Oxford AASC: Apprenticeship in the British Caribbean

Apprenticeship in the British Caribbean

By: Alonford James Robinson
 Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition What is This?

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Apprenticeship in the British Caribbean

System imposed by the British Parliament in 1834 as an intermediate step between slavery and full emancipation.

In 1807 the British Parliament voted to end British participation in the international slave trade. In 1834 it ended slavery entirely, promising freedom to more than a million slaves in the Caribbean. In an effort to soften the effects of emancipation on white slaveholders, the British Parliament decided to implement a program known as apprenticeship. Under this program all slaves under six years of age, and those born after August 1, 1834, were freed. But praedials (fieldworkers) were required to work for their current owners for a period of six years, and nonpraedials for a period of four years. After this period all slaves would be emancipated.

The apprenticeship program was so overloaded with rules and restrictions that special magistrates had to be appointed to monitor the system. Slaves worked forty hours per week in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter. They were permitted to spend their remaining time working as wage laborers on local farms and in surrounding towns. In exchange for their participation in the program, white planters throughout the British Empire were reimbursed in cash, a sum totaling £20 million.

Implementation of the apprenticeship program was a major challenge. Most white planters feared that a decline in the labor force would mean an end to their plantations. During the first year of the program, whites tried unsuccessfully to bring European indentured servants to the island. They also turned to importing workers from India and China. More than 30,000 Indians and 5,000 Chinese were brought to Jamaica between 1834 and 1917. For the most part, the fear that emancipated slaves would abandon the white-owned estates proved to be unfounded. On most islands the only work available for blacks was on the sugar estates. Still, despite the continuing supply of labor, the apprenticeship program suffered from mismanagement. Enforcing the complicated regulations proved extremely difficult for the special magistrates. Confusion and conflict plagued the program, and by 1837 it was clear that it had to be dismantled.

The apprenticeship program could not prevent the demise of the plantation system. Declining sugar prices forced more than one hundred plantations to close. In 1838 the British Parliament—responding to pressure from antislavery groups—ended the apprenticeship program. More than 1.5 million slaves were fully emancipated, more than 300,000 in Jamaica alone.Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center

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