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The Aftermath of Slavery - Apprenticeship


Good Behaviour of Emancipated Negroes - Apprenticeship; its Drawbacks and Abuses - Houses of Correction-Joseph Sturge - His Visit to West Indies - Negro Progress - Building of Churches and Schools - Apprenticeship Abolished.
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Lord Sligo, who became Governor of Jamaica in 1834, continued to send excellent reports of the good behaviour of the negroes, whilst the Bishop of Jamaica wrote, in 1835, that 'the industry of the negroes when working for wages has so entirely belied the apprehensions of the planters here that I have not a doubt of the entire success of the emancipation measure.'

But though legally emancipated on August 1, 1834, the negroes were, as we have seen, to be subject to apprenticeship for seven years and, before long, the news of their good behaviour began to be chequered by reports of their ill-treatment. Opinions differ greatly as to the condition of the negroes in general under apprenticeship. When Joseph Sturge visited the West Indies in 1837, he exposed some sensational cruelties and brought home with him a negro apprentice, James Williams, whom he had redeemed in order to rescue him from a long course of abominably cruel treatment. There is no doubt that the prisons and Houses of Correction were dens of cruelty. But in many parts of the West Indies the apprentices were well treated, worked for far shorter hours than under slavery, and earned good enough wages to be able to save something. Dr. W. L. Mathieson, in his recent book 'British Emancipation,' has probably summed up the position accurately when he expresses the view that apprenticeship 'fell far short of Emancipation, but it certainly was not worse than Slavery.'

At the worst the apprenticed negro lived in the expectation of freedom at an early date, while under slavery he had nothing to live for and no hope of release save by death. Sligo, though he criticised its abuses severely, said that 'the want of complete success' was all that could be urged against it. The great majority of the planters disliked bitterly the Emancipation Act which had been forced upon them, and some, having no longer the 'property interest' which they had possessed when the negroes were their slaves, appeared to care even less than before whether they undermined the health of their apprentices by under-feeding or excessive punishments. They were abetted by the local legislatures, which revived oppressive laws which had become obsolete and devised new instruments such as vagrancy laws, laws to confine the negro to particular localities, wages acts, and laws to compel the apprenticeship of children. Lord Sligo and his equally humane and enlightened successor, Sir Lionel Smith, reported many abuses: 'Apprentices have had their food allowances stopped, often Saturdays taken from them. How then are they to exist without theft?' (Sir Lionel Smith) In some cases they received only half the quantity of farinaceous food to which, even as slaves, they had been legally entitled. A forty-five hour week had been legally enacted, but was freely disregarded. The apprentices were punishable as vagabonds for going beyond bounds. One particularly objectionable practice was that of sentencing them to penal labour and then appropriating the labour to the use of their employers.

Although the flogging of women by overseers had been rendered illegal, they were still flogged by means of a legal quibble, under cover of prison discipline. Sir Lionel Smith, writing in 1837 to the Special Justices of Jamaica, commented on the severity of corporal punishments. In Mauritius, where the operation of the apprenticeship system was particularly oppressive, a quarter of the whole apprenticed population were punished in eleven months, 1835-36, more than half by flogging.

The Houses of Correction to which the apprentices, male and female, were committed, often for the most trivial offences, were described by Joseph Sturge as 'dens of pollution, outrage and cruelty.' The treadmill, recently introduced into West Indian prisons and of local manufacture, was nothing but an instrument of torture.

Mr. Lytton Bulwer, (Lytton Bulwer was the first member of his family to be the champion of native races. The present holder of the title has continued the family tradition by his courageous work for the Abolition of Slavery) the novelist, afterwards the first Lord Lytton, when speaking in the House of Commons in 1838 in support of the Bill for the immediate abolition of apprenticeship, referred to 'the Coroner's jury who, in the celebrated instance of the woman tortured to death at the treadmill, returned a verdict of "Death by the visitation of God,"' and to 'Constables generally selected for their qualifications as slave-drivers.'

The local Justices of the Peace were drawn, as we have remarked in an earlier chapter, from the planting interests. But Special Magistrates were appointed to safeguard the interests of the negroes, and these men had indeed a difficult path before them. As Lord Glenelg remarked, when introducing in 1838 the Bill to amend the Abolition Act, 'Unless a Special Magistrate be a notorious partisan of the planter, nothing is too bad for him, whereas, for those who are called "Busha" Magistrates, that is, under the influence of the overseers, nothing is too good.' It is greatly to the credit of the majority of the Special Magistrates that Sligo could write of them: 'What was in the physical power of man to do, they did, and it is a matter of the greatest wonder and admiration that so much zeal, so much energy and such an indefatigable spirit of humanity as pervaded the vast majority should have been displayed by them."

The general sentiment of West Indian opinion appears to have been that to administer the apprenticeship in the spirit of the English Abolition Act was incompatible with the peace and prosperity of the Colonies. Antigua, which granted immediate and complete Emancipation in 1834 without any^period of apprenticeship, was an honourable exception^ The Jamaica Assembly remained true to its old tradition of resistance to every step taken for the amelioration and abolition of slavery. Sligo and his successor, Lionel Smith, were both attacked with the utmost violence.

Finally, the Home Government was forced to take the extreme step of suspending the Assembly.

It will be remembered that Buxton had accepted apprenticeship unwillingly for the time being, and moved an amendment to terminate it after one year. This was defeated, and he resigned himself to it. But Joseph Sturge and the more militant spirits in the Anti-Slavery movement were determined that it should be brought to a speedy end.

Joseph Sturge is a remarkable figure in the history of Emancipation. Born in 1793, the son of a Quaker farmer, near Bristol, he became a successful cornfactor in Birmingham. His twin interests were slavery and peace. He was a practical and vigorous Christian, who described himself as 'one of those who have never been able to see that a Christian was not equally bound to discharge his political with his religious duties.' 'When a Christian.' he said, 'is convinced that the principle on which he acts is correct, I believe it does not become him to examine too closely his probability of success.' He had none of the compromising instincts of a Parliamentarian, and had already, as we have seen, attacked Buxton for what he regarded as weak and sinful compromise in agreeing to compensation for the planters and apprenticeship for the slaves. He and his friends were not alone in their indignation with the planters for having perpetrated what they regarded as 'a practical and deliberate fraud' in accepting the 20,000,000 paid by the nation for the redemption of the slaves and then proceeding to turn apprenticeship into something which, in some of the islands at least, was almost indistinguishable from slavery.

Joseph Sturge and his friend Thomas Harvey determined to visit the West Indies to collect evidence. Cobden has left us an amusing picture of the visit paid by Sturge to Brougham which decided the former to take the voyage.

Brougham [writes Cobden] told me of Sturge coming to him to arraign the conduct of the masters in the West Indies in oppressing their apprentices; how he (Brougham) laughed at him: 'Why, Joseph Sturge, how can you be such an old woman as to dream that you can revive the Anti-Slavery agitation to put an end to the apprenticeship?' How the quiet Quaker met him with this reply - 'Lord Brougham, if when Lord Chancellor thou hadst a ward in Chancery who was apprenticed and his master was violating the terms of indenture, what would'st thou do?' How he felt this as a home thrust and replied 'Why, I should require good proof of the fact, Joseph Sturge, before I did anything.' How our friend rejoined - 'Then I must supply thee with the proof.' How he packed his portmanteaux and quietly embarked for the West Indies, made a tour of the islands, collected the necessary evidence of the oppression that was being practised on the negro apprentices by their masters, the planters; how he returned to England and commenced an agitation throughout the country to abolish apprenticeship, to accomplish which it was necessary to reorganise all the old Anti-Slavery Societies which had been dissolved, or had laid down their arms... how he brought them again into the field and attained his object. [This is Cobden's description.]

The outcries of the planters at what they described as 'the lies of the infamous Sturge' may be imagined, but the actual outcome of his journey was that Parliament abolished apprenticeship as from August 1, 1838, three years before the date fixed by the Emancipation Act. Zachary Macaulay died in May, just too soon to hear the good news. Buxton had been severely criticised for doubting whether it was practicable to get apprenticeship shortened. Some time before Parliament abolished it (on the Motion of Sir Eardley Wilmot) he wrote to one of his old Anti-Slavery coadjutors: 'It seems just possible that the delegates may succeed, and if so, I am sure we shall both say "Thank God that other people had more courage and more discernment than ourselves."' By the time it was carried Buxton was no longer in Parliament (having been defeated at Weymouth in July, 1837). Nothing could have been wanner or more generous than his appreciation of Sturge, to whom he wrote:

I bless God for the event; I bless God that He, who has always raised up agents such as the crisis required, sent you to the West Indies. I bless God that, during the Apprenticeship, not one act of violence against the person of a white man has, I believe, been perpetrated by a negro.

And in a letter to the Hon. Mrs. Upcher he said (May 23, 1838): I must write a line to tell you that Sturge and that party whom we thought all in the wrong are proved to be all in the right. A resolution for the immediate abolition of the Apprenticeship was carried by a majority of three last night. The intelligence was received with such a shout by the Quakers (myself among the number) that we strangers were all turned out for rioting! I am right pleased. (Buxton was by this time no longer in Parliament, hence his presence in the Strangers' Gallery with the Friends.)

This Motion was followed by a Bill introduced by Lord Brougham.

It is interesting to note that Disraeli voted for the termination of apprenticeship, while Gladstone, who had not yet emerged fully from the slave-owning traditions of his family, was in the opposite camp.

The despatch written by Lord Aberdeen, then Colonial Secretary, on the position of the negroes after the termination of apprenticeship is an admirable example of liberal principles. One extract must suffice: The great cardinal principle of the law for the abolition of Slavery [he wrote] is that the apprenticeship of the emancipated slaves is to be immediately succeeded by personal freedom, in that full and unlimited sense of the term in which it is used in reference to the other subjects of the British Crown. [He continued]: The preceding examination of colonial laws... will have exploded the idea of safety in leaving the welfare of the negroes to the care of colonial assemblies, or for the present to their own unaided exertions.

The Emancipators at home realised clearly that the negroes must be aided during their transition from slavery to freedom. The ink was hardly dry upon the Emancipation Act of 1833 before Buxton was at work on schemes for their education. After much expense and trouble he and Lushington were able to obtain a sum of over 110,000 left in 1710 by a certain Lady Mico 'for the redemption of white slaves in Barbary.' To this sum Government added a temporary grant of 20,000 a year to be used in educating the negroes. Both Buxton and Sturge gave generously of their own resources and the former took great trouble in interviewing personally the schoolmasters and missionaries who were sent out. Buxton maintained from the first that the training of native teachers was essential and gave them every encouragement. The negroes showed great zeal for education. The Baptist missionaries, formerly supported from this country, were now paid entirely by their own people, and well paid too. 'We learn from (the missionary) Knibb that from 1835 to 1840, in the three congregations under his care, no less than 11,000 had been raised for chapel building and education, and that in the whole Western Union the sum collected for these purposes amounted to 60,000. A sum of nearly 600 was subscribed to defray Knibb's expenses when he undertook a "legation" to the Anti-Slavery Society in 1840; and the flock of one of his colleagues, composed almost exclusively of black labourers, had raised as much as 2,600 in three and a half years. We read of a negro couple whose annual subscription to missions was 10, and of a widow whose "mite" for the chapel turned out to be five dollars.' (W. L, Mathieson, British Slave Emancipation.)

The number of peasant proprietors increased rapidly. 'In little more than three and a half years after Emancipation, 3,315 negroes belonging to the Western Baptist Union had bought land and had spent on this purpose and on the building of their houses a total sum of 96,000.' (W. L, Mathieson, British Slave Emancipation.)

Sir Charles Metcalfe, who succeeded Sir Lionel Smith as Governor of Jamaica in 1840, wrote thus:

The thriving condition of the peasantry is very striking and gratifying... their behaviour is peaceable and in some respects admirable. They are fond of attending divine service and are to be seen on the Lord's day thronging to their respective churches and chapels, dressed in good clothes and many of them riding on horseback. They send their children to school and pay for their schooling. They subscribe for the erection of churches and chapels.

Would the negroes continue to work when they received their full freedom? That was the question which weighed upon the minds of the planters. In answering it, it must be remembered that where the negroes grew the bulk of their own food, as in Jamaica, they could be self-subsisting without working for wages, and that so long as they had only the simplest physical wants, wages offered but little inducement. The ordinary conditions of capital and labour were reversed and 'wage slavery' was impossible. Recently released slaves felt a very natural reaction against long hours of field work for their former masters. How were the latter to get their sugar canes weeded and harvested? The answer is that as slaves the negroes had not paid rent for their houses or for the grounds (usually virgin soil within the bounds of the estates) which they had cultivated and that rent was now the main instrument used, and often misused, by their former masters to make them work.

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