King's College London
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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

The apprenticeship system

Plate showing punishments including flogging and the treadmillAn interior view of a Jamaica house of correction, from: James Williams. A narrative of events since the 1st of August 1834 ... London: printed for the Central Emancipation Committee, 1838 [FCO Historical Collection HT1165 NOR]In his opening remarks to Parliament on the abolition bill Edward Stanley, the colonial secretary, described the decision to abolish slavery in the British colonies as a ‘mighty experiment’.

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of that experiment was the apprenticeship system. The British government hoped that apprenticeship would ease the transition from slavery to freedom, allow time for the formation of much of the social infrastructure of a free society and prevent the collapse of the sugar estates by ensuring a continued supply of labour.

The local colonial governments could, if they wished, adopt shorter terms of apprenticeship than those set out in thebill; they could not impose longer terms. One colony, Antigua, decided to give outright freedom immediately and universally to all its slaves, a bold measure which met with success.

It was in Jamaica, the colony where around half the slaves under British rule lived, that the apprenticeship system was most severely tested. Hardly anyone was happy with it; the slaves longed for complete freedom and the planters resented the loss of absolute power over their workers and what they perceived as the intrusive attentions of the 60 or so special stipendiary magistrates appointed by the British government to ensure that apprentices were not ill-treated.

Apprentices who refused to work were, however, handed over to the jurisdiction of the local magistrates, who, being generally local planters, often gave vent to their dislike of the apprenticeship system by imposing harsh punishments, such as flogging or the treadmill (see the plate on display).

In 1836 a government commission of enquiry was appointed to look into alleged abuses. Its report included the testimonies of a number of apprentices, such as James Williams, who had allegedly suffered ill-treatment at the House of Correction of St Ann’s parish, and concluded that this was ‘a place of licentiousness and cruelty; and ... the tread-mill ... an instrument of torture.’

The abolitionist campaigners seized on this report as evidence of the fundamental iniquity of the apprenticeship system and the pamphlet on display was issued by a Quaker philanthropist Joseph Sturge. British public opinion was roused and this, together with a legal judgment of 1838 that estate artisans could not be classified as apprentices, led to the early abandonment of the apprenticeship system. On 1 August 1838 all apprentices gained full freedom.

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