We’re living through a time when one part of Britain is talking about slavery’s role in making the country a world power and another part is accusing the first part of rewriting history and also of being politically correct and no fun at all. But we’re going to skip over the argument and look at the history itself.
Britain abolished slavery before its former thirteen colonies and takes some official pride in that, and in the role of its abolitionists, but history’s always being rewritten, otherwise we could have one book on every topic and call it enough. So let’s look at one of the less acknowledged things the British Empire did after it abolished slavery. (That was in 1834, since you asked). Because the story of slavery doesn’t end with abolition.
The apprenticeship system
When slavery ended, Britain’s Caribbean colonies shifted to an apprenticeship system, which basically said to the slaves, Look, you’re now free, but you’re also so ignorant you need years-long apprenticeships to teach you the ways of freedom. During that time, of course, you’ll work for your former masters and get paid nothing. You don’t know how to handle money anyway. And your former masters will still be your masters, but this is different from slavery because–
Oh, let’s not worry about the details. You wouldn’t understand the subtleties.
Most of the sources I’ve read repeat the system’s rhetoric about getting the slaves used to freedom. It’s the justification was used at the time. One source, though–an academic paper–talks about it as a way for the slaves to buy their freedom from their masters by working forty-five unpaid hours a week for their former masters. That was the behind-the-scenes rhetoric.
That would’ve been in addition to the money Britain paid slave owners as compensation for having let their property walk free.
After their forty-five hour weeks, the former slaves could work for themselves or for someone who’d pay them.
Field slaves would be apprenticed for six years and house slaves for four.
Why the difference? Not because one group needed more training than the other but because the work of the field slave was more important to the economy. Sugar plantations were central both to the economies of both the colonies and Britain itself. Many a respectable British fortune came from the sugar plantations run by slave labor.
Former slave children under six were freed immediately.
That’s good, right?
Well, no, because if you give children under six enough time they become children over six, and as soon as that happened the kids entered into apprenticeships that would last not four years and not six years but until they were twenty-one.
Many former slaves refused to work as apprentices, at which point the justice system, in the form of local magistrates, stepped in. And who were the local magistrates? People of stature in the community, of course, which is to say planters. Which is to say former slave owners–the people who’d lose money if the former slaves refused to shift quietly into the new system and work for free as apprentices.
Magistrates could and did impose flogging–a punishment widely used under slavery–or a new punishment, the treadmill, which involved strapping a person to a bar so that their feet had to keep a drum rotating. If they didn’t keep it rolling, it would hit them, hard. A governmental commission sent from Britain to investigate conditions called it an instrument of torture.
Antigua and Bermuda skipped over the apprenticeship system–not for noble motives but because slave owners realized they could make more money by freeing their slaves immediately, paying them a very small daily wage, and leaving them to feed and house themselves as best they could on the inadequate amount they were paid. Since sugar plantations dominated the economy, other jobs were somewhere between hard and impossible to come by and people were trapped. So slavery ended and–
Have you ever read about wage slavery and rolled your eyes at the overblown rhetoric? Antigua and Bermuda could make a person regret that eye roll.
The end of the apprenticeship system
The apprenticeship system was abandoned early, in 1838, and the former slaves were granted their full freedom. That was due in part to the resistance that former slaves put up, which ranged from “disquiet” and “unrest” to full-scale rioting. Not a lot is written about that–at least not that I found–but at one point St. Kitts declared martial law. Much more is written about abolitionists who shifted over to campaign against the apprenticeship system, and they tend to get the credit for the system’s early end. To historians in Britain, they were more visible than the rebels, and more familiar, and they left a kind of documentation that the rebels couldn’t.
In Jamaica, where land was going uncultivated, many freed slaves abandoned the plantations and took over what was considered waste land. In other parts of the Caribbean, though, there was no waste land to be had and no alternative to working on the plantations at whatever wage was offered.
Yes, I do regret that eye roll.