1. The apprenticeship system 1834-1838
By Veta Dawson
most of the British colonies had opted for the Apprenticeship
System. What were the aims of this system?
* To provide a smooth and easy transition from slavery to
* To guarantee the continued production of sugar by ensuring
that the planters had a sure supply of labour at least for the
next four to six years.
* To give planters and ex-slaves/apprentices time to adjust to freedom its demands and
responsibilities as well I guess the 'privileges'.
How well did the system work?
To answer that we would do good to have a look at some of the reports of those with 'the
hands on experience'. We are of course referring to the stipendiary magistrates, those
persons who were appointed as mediators, who were seized with the responsibility of
visiting the estates, hearing complaints, filing reports, making recommendations for
punishments were applicable and so on. A number of them exercised extreme partially in
order to gain or keep in the planters' favour.
Let us bear in mind though, that there are three perspectives from which we can view the
success or failure of the system.
* Britain's viewpoint. Her main concerns were that firstly, there be no massacre of the
whites, secondly, that the production of sugar continues and that she does not lose any of
her colonies. In other words, that there be no repeat of the Haitian example.
* The planters' viewpoint. They saw it as an excellent opportunity to 'squeeze the last juice
of compulsory labour out of the apprentices before the great ruin of freedom set in'. In their
minds, the apprentices were still chattel property and were to be treated as such.
* The apprentices. They had great expectations (to borrow a famous Literature text title) of
emancipation. They dreamt of restoring the dignity that had been so cruelly torn out of their
lives and exploiting the opportunities of being free!
Of course, how well the system would work depended to a great extent on the attitude of
the two main parties involved: the planters and the apprentices. In the minds of the
planters, the apprentices were still chattel property and were to be treated as such. Their
attitude may be best described as exacting and selfish. To what extent do you agree with
this (my) assessment?
We will now describe some of the events that took place and the decisions that were taken
in three colonies: Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Vincent.
2. The women were constantly being charged with being insolent. According to one mistress,
her maid came to the chamber late and was singing. She refused to stop on being told to
shut her mouth.
On hearing the case, the Stipendiary magistrate found her guilty of the charge of insolence
and she was given four days solitary confinement!
In Jamaica, one woman was one hour late for work. Although she explained that she had a
two months old baby and two other infants to take care of she was given fifteen minutes on
the treadmill! There were two other women on the treadmill with her, one for stealing cane
and the other for running away.
Remember that each local House of Assembly was to work out the details of the
Emancipation Act. They did so to their own benefit and at the expense of the poor
'defenceless' apprentices. One of the 'details' that the Jamaican Assembly voted on and
implemented was the use of the treadmill as a means of punishment (to replace the use of
In Barbados, 'convicts' the strong word used for apprentices who had committed even the
pettiest of offences, were put to work on the roads whilst chained by the feet! Also in
Barbados, a number of overseers had the habit of denying the apprentices time to go to the
bush to perform their body functions. As a matter of fact it was brought to the attention of a
stipendiary magistrate, Colthurst that the overseer told the women to do what they had to
do right there in the field, in the presence and full view of the men! One female apprentice,
who I would guess could not hold it any longer stopped to 'do her thing' right there in the
field and don't be surprised but the men leaned forward to get a good view and it started a
fracas during which she grabbed the overseer since he was to be blamed for her being in
'that position' in the first place!
Her punishment? You guessed it- imprisonment, only, the authorities had a undesirable
habit of shaving the heads (or is it hair) of the ladies who came in jail. Since she was only
there a short time her head was still bald when she returned to the estate, making her the
laughing stock of everybody. Of course, she, in order to stave off the embarrassment got
into another fight, and yes back to jail she went!
On Cane Grove estate in St. Vincent, the apprentices were made to carry wet manure in
baskets on their heads. On other estates, the planters spitefully refused to give the
apprentices their 'customary' allowances forcing them to resort to other measures to find
food. It is no wonder therefore that there were a number of cases of stealing cane and other
food items not just in St. Vincent but as a general practice.
But there were good things that happened as well. For example, you do know that at least
one free village was formed before emancipation: Sligoville in the hills of St. Catherine. A
number of apprentices were able to work for wages outside the compulsory 40-and-a-half
hours and save enough to buy small plots of land after 1838.
Activity: Describe the other positive events that took place during the Apprenticeship
* Veta Dawson teaches at the Immaculate Conception High School.