The Tenant League

 

The Tenant League:  1864-1867

               The Afton Community was growing significantly as increasing numbers were making the journey across the Atlantic in search of a better life. Newcomers to the community were presented with the opportunity to build a life on uninhabited land. However, these newcomers were at the hands of a British hierarchy of land proprietors, many of which were absentee proprietors.[1] The settlers paid rent to these proprietors in order to remain on the land. It is important to mention, although these newcomers were given land, the conditions which were presented, were anything but optimal. The lots were covered with a thick blanket of trees, making cultivation and farming impossible until the land was properly cleared. Furthermore, the settlers paid their own way across the Atlantic, and were unable to farm or begin any kind of production until the land was cleared; meaning very little income, if any, was obtained. Being unable to produce crops or livestock made paying the quitrents extremely difficult, especially when they had no legal rights to the land in which they laboured to maintain.

                Although many of the landlords were absentee proprietors, the settlers of the Afton Community were obligated to pay quitrents.  If they failed to pay rent, they would be evicted from their property with zero compensation.[2] The Tenant League was founded on May 19, 1864, in order to protest the payment of rent to the absentee land proprietors. It was finally time for the settlers to speak out against the proprietors who have had little to nothing to do with the clearing and cultivation of the land. These quitrents have been collected since the lottery in 1767, by proprietors who placed no importance on the land. The Tenant league supported the settlers refusing to pay rent, which at the time, was a legally collectible debt. Harry Bentinck Cumberland, as previously mentioned, owned approximately one third of the entire township 65, and was notorious for being a harsh landlord. He was an absentee proprietor who lived on the Island for many years before he returned to England in the 1850’s. There were several disputes in the Afton Community between the settlers and the sheriffs and bailiffs, particularly surrounding the Cumberland estate.

                A significant dispute occurred in Rocky Point when Deputy Sheriff James Curtis and bailiff, Jonathan Collings, succeeded in serving a writ to James Gorveatt at his home. As the story goes, Gorveatt hopped on his horse, after breathing several threats to the Sheriff and bailiff, and set off to make right of the situation. He headed for the South shore settlement blowing a tin trumpet.  He gathered a group of a dozen persons on horseback blowing horns, which quickly expanded to about thirty individuals. The mob surrounded Curtis and Collings until they were unable to proceed any further, all the while continuing to sound their trumpets, causing a serious disturbance. After two hours of this tumult, Curtis and Collings reached Rocky Point and managed to catch the Ferry to Charlottetown. Before the ferry pulled away, Curtis gave a writ to Patrick Doolan, which provoked the crowd to sound their horns yet again.[3]

                Curtis and Collings were forced to leave their horses behind in Rocky Point. Due to the nature of the dispute, the settlers, who were still worked up from the dispute, broke into the stable which housed the horses of the Sheriff and bailiff. When they returned for their horses the next morning they found their horses with shaved tails, and their wagon in the water. According to later newspaper reports, the horse’s mane had also been clipped. Curtis and Collings were unable to serve anymore writs in the area, because they were met with sixty-seven men armed with sticks refusing to let them pass.

                Another element in the series of events at Rocky Point, is the maiming and killing of animals. Animal maiming, while universally condemned, played a role in the nineteenth-century rural protest. Although little is known about this subject, it is certain that animal mutilation represented retaliation against the owner for transgression against a certain code of behavior.  The situation became so extreme that the Island government called in military troops from Halifax to aid the Sheriff’s officers to enforce the law in 1865.[4] It has been said; the troops remained for the better part of a year to protect the Sheriff and deputies while serving writs. It was not until after Confederation, that a bill was passed coercing the landlords to sell their estates to the Island government.

               The tenant league represents an early form of protest against authority figures. The settlers wanted a change and in order to do so, they were forced to take action. The land question was an issue of great debate in Prince Edward Island for over a century. Without the determination and collaboration of individuals willing to act out, the land question may have never been rectified. The settlers earned the right to legally possess their own land. The land they worked so hard to clear, in order to begin a prosperous life in the Afton Community.



[1] Ian R. Robertson, The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island 1864-1867: Leasehold Tenure in the New World. 1996

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Benjamin Bremner, Memories of Long Ago, www.islandregister.com/bremnerm2.html

 

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