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The Aftermath of Slavery - Apprenticeship page 2

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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.

Another inducement, due to the survival of the traditional African attachment to land, was the strong desire to buy land for themselves. There was also a growing desire for new refinements and luxuries. Although there were, no doubt, some negroes so lazy as to justify Carlysle's cruel description of the 'Black Quashee,' many more were of the type described by Sir Charles Metcalfe, anxious to educate their children, to support their churches, to dress well and even to own horses and carriages. It was a blessing both for themselves and the planters that the religious instruction of the missionaries and their own peaceful dispositions had given them such a truly Christian spirit of peace and order that 'the whole slave population had passed at a bound from bondage to freedom without the slightest violation of order.... Not a single company of militia was maintained after emancipation, and seven years later it was stated in a magistrate's report that tranquillity had continued, though the police force consisted of 24 men and perhaps 250 rural constables, in nearly every instance estate labourers.' (W. L. Mathieson, British Slave Emancipation.)

The abolition first of slavery, then of apprenticeship, gave a much-needed stimulus to the use of machinery. J. Davy, in 'The West Indies Before and Since Slave Emancipation,' 1854, remarks that a weeding machine with one horse, a man and a boy, had displaced 16 negroes in the weeding of canes. In British Guiana the compensation money was generally spent on improved machinery. A planter in St. Kitts said that before Emancipation everything was done by 'the thews and sinews' of the slaves. If lands were to be opened, instead of being ploughed, they were opened by means of the cane hoe; if a mountain was to be removed, it was all carried away upon the head piecemeal.' (J. Davy, The West Indies Before and Since Slave Emancipation, 1854.) In Antigua, in 1846, there were neither pitchforks nor wheelbarrows. As an institution for the encouragement of physical over-exertion in the slave and mental inertia in the owner, slavery is unequalled.

In spite of difficulties in obtaining labour, from which those employers who had ill-treated their apprentices naturally suffered most and the good employers comparatively little, the planters remained fairly prosperous until the British Government began to withdraw the protection for their products, amounting almost to a monopoly, which they had enjoyed in the home market. After several years of damaging uncertainty, the final blow was the Sugar Act of 1846, by which slave-grown sugar from -foreign countries was admitted to Great Britain. Havana was illuminated, the sugar planters of Brazil and Cuba rejoiced, but to many planters in the West Indies it was an act of crushing severity, rendered still more severe by the fact that it coincided with the commercial crisis of 1847. The story of the unsuccessful opposition of the Anti-Slavery party in this country to the importation of slave-grown sugar is too long to be told here, and we must now see how the planters endeavoured to obtain the labour which they feared would be lost to them after the termination of slavery in 1833 and of apprenticeship in 1838.

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