jamaica commencing at the time of Emancipation and ending with the two species of land ownership that primarily remain today-registered and unregistered land ownership.

Cusp of Emancipation (1830-1837)

At the cusp of freedom, Baptist Minister and abolitionist, Rev. James Phillippo, and missionaries, William Knibb and Thomas Burchell, championed the cause for full freedom of the enslaved population and most importantly, the establishment of free villages. In anticipation of full freedom, the Baptist missionaries acquired lands for settlements where the newly emancipated people could live, build homes, farm lands and set up trade without fear of eviction from their former owners. They accomplished this feat with the acquisition of the first Free Village, Sligoville, in 1835. This was the catalyst for the establishment of numerous other Free Villages throughout the island.

Full Freedom (1838)

With full freedom in 1838 and a number of Free Villages now existing across the island, there still remained challenges with the interest and ownership in land for the formerly enslaved. There existed Crown lands-lands still owned by the English monarch that were primarily mountainous and not suitable for settlements and “Back Land”-largely uncultivated estate lands. With limited access to purchasing their own lands, and high rental, freedmen and the formerly enslaved began settling on lands throughout the island. After all, they did believe that this was only fair and equitable as ownership of land would afford them security in a world where they had no other resources and were now yearning for the ability to create stability for themselves and their families.

Lest they forget we are free! Struggles with land “ownership” (1838-1865)

Between 1838 and 1865, the move towards land ownership intensified, with the passing of legislations geared towards evicting the peasant class who took possession of lands unoccupied and who were deemed to be trespassing on private residents’ land. Additionally, the introduction and hammering burden of taxes and toll gates by large scale landowners to secure property and monitor movements, hindered the free movement of the newly freed from gaining access to markets and town centres, and by extension, preventing them from making a livelihood. After all, they were no longer confined to the plantations of their owner but were freed people.

When the aggrieved peasants had enough, they petitioned to the then Queen, Victoria, expressing their plight and the need for the titling of land to secure ownership rights and for reprieve from taxes and tolls to access Crown lands and Back lands. Following the arguably scant disregard in the “Queen’s Advice” to address their concerns, this catapulted riots, leading to the infamous Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 led by Baptist Preacher and now one of the six named National Heroes of Jamaica, Paul Bogle.

Crown Colony and Monumental Changes to Land Ownership (1865-1889)

Following the Morant Bay Rebellion, the government structure, the Assembly, was dissolved. This led to the formation of the island becoming a Crown Colony. This ushered in for Jamaica monumental changes to land ownership, transfer and lease arrangements of lands, which for the most part, still exist today.

There were numerous legislations enacted to deal with the “legal” ownership, transfer, and overall, dealings with the majority of what were now Crown lands. Importantly to note, majority of the peasant class, who were from the group of formerly enslaved, were ‘landless’.

While this period was pleasantly inundated with legislations to deal with the issues surrounding land ownership and dealings, there were three (3) significant pieces of legislations passed that must be highlighted:

1. Aliens Law Amendment Act, 1871-allowing foreigners to own land in the colony.

2. Married Women Property Rights Law, 1886-married women could now hold and transfer land in Jamaica.

3. Registration of Titles Act (ROTA), 1889-legislative framework and introduction of a registry system “…to give certainty to the Title to Estates in Land, and to facilitate proof thereof, and also to render dealings with Land more simple and less expensive.” [Preamble of ROTA]

The culmination of the legislative changes that span the mid to late nineteenth century, with the enactment of the Registration of Titles Act (ROTA) and by extension, the Torrens System of Registration, bearing the name of the Australian legislator, Sir Robert Richard Torrens, is what continues to govern dealings with land ownership and transfer in Jamaica. The Torrens System reflects the ownership of real property by the issuance of an official certificate indicating the name(s) of the individual to whom such property belongs.

Where are we now? Registration of Title’s Act (ROTA)

Today, Jamaica, the third largest Caribbean Island, with a total land area of 10,990 square kilometers (World Data, 2023) consists of both registered and unregistered lands. The Torrens System adopted in the late nineteenth century with the passing of ROTA is still the system by which registered lands in Jamaica operates. Section 2 of the Act stipulates that All laws and practice whatsoever, relating to freehold and other interests in land, so far as is inconsistent with the provisions of this Act, are hereby repealed, as far as regards their application to land under the provisions of this Act, or the bringing of land under the operation of this Act.

The primary objective of the Torrens System is set out in the Privy Council case of Gibbs v Messer (1891) A.C.248

the object is to save persons dealing with registered proprietors from the trouble and expense of going behind the register in order to investigate the history of their author’s title, and to satisfy themselves of its validity. That end is accomplished by providing that everyone who purchases, in bona fide and for value, from a registered proprietor, and entered his deed of transfer or mortgage on the register shall thereby acquire an indefeasible right notwithstanding the infirmity of his author’s title.”

Despite the feat our forefathers have managed to overcome to get us to this point, there still remains approximately 40 percent of unregistered lands in Jamaica. In other words, many Jamaicans are still without a registered Title for their land.

The knowledge, resources and government initiatives implemented through programmes such as the Land Administration Management Division (LAMD) are available more than ever. The heralding of individuals and stakeholders who understand and appreciate the significance of getting Title for one’s land is in fact louder than ever before. We now have the power to finish that which our forefathers started and to secure ownership of lands by getting a registered Title.

This Article is for general information purposes only and does not, and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

By Christine Nunes


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