How many of us really know about Emancipation and the significance of this event to Jamaica as we know it today? Yes, everybody knows that Emancipation came about 175 years ago today, on August 1, 1838; however, this was five years after the Emancipation Act was actually passed. On August 29, 1833, the Emancipation Act was passed by the British Parliament, which provided that as from August 1, 1834, all slave children under the age of six, and any who might be born after that date, were to be free. All other slaves became apprenticed to their former masters under the Apprenticeship system, according to the following categories:
- field labourers, or praedials as they were called, for six years (up to August 1, 1840)
- non-praedials for four years (up to August 1, 1838)
So Emancipation was meant to be a gradual affair and the time period between slavery and “full free,” as the slaves called Emancipation, was the period of Apprenticeship. Click the title of the Emancipation Act – very long title! – for a transcription: “An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves.”
Why Withhold “Full Free” for so Long?
For those BWI colonies that went ahead with implementing the Apprenticeship system, such as Jamaica – Apprenticeship was not adopted in countries such as Antigua and Bermuda, and full freedom was instead granted on August 1, 1834 – Apprenticeship was seen as necessary for several reasons:
- It was thought that the slaves in Jamaica needed to be slowly brought into freedom as their slave masters, via the island’s Assembly, had, on a whole, ignored the amelioration measures passed by the British Parliament in 1823, “which would have helped prepare the way and the people for citizenship” (Black 1983, pg. 109). These amelioration (meaning improving) measures included giving slaves an extra free day to sell their produce; forbidding the use of the whip in the fields, as well as the flogging of women; and allowing slaves religious instruction, among others. According to the island’s Assembly, these amelioration measures were unnecessary as Jamaica’s slave laws were complete as it stood, and the slaves were contented… Yeah right!
- There was also the fear that the granting of full freedom would result in a full abandonment of the plantations, and the ex-slaves settling on lands within the interior of the island, thus creating “a kind of jungle society which would be a social danger to the country while causing economic ruin, since production on the plantations would be seriously reduced or cease entirely” (Black 1983, pg. 109). This fear may have been a bit exaggerated by the plantocracy in order to justify the continuation of slavery. In countries like Antigua, however, this fear was minimised by the fact that almost all the land was already under sugar cultivation, and so few of the ex-slaves could support themselves outside of providing their labour to the plantations.
The Failure of the Apprenticeship System = The Dawn of Full Emancipation
Needless to say, the Apprenticeship system was an overall failure throughout the BWI, but in Jamaica especially there were no kind words about the system. Overall, planters abused the system, and used it as an opportunity to extract as much free labour from the apprentices (now no longer referred to as slaves). For instance there was a general dispute concerning the number of hours of work per day. According to the Emancipation Act, apprentices were required to provide 40 1/2 hours of labour to their former masters each week, without wages, while payment for work after that would be negotiated; however, the law did not stipulate the number of hours per day. The apprentices, supported by the Special Magistrates – those put in place to regulate the Apprenticeship system to protect the rights of the apprentices – tried to negotiate nine hour work days, which would mean the apprentices could complete their labour for the plantations by mid-day on Fridays, thus allowing more time for their personal labours. The planters demanded an eight hour work day, which meant the apprentices had less hours for themselves.
Additionally, planters coerced extra labour out of the apprentices by refusing them the allowance of food under the law and, if given, were forced to pay by providing extra labour to the plantations. Provision grounds were being rented under the Apprenticeship system, and extra labour accepted as payment of these rents.
The brutality of punishments continued and even increased during the Apprenticeship period and, according to Clinton V. Black (1983, pg. 111-112):
It is from the workhouses, as the slave prisons were called, that the most terrible stories of apprenticeship come. … The discipline of the workhouses was hard and it was usual for prisoners to be worked in chains. The dark cell, solitary confinement, flogging, starvation, the treadmill – these were punishments the apprentice might have to suffer even for minor offences. Of them the most frightful was the treadmill. … Persons undergoing punishment trod on these steps, their weight causing the cylinder to revolve, compelling them to move quickly from step to step as the cylinder turned. If anyone slipped or fainted while on the mill, they hung by their tied wrists from the overhead handrail while the revolving step battered them.
And, I might add, they were also whipped to continue treading, if they did slip or fainted.
Full Free At Last!
The abuses under the system continued until it came closer for the complete emancipation of the non-praedial apprentices in 1838. After much lengthy discussions in the British Parliament, it was decided that it made no sense to hold the field labourers under the apprenticeship system after 1838. As such, a resolution was passed in the Parliament that praedial apprenticeship should also end on August 1, 1838.
At last full Emancipation for all, August 1, 1838!
Today, as the majority descendants of slaves, we remember the period of slavery, the struggle against this inhumane practice, and those who gave their sweat, blood, voices and tears – black, white, mulatto, and everything in between, as they were categorised back then – to ensure that today we are guaranteed and enjoy “full free!” What does Emancipation mean to you?
Until next time…
Black, Clinton V. (1983). History of Jamaica. Kingston: Carlong Publishers Caribben Ltd.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Treadmill, Jamaica, 1837; Image Reference NW0196, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.