Apprenticeship system

On the 24th August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament. This Act did not become law until 1st August 1834 when all slaves in the British colonies were to become emancipated, and slavery was to be abolished throughout the British possessions abroad. However, according to the Imperial Act, each colony had to write its own Act, to suite the conditions of that particular colony, as long as it bordered on the parent act. Therefore, the Imperial Apprenticeship Act, was merely a guideline or framework, and as such the governor and the Assembly had to come together to work out the specific details of the Act.

As a result the Act was hastily constructed by untrained and inexperienced officers. The apprenticeship system had been devised to soften the economic blow to the plantation owners by averting a full-scale exodus from the plantation, and also to prepare the newly freed slaves for an independent life. However, because the working of the apprenticeship system was dependent upon the existing judicial and administrative system, it was not allowed to run its full lease of life, and was terminated in 1838.

Conflicts were constant between the executive and the legislature, as well as between the executive and the local administrative authorities. The only mode of communication with a legislature open to a Governor is either personal or by message. He had no ministry and no available patronage. Generally any recommendations made by a Governor to the Council and Assembly were dealt with capriciously as he was disliked by the local legislature and also because of measures emanating from Britain.

In addition the system of appointment was haphazard, and allowed for far too many motives other than that of getting the best man available. Appointees were selected exclusively from the class of senior half paid army officers. The result of course is that the colonies were governed by inexperienced men who lacked political skill, subtlety and tact. For example, Sir George Hill of Trinidad, who had an ambiguous record behind him in Ireland, was dangerously weak. Similarly, Sir Dudley Hill was unsuccessful in St. Lucia.

On the other hand, there were men of rare ardour and humanity, for instance Sir Lionel Smith in the Windward Islands and Jamaica, who took the reputation of their country in their hands and despite mistakes, saw that it did not suffer there. The Imperial Abolition Act had stated that no compensation would be paid to the planters of the colonies unless the legislature had made satisfactory provision for outing into effect the imperial act with their adjustments. The final details of the act had to be worked out by the legislature, thus giving them some control of the emancipation act of each colony.

In Jamaica, the Jamaican Supplementary Act was passed. By this act, an apprentice who absented himself from work for half a day was to forfeit a day, so he had to work an extra day. If he was absent for two days in the same fortnight he had to serve a week in the penal gang or receive twenty lashes. The undefined crime of insubordination was to be punished by a maximum of thirty-nine lashes or a fortnight in the penal gang. The maximum sentence for offences not otherwise stated was to be fifty lashes or three moths imprisonment.

These clauses were just a fraction of a total system of restrictions placed upon the apprentices in the West Indies. Many acts were also passed to prevent the apprentices from gaining the freedom granted to them in the emancipation act. In St. St. Kitts, the Vagrancy act of 1835 stated that " if an apprentice knowingly spread tales, reports or committed any acts of insubordination and was convicted, he could receive as many as sixty lashes or six months imprisonment. In Dominica, it was possible to become a "vagrant" by simply making noise in the streets.

In Jamaica, there was the Seditious Meetings Act of December 1835. This Act allowed any Justice Of the Peace or police officer to disperse a meeting which he had 'reasonable cause' to think would stir up insurrection or insubordination. The Barbados Trespass Act of 1834 provided sentences of up to one-month imprisonment for loitering upon a plantation without consent of the owner. These Acts were considered as a great inconvenience to the apprentice, as they sometimes prevented him from his allocated time (one quarter of the week) to labour for wages.

In addition, planters adopted the system of task work. This meant that the apprentice would be paid per job, and not for the amount of time he spent doing that job. Task work was a common medium of labour in Trinidad and Guiana, and while in most cases it served as an advantage to the planter, the apprentice was underpaid. Protection for the apprentices against maltreatment, overwork, and abuse was vested in a body of independent stipendiary magistrates. These stipendiary magistrates were appointed by the Crown, and dispatched to the West Indies to enforce the Emancipation Act upon all parties.

They became the sole administrators in minor disputes between employers and apprentices. Whilst the concept of the stipendiary magistracy was sensible and uncomplicated, in practise it did not work as it was supposed to. The British government was responsible for the mismanagement of the system and for a callous and niggardly treatment of the magistrates. The Emancipation Act authorized the appointment of one hundred stipendiary magistrates. This number was ludicrously inadequate, and although it was subsequently expanded, the size of the magistracy was never equal to the demands placed upon it.

In addition stipendiary magistrates were underpaid. By terms of the Emancipation Act, stipendiary magistrates received only three hundred pounds in salary a year, a measly display of imperial meanness, especially in the view of the twenty million pounds compensation awarded to the planters. Colonial governors declared that stipendiaries could barley subsist and could not perform their duties on such meagre incomes. The work or a stipendiary magistrate carried him from one estate to another in all types of weather and over every variety of terrain.

He required at least two horses, tack, and in some colonies a gig, in addition to the normal necessities of a respectable household. Also, the cost of living was much higher than in Britain. Death and disease stalked the magistracy. A few days before his death, Magistrate Everard told a colleague in Jamaica that he frequently fell asleep on his horse from sheer fatigue. Seasoning fever was commonly contracted by magistrates newly arrived from Europe. By October 1834 one stipendiary magistrate in British Guiana had died from fever, and the rest had suffered or were suffering from it.

Stipendiary magistrates had no clerk or assistants and were expected to visit all the estates in his district at frequent and established intervals. The desperate loneliness of their labours, the penury of their existence, the physical strain and sheer tiredness they suffered, endangered the judicial equity of the magistrates and caused many of them to become friends of the planters. This was the case because human frailties being what they are, usually resulted in a magistrate accepting the hospitality of the planter.

The result is of course that the magistrate would have no choice but to compromise his neutrality. A major disadvantage of the magistracy was that as a rule the Colonial Secretary, having difficulty finding suitable English replacements at the salary offered, confirmed local appointments. This was especially true in Trinidad where most apprentices spoke a patois French and many others spoke Spanish. Therefore, at the very least, knowledge of French was a necessary qualification for magistrates in the island, but most of the men sent out from the England could not speak the languages of the apprentices.

In Jamaica, each parish possessed a Custos who was responsible for all the administrative matters of the parish. If there was a jail in parish, the primary responsibility of administration of that jail laid with the Custos. The fact that this Custos was given the responsibility of administration over the workhouse proved to be one of the problems of the apprenticeship system. This responsibility had mistakenly been awarded to him by Governor Sligo, and the other colonies had copied this procedure. For certain offences, the apprenticeship still had to go before the local courts.

However, all imprisonments or sentences, whether given by a stipendiary magistrate or regular judge, had to be served in the workhouse. As a result, the Custos had a lot of control over the welfare of the apprentices. This was a major problem as the Custos were of the elite class and were normally friends of the planters. In addition the stipendiary magistrates had no control over the welfare of the blacks in the workhouse, for they had no jurisdiction there. The local courts issued very heavy penalties for minor offences by the apprentices. These penalties were to be served in the workhouse.

Any unjust actions by the local justices could escape detection for months, by which time the apprentices would have already been brutally treated. The most difficult cases for a governor to handle were those involving stipendiary magistrates who barely remained within the limits of tolerable behaviour. If a stipendiary was indolent, often unjust, excessively friendly with planters, and inclined to drink too much, a governor would remonstrate with him but rarely would he seek his dismissal until his disquieting behaviour had become absolutely repugnant.

This was because dismissals involved replacements, and suitable unprejudiced replacements were extremely hard to find. In the view of the inadequate number of stipendiary magistrates assigned to the colonies, the great distances they travelled, the withering climate and the loneliness they endured, the prevalence of the disease and the parsimony of the imperial Treasury, it is remarkable that the magistrates lasted as long as they did.