Gad Heuman

“Apprenticeship and Emancipation in the Caribbean: The Seeds of Citizenship”

Unfree labor did not come to an end in the Anglophone Caribbean in 1834. Although the enslaved were declared legally free on 1 August, they were obliged to serve a period of Apprenticeship of between four and six years depending on their status. This meant that ex-slaves were legally obligated to work without compensation for their former masters for up to forty-five hours per week. Because of the terms of the Apprenticeship system, many contemporary observers as well as some historians have regarded it as a new form of slavery. However, the historian Thomas Holt has called the Apprenticeship “a half-way covenant”, since the relationship between the planter and the worker was much the same as slavery during part of the week while the remaining time was negotiable. Beyond the time required by law for the apprentices to serve their former masters, ex-slaves were free to negotiate conditions of work and wages with their former masters or with another employer.

Yet even before Apprenticeship ended in 1838, many apprentices were unwilling to accept full freedom on the terms imposed by the British government. Some of the apprentices made it clear that they wanted to purchase their own manumission and not “be indebted to the Law.” These apprentices did not want to become manumitted by the legislation ending Apprenticeship, since they were worried that whites could extend the period of Apprenticeship or even reinstitute slavery, if the apprentices had not bought their own freedom. Many apprentices therefore wanted to free themselves: their identity was bound up in controlling their own freedom rather than allowing former slave owners to do so.

Apart from the issue of manumission, there was another area of contention between masters and their apprentices: the classification system that determined whether an apprentice was a praedial and therefore destined to serve a six-year apprenticeship or a non-praedial and liable to serve only a four-year apprenticeship. The legislation delineating the categories of apprenticeship was fairly complex, but what became clear almost immediately was the former owners’ intent to classify many apprentices as praedials and therefore to have their services for the projected six years of the Apprenticeship period. But as with the issue of compulsory manumission, many apprentices were aware of their rights and of the possibility of appealing against their categorization. Many apprentices therefore successfully challenged their categorization and became non-praedials.

In addition, many apprentices never accepted the different lengths of Apprenticeship for field and skilled apprentices. These apprentices threatened to adopt a system of passive resistance rather than submit to the terms of the Emancipation legislation. According to one Jamaican newspaper, there was a possibility of serious trouble over this issue: one black man reportedly said that “if all not free the same day the king order [meaning August 1838], the whole country will rise, and we will see what buckra and the mulatto can do with us, for we too much for them.”

In the period following emancipation, many blacks, former apprentices, not only imagined freedom very differently from their former masters but also began to see themselves as citizens. Some of them exercised the vote and helped to elect black and brown members of the House of Assembly. For example, one successful brown candidate for the Assembly told an election meeting in his parish that the “whites had had their own way long enough and it was time to put them down.” Another brown politician advertised himself as one of the “sons of Jamaica” and noted that natives should have a greater share in the running of the island. Similarly, the first black man in the House of Assembly in Jamaica, Edward Vickars, appealed to the black electorate with his slogan, “Vote for Vickars, the Black Man.” Building on their response to Apprenticeship, blacks after emancipation had a significant political role and began to see themselves as citizens.

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