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The Abolishment of Slavery

Gradually, the increasing resistance of slaves toward their enslavement and the emergence of various humanitarian and anti-slavery groups in Britain, slavery lost its profitability and appeal to many individuals in Britain. Humanitarians such as the Quakers, Granville Sharp, James Ramsay, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce from 1780 publicly objected to the practice of slavery in the colonies and the evils associated with it. These individuals later formed anti-slavery committees that made several compelling arguments for the abolition of slavery up to 1838, when slavery was finally abolished.  These individuals worked tirelessly to outline the dehumanizing conditions in which the enslaved were kept.

Common arguments leveraged against the pro slavery advocates where that:

  • God created mankind all as equals, however slavery clearly differentiated between masters and their slaves. 
  • Slaves were people and slavery denied the enslaved their human rights.
  • The Bible teaches that people should treat each other with kindness and love, slaves were treated inhumanely. Slavery broke the Ten Commandments.

Dawn of a new age: The institution of Apprenticeship

On January 1, 1808 the Abolition Bill was passed. This declared the trading of African slaves to be “utterly abolished, prohibited and unlawful”. The Apprenticeship period for slaves came into effect in 1834.  The former enslaved Africans were told that the apprenticeship period would be used to ease them into the transition from being a slave to being skilled labourers who received wages from doing work on the plantations. This was a ploy used by the plantation owners who only sought to have a steady labour force until they could find suitable replacements for these slaves.

Per the tenets of Apprenticeship, field hands would be apprenticed for six years, while household labourers were to work for four. The ex-salves were expected to work without pay for 40 hours of each week in exchange for lodging, food, clothing, medical attendance and provision grounds which they worked during their free time.  During the other hours within the week the ex-slaves could choose to sell their labour on other plantations. With this money an apprentice could purchase his freedom. 

It additionally stipulated that children under the age of six were to be given immediate freedom. The names of all apprentices were to entered into a database registry which would serve as documentation for all the services they provided during their apprenticeship.

To supervise the system of Apprenticeship and to maintain social order, the British government designated magistrates who would travel to the island to oversee the implementation of apprenticeship. They were so tasked with protecting the interests of the ex-slaves. Additionally, there was the institution of police districts where correctional facilities and workhouses were operated and supervised by chief magistrates and justices of the peace. These individuals were responsible for the discipline the apprentices should they disobey their employers or break the law; since under the tenets of Apprenticeship slaves could no longer be flogged.

Resistance to Apprenticeship

Many of the ex-slaves rejected the idea of returning to the plantations, with memories of their horrific experiences as slaves deterring them from working for their previous masters. Others became disgruntled at the system of apprenticeship which did not satisfy their needs for a full and immediate freedom. The system like slavery robbed them of their choices. They wanted to choose their own work hours, the type of work they did and their employers.

A small number of apprentices, once they had saved enough money, attempted to purchase their freedom from their ex masters with few of them succeeding. This was partly due to the rigorous judicial and legal polices that governed manumission and the exorbitant cost attached to the acquisition of freedom. This however served to further agitate the slaves with many refusing to work. Their attempts to show their discontentment were met with severe punishments; those who refused to work were flogged under judicial authority or could be imprisoned.

This sparked a series of rebellions in the island, with the most notable of them being the Christmas Rebellion led by Sam Sharpe in 1831. It began when slaves in the western part of the island, believing that they had been given full freedom by England but were denied their rights by the planters on the island. Sharp a literate Baptist preacher had read anti-slavery bulletins from Britain and communicated it to his followers.  The peaceful protest that ensued from this quickly turned violent becoming the largest slave rebellion in the island’s history. The protesters set fire to the Great Houses and cane fields resulting in hundreds of lives being lost. This insurrection served to hasten the process of full emancipation. For his instigating role in the rebellion Sharp was hung in 1832.

The end of Apprenticeship

With insufficient numbers of the now freed slaves returning as paid labourers on the sugar estates, the mistreatment of the apprenticeship system and the rippling effects of the Sam Sharp Rebellion, Apprenticeship came to an abrupt end (two years earlier than the stipulated period) in 1838 with full Emancipation granted to the slaves.

In an attempt to placate the planter class of Jamaica and for the loss of their property the Colonial Office issued to them compensation totalling £20,000,000.


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