Apprenticeship Laws

1834-1838: Jamaica's History as a Slave Island Ends in Apprenticeship

Although emancipation was brought to Jamaica, the historic apprenticeship period came with its own problems. Jamaicans had to consider a form of cheap labor to guide them through the time it took for the emancipation of their former slaves to be complete.

Government abided by the regulations of the apprenticeship period on Jamaica and other large islands because the white plantation owners worried the slaves would leave and find their own land to live on and work for themselves. Jamaica did accept the Emancipation Act, in part because it was the only way to qualify for compensation for what they saw as an eventual loss of their slaves.

Rising Conflicts

Although emancipation laws required former masters to provide apprentices with lodging and food, many owners charged for food or for rent in the form of extra labor. The special magistrates were intended to put a stop to these injustices, but they could not be at every plantation at once, and the majority worked extremely hard to improve the conditions of the apprentices.

Another problem of apprenticeship was the division of labor hours. The apprentices were required to work 40.5 hours per week for the master, but the hours were not divided. While special magistrates fought for a nine-hour day - leaving the apprentices half a day on Friday as well as Saturday free for other work - planters almost always insisted on eight-hour days, meaning the apprentices were not given much time for their own.

The plantation owners also charged exorbitant rates to former slaves who wanted to buy their own freedom, though nearly 1,500 did in two years - the highest recorded sum being more than £100. Planters were also known to work their apprentices more harshly than they had when the blacks were slaves, with more brutal punishments as well.

Such brutal punishments included the treadmill: This had been introduced to Jamaica by Lord Sligo in an attempt to help the apprentices because he had always hated the use of whips, particularly on women. The treadmill is not like those we know today, but instead was a large cylinder with a series of steps attached to it. The person's weight on these steps caused the cylinder to spin, and they would have to step quickly to remain standing. If a person fainted or fell, he would hang by the wrists tied to a handrail while the steps hit him.

Although confusion among the slaves and resentment among the planters made the first year of apprenticeship very difficult, relations began to improve in 1835 and 1836. However, by 1837 conditions had worsened again.

At the end of 1836, a new Governor, Sir Lionel Smith, attempted to pass a few laws through the Assembly to improve relations. One such law would fix the working day at nine hours, while another would address the issue of food quantity given to each apprentice. However, the Assembly dug in its heels, as it had done before, and nothing improved.

Early End

These problems were well-known on the island but not abroad. However, several Quakers came to observe the apprenticeship system in the Caribbean and wrote three books that incited the British public once again. Although changes were not made immediately, it was nearly time for the full emancipation of the non-predial apprentices.

First came the question of whether certain workers, such as carpenters, coopers, smiths, and masons, should be counted as predial. These artisans were, at last, determined as non-predial workers, and were to be freed at the earliest date. However, the full emancipation of these workers, who would likely leave the estates immediately, would then put a stop to most plantation work.

Movements were suggested in Parliament that all apprenticeships should be ended on that same date because plantation work would be put to an end without the work of the artisans. This was one case in which Jamaica's Assembly had no grounds for resistance, and freedom finally arrived in Jamaica in 1838.

Although the apprenticeship period in history was meant to ease the change between slavery and freedom for the landowners, there was no help for either freed black nor planter after the slaves were completely free, and this would cause a new host of problems.

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