The significance of Emancipation to the slaves
By Arlene Munro

Stabroek News
August 2, 2001

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By an Act of the British Parliament passed on August 28, 1833, 780,993 slaves in the British West Indies, the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius became legally free from August 1, 1834. The provisions of the 1833 Bill included the full emancipation of children under the age of six. Persons six years and older entered a new phase known as apprenticeship which ended in 1838. In this new system, field slaves were obligated to work 40 1/2 hours each week until August 1, 1840 and domestic slaves were to work full-time until August 1, 1838. Therefore, in the initial stage of legal freedom, liberation was limited. The Act allowed apprentices to buy their full freedom at a fee approved by the court. Stipendiary magistrates were to be provided by the British government to ensure that the apprenticeship system was well executed and that justice was given to both planter and apprentice. The system was devised to ensure a continuous supply of labour for the plantation and to prepare the freed blacks to become wage earners.

To the ex-slave, the Abolition Act was significant. To those ex-slaves who did not fully comprehend the limitations of apprenticeship, it meant freedom to be masters of their own fate, to leave estate labour, to migrate to another part of the colony, to marry and raise a family. It also meant freedom from punishment, torture and humiliation. It signified freedom from bondage and slavery. There was a strong feeling of elation among the slaves.

However, to those ex-slaves who were fully cognizant of their new role under apprenticeship, the Act of Abolition meant an opportunity to earn money by working overtime i.e. beyond the required 40 1/2 hours on the plantation. This money was saved for future investment.

In view of these facts, it appears that the liberation of the slaves was questionable and limited until 1838, when apprenticeship was terminated prematurely. The slaves had received freedom in 1834 but it was, in reality, freedom to return to plantation labour. Under apprenticeship the ex-slaves were still subject to punishment on the treadmill and in workhouses. Historians note that some of the planters, in their efforts to exact the last ounce of labour from the ex-slaves, forced them to work harder and punished them more severely without inviting the stipendiary magistrates to intervene.

Even when the stipendiary magistrates played the role of arbiter, some were impartial and gave justice to the apprentices, while others were under the influence of the planter. At least the apprentice was allowed access to someone who would listen to his grievances and seek to redress them. It was unfortunate that the paucity of stipendiary magistrates lessened the positive impact they could have made.

Then there was the question of social services. After Emancipation, the planters ceased to be responsible for providing medical attention for the ex-apprentices. The Colonial office had to impress upon the Colonial governments the importance of providing social services for them. In 1840 only 11,114 pounds were expended on medical care in British Guiana with 27,796 pounds on the police force. With respect to his right to buy full freedom before 1838 the apprentice was restricted. He was restrained by unusually high appraisements, which he would find difficult to meet.

However, one redeeming advantage of abolition during the period of apprenticeship was the introduction of education for the ex-slaves. The British government passed a resolution in 1833 to "assist the education of freedmen." Twenty-five thousand pounds were allocated, of which 20,000 were to be spent on the construction of schools and 5,000 pounds on the establishment of schools for the training of teachers. Missionary societies were invited to impart religious and moral instruction to the freed Blacks at the expense of the British government. British Guiana received 1,950 pounds and Jamaica received 7,850 pounds. Therefore, to the ex-slave, freedom meant the opportunity for him to receive an education.

Following an investigation of the abuses of the apprenticeship system, it was hastily terminated and all the apprentices received full emancipation on August 1, 1838. To the ex-apprentices liberty signified not only freedom from bondage and punishment, but freedom to purchase land and establish villages, freedom to migrate to other parts of the colony, freedom to sell their services to the highest bidder, and to engage in other business enterprises. Farley rightly states " ...the Act to the villagers of British Guiana is the landmark of economic freedom." In British Guiana, the ex-apprentices bought land with their savings and established villages on the coastland and banks of the Demerara River. By 1842 1,223 families owned 7,000 acres of land. Some cultivated crops at subsistence level. Others reared cattle, burnt charcoal, cut firewood and traded in timber in order to earn a living. One freed Black became the owner of a sawmill driven by steam and waterpower. Some became shopkeepers, petty traders and hucksters.

Similar developments took place in Jamaica and other British colonies. During the period of apprenticeship the Jamaican ex-slaves began to buy plots of land and to establish villages. The Baptist Church was the first to assist by buying land and re-selling it to the ex-slaves. Between 1835 and 1841, more than 3,000 ex-slaves bought land in Baptist villages with their savings. After Emancipation in 1838, the Scottish and Wesleyan Methodist missionaries assisted them also.

It is noteworthy that the Colonial governments tried to retard the development of a Black peasantry by raising the prices of land in the 1840s and increasing the value of trading licences. Their intention was to force the ex-slaves to return to the plantation. They also imposed high taxes on the necessities of life. All this resulted in serious wage conflicts between the ex-slaves and the plantocracy, as the former sought to exact from the latter a living wage.

The Abolition Act of 1833 was a momentous one for the thousands of slaves who were freed in the West Indies. It signified that they would eventually be masters of their own fate.

The former slaves were somewhat free to determine their own lives, yet they were still, to a considerable extent, subject to the authority of the plantocracy. Eventually, some of them became successful peasant farmers and porknockers, but others who failed to achieve their goals continued in, or returned to plantation labour.