Slavery and Emancipation

1816-1836: Jamaica Reluctantly Makes History by Freeing its Slaves

Although politically tumultuous, the years following the French Revolution were quiet on Jamaica. Few slave uprisings occurred, and wars seemed to be finally at an end. However, when Britain called for the end of slavery, Jamaica's planters were faced with a situation they certainly did not want.

Anti-slavery sentiment in Britain had been growing for approximately two centuries before finally coming to a head in the early 1800s with the passing of a ban on the importation of slaves in the Caribbean colonies, as well as a law declaring slave trade illegal. However, these laws did little to change the way of life of Jamaica's settlers. Their distance from England made it easy for the colonists to simply ignore these laws.

Slaves were smuggled in trade by British subjects in the West Indies quite often, until an 1827 act of Parliament in England declared the smuggling of slaves a form of piracy. Piracy was punishable by death, and this deterred many would-be smugglers. Still, the abolition of the slave trade was soon followed by bills provisioning the emancipation of the slaves.

English Pressures

The abolition of slavery was, at least in part, the result of the work of many people in England who believed that slavery was inherently bad. Not least among these petitioners against slavery was the Anti-Slavery Society. This group was founded in 1823 and was widely supported by the Quakers, whose earlier protests against slavery helped to begin the anti-slavery movement.

These pressures in England led to the historic idea of a gradual abolition of slavery in the colonies. The government drew up laws regimenting the abolition of slavery, but the laws also included instructions for the improvement of the slaves' way of life. These instructions included a ban of the use of whips in the field and a ban on the flogging of women; notification that slaves were to be allowed religious instruction; a requirement that slaves be given an extra free day during the week when they could sell their produce as well as a ban of Sunday markets.

In Jamaica, however, these measures were met with flat out refusal by the House of Assembly. The Assembly also claimed that the slaves were content with things as they were and objected to Parliament's interference in island affairs. Jamaica was not the only island to object to these measures but was one of the few with its own governing offices, and therefore many of the British colonies in the Caribbean were slow to accept these measures.

The island governor, the Duke of Manchester, did little to implement Britain's laws, but England had hopes that Jamaica and other independent islands would eventually come around to this new way of thinking. However, this was not to happen, and the Earl of Belmore, the Duke of Manchester's successor as governor, had only minimally more success in modifying Jamaica's system.

The whites' dislike of the new policies led to unrest in the slave population. The whites would discuss these matters openly, and the slaves soon came to believe that the government was withholding rights - as well as their freedom - that Britain had given them. However, history shows that these were far from the first revolts by slaves.

Revolts due to this unrest occurred in the British colony in Guyana as well as Jamaica, though on Jamaica the whites then used this unrest to serve their own purposes, claiming that the slaves had been happy until they began to believe the crown had made them free. While some revolts were discovered before they could occur, the general unrest among the slaves was problematic. Even so, the Assembly wrote to Britain asking for fiscal assistance in putting down these uprisings, claiming that it was the fault of the discussions in London that the slaves were rising up.

"Daddy" Sharpe

The slaves, believing themselves to have been freed by England, truly organized on the western part of the island, under the leadership of Samuel "Daddy" Sharpe. Sharpe was a Baptist preacher and slave and went on strike during Christmas week of 1831. This strike grew into one of the biggest slave rebellions Jamaica ever experienced. It would also prove to be the last rebellion.

St. James parish was where the first outbreak of this rebellion took place: Kensington Estate's great house and sugar works were set on fire. However, this was far from the last to be burned in the rebellion, and even though the majority of outbreaks took place in St. James, parishes across the island were affected, including Portland, Manchester, St. Elizabeth, and St.-Thomas-in-the-East. But, surprisingly, Kingston and Spanish Town remained untouched by the revolt.

While few people died in this revolt, the damage done to buildings was extensive. Sir Willoughby Cotton, leading the British troops, quickly brought the revolt under control without much bloodshed. The reaction by Jamaica's government was far more bloody, and many of the leaders of the revolt were executed, while others were flogged heavily. Sharpe was hanged, but he became a national hero, and the square in Montego Bay was renamed in his honor. In the end, England sent £200,000 to help repair damaged property.

Even whites, mainly Baptist missionary leaders, were charged with inciting the rebellion. William Knibb, Thomas Burchell, and H.G. Pfeiffer, a Moravian minister, were among those charged, though Pfeiffer came the closest to being executed. It was by luck that a militiaman was able to get him acquitted the day before his execution.

Mulatto Resistance

Jamaica was home to a large mulatto population, which would play an important role in the political changes of the island. The mulattoes were the descendants of white planters, who, from the earliest days of the settlement, lived with slave women and had children with them, but did not marry them. Although the children were by law slaves, most fathers freed their children.

By the 1820s, Jamaica's mulatto population was larger than the white population. Many had even acquired a great deal of wealth, and most were engaged in the growth of coffee and pimento, two important exports. Many were also involved in the militia.

Edward Jordon was the leader of the free mulatto portion of the population, and he edited a newspaper that called for an end to slavery. He was arrested for this publication and served six months in prison before his sentence for sedition and treason was reversed.

Jordon became an important part of Jamaican life in the next few years. The island's mulatto residents were also becoming dissatisfied with their position and lack of legal rights. Although they could work for themselves and own property, they could not vote or hold office.

In 1820, the mulattoes of Jamaica had begun to organize behind the then 21-year-old Jordon. Ten years later, they managed to push through an act giving themselves full civil rights. Still, it was not until after Sharpe's rebellion that the mulatto population was willing to openly side with the abolitionist movement.

Sugar Ends Slavery

One of the strongest arguments for slavery had been the cheap cost of sugar production. However, mismanagement and other effects had driven up the cost of sugar in the British West Indies. In return, the government sharply taxed sugar imported from other sources, including European beet sugar. By 1829, most British people could not afford sugar because the prices had skyrocketed.

British amelioration laws to improve the quality of slave life were continuously rejected in Jamaica, but the argument for cheap labor had dissipated. Parliament was no longer sympathetic to the troubles of the white plantation owners. However, in 1833 a bill to free all slaves was introduced in the British Parliament. It was passed the following month.

Emancipation Act

Commonly called the Emancipation Act, the act passed in 1833 is called the Abolition of Slavery Act. It was very strict in its provisions:

  • On Aug. 1, 1834, all slaves 6 years old and younger were to be freed, as would be any new children born in British territories.

  • On Aug. 1, 1834, all older slaves would begin a period of apprenticeship that would last for four or six years.

  • Predials," field-laborers, would remain apprenticed until Aug. 1, 1840.

  • Non-predials would remain apprenticed until Aug. 1, 1838.

  • After these dates, the slaves would be completely free.

  • During the period of apprenticeship, the slaves would work for their masters for three-fourths of each week, which amounted to 40.5 hours of work.

  • During the remaining 13.5 hours of the week, they were free to work for wages or work on the provision grounds.

  • With wages earned, a slave could buy his or her own freedom, with or without his master's consent.

  • Special Magistrates, later called Stipendiary Magistrates, would be appointed to oversee this apprenticeship process.

  • Parliament would divide out a sum of £20,000,000 among the slave owners as compensation for the loss of their property.

After the emancipation, things remained relatively peaceful on the island. However, Jamaica faced new hardships with the end of its free labor. The apprenticeship period would be a true challenge on the island.



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