‘Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies’ by W. L. Burn


If you had placed this book into a shiny new coloured cover, I would never have picked it for being written in 1937.  It has all the things that I look for in histories that are being written around me today:   exploration of big themes through grounded, personalized examples; a sense of place;  careful attention to detail through the sources; an attempt to step up out of those same sources into a more literary style; decisiveness in coming to a pithy conclusion,  and a judicious use of the presence of the historian him/herself as researcher and commentator.

It’s also a book that attracts my interest as a politically engaged citizen concerned about what a former Prime Minister described as “the greatest moral challenge” of our time- climate change.  In reading about the abolition of slavery I’ve been again and again reminded of the parallels between the two.  Both climate change and the abolition of slavery involve/d self-inflicted economic pain for a higher long-term purpose; both involve/d  well-organized pressure groups with powerful media access; both provoke/d  fears that international competitiveness would be hampered; both campaigns stretch/ed out  over decades.  It may well be that climate change policy, like abolition, may have to accept a compromised ‘solution’  in the short-term as part of a bigger, long-term picture- although of course, in climate change  the earth and the systems of its climate will follow their own trajectory, whatever the politics.  In the case of the abolition of slavery, the compromise was the Apprenticeship System. 

After slave trading was abolished in the British colonies in 1807, the public agitation amongst the British public died down, especially with the more pressing and proximate concerns over the Napoleonic Wars.  “Amelioration” was the new buzz-word: humanitarian improvements would transform conditions on the plantations, overseen by the planters who knew conditions best.  However, by the early 1830s the improvements promised through amelioration had not eventuated and agitation again stirred in a Britain that had undergone political change through the 1832 Reform Bill.   The planter lobby rose up again brandishing its economic and political reasons  against the immediate cessation of slavery, and as a compromise, the Apprenticeship System was introduced.  Slavery was abolished, but former slaves would now work as ‘apprentices’ on the plantations, for four years if non-praedial or ‘house’ slaves, or for six years as praedial or ‘field’ slaves.  The bill, 3 & 4 William IV c 73 received Royal Assent on 28 August 1833.  There was squeamishness on the British side at imposing this law by Order-in-Council  across the Empire so the carrot of financial compensation was dangled  in front of the West Indian colonies,  who were required to submit their own legislation to set up the Apprenticeship system before the compensation moneys flowed.  The date of 1 August 1834 was set as Emancipation Day across the empire.

In the preface to his book Burn notes that most writing  about the passing of particular pieces of legislation lays out the arguments on both sides, then describes  the tactics and chances that led to success.

There the story too often ends, as though the mere conclusion of the legislative process had automatically brought into being the set of conditions which the legislator had wished to create. (p.7)

His aim in this book, however, was to trace the full circle of policy through popular opinion, party politics and government despatches until it reached the theatre of its operation; then onwards through the apprentices, planters and administrators and back to criticism and amendment in Britain (p. 8).   It is, then, a book about the creation and implementation of policy played out both in the halls of Parliament at Westminster, the public meetings in Birmingham, and in some squalid Jamaica workhouse and the rough justice of a special magistrate’s court in the West Indies.  He concentrates on Jamaica because there half the apprentices were there; it had a large white population and a strong and vocal coloured class.  But more importantly, I think, the Jamaican planter lobby in Britain ensured that when Britons thought of  ‘West India’, they thought of Jamaica, and it became both the epitome and epicentre of attention in the public realm and at the Colonial Office itself.

Once a policy has been decided, alternatives that were held to be at least plausible at the time tend to fade into the background.  The Apprenticeship System may appear unfair and grudging to us today, but the other proposals mooted at the time were as well.  The Colonial Office administrator, Henry Taylor, suggested that Monday and Tuesday could be purchased from the slaveholder with public money,  and the slave could work as hired labour on those days.  With the money earned, slaves could purchase their own time on Wednesday, and then eventually on Thursday.  It ensured that the labour force would stay tied to the plantation for some time; it provided a goal and an incentive, and it would not cost much.  But, while a good system for young, able bodies, it was not applicable to old and injured slaves.  What if the slaves didn’t work?  They were half slave, half free.

Lord Howick’s plan appears even more bizarre.  He proposed that labour would be secured for the plantation by taxing the negroes’ provision grounds where they grew crops for market and their own use.  The tax burden would be heavy, compelling them to find money by hiring themselves out in order to meet the obligation.  They would be forced to work a fixed number of hours under the watch of an untrained quasi-police force.   But quite apart from the offensiveness (to my mind) of taxing the negroes for the benefit of the plantation owners, it required forest land to be surveyed ; taxes would need to be collected; the local authorities would need to be trusted to remit the taxes, and the dangers of an untrained police force are formidable.

In this book Burn  focuses his attention on the Special Magistrates, a cadre of semi-judicial administrators sent out from England to ensure the implementation of the policy on the ground.  The British Government preferred to appoint half-pay officers: not only were there thousands of them after the savage retrenchments following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, but they were used to following orders, and – most importantly- combined with their half-pay pensions from the Army or Navy could perhaps survive on the £300 salary offered to them.  Here he draws on diaries, files and life stories of individual Special Magistrates in best ethnographic historian fashion.  There were simply not enough Special Magistrates appointed, he argues: they were too poorly paid, ill-equipped and socially compromised in a badly-thought out system.

He writes himself as a historian into his work.  In the preface, he speaks of his alarm at reading a recent (for then!) book called Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (1929) which made him question whether “perhaps I had not merely got the wrong end of the stick but of the wrong stick altogether”.  He realized that he was dealing with a small number of white people in the West Indies without any consideration of the negro mind and its influence on the white at all  (a realization that has been brought home forcefully to me in the my own work as well). It is in this, perhaps, that his 1930s-mindset is most evident.  But, as he says

This book is not a history of the West Indies, even during the apprenticeship; only the history of a particular experiment in government. (p. 9)

It is this emphasis on policy that I have drawn most from, and which has evoked for me the strongest parallels with climate change policy  (or Gonski, for that matter). He noted that humanitarianism was “the fuel on which West India reform was run” (p. 371)  But it was not possible to assume that the store of effective humanitarianism can remain indefinitely, on deposit, until drawn upon.  The exigencies of party politics means that what was possible five years ago may be impossible today:

Movements of popular thought are to the statesman what winds and tides are to the captain of a sailing ship.  The ship is not at their mercy; it may anchor or tack; but they set the broad limitations upon its action.  The statesman, in the same way, can only carry what the thought of the time will accept…A tide does not flow and ebb at the same time; and it does not ebb or flow for ever…. There were in the political life of the country a number of valuable qualities- generosity, humanity, daring, self-confidence.  If they could have been combined with knowledge and foresight no doubt great things could have been accomplished.  As it was, they had to be combined with vast ignorance, short-sightedness, incoherence and extravagance of thought.  The combination, favoured by those other circumstances of the time which we have examined, was sufficient to carry emancipation (p. 372)

He admits that he changed his mind about the Apprenticeship policy during the course of his research.  Would it have been better if they had just persisted with amelioration  he asks, instead of this half-way intervention?

The present writer is bound to confess that he is far less ready than he was when he began these studies to dismiss the argument that another ten or fifteen years of gradual emancipation ought to have preceded the formal grant of freedom.  If he does dismiss it, that is because he is not convinced that such a period of steady and perceptible improvement in the lot and the character of the slave was the most probable alternative to what did, in fact, take place. P. 371

Instead, he argues, it was proper that the British Government acted on public opinion without more delay, but that a better system should have been constructed.  For a variety of reasons, they could have limited it to three colonies only- Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guiana- and for only two years.  But this didn’t happen because of exaggerated fears that the negroes would desert the plantations, mistaken faith in the Special Magistrates to undertake the delicate task of administration, over-reliance on the passive goodwill of the colonies, and a complete failure to provide for the future of the colonies.

He is well aware of one defect in particular in his work- but it’s a very human one:

 The period of which I am writing is one which I regard with much sympathy and much contempt, but whatever its virtues, it was not remarkable for clarity of thought or reserve of expression.  I cannot hope that the mass of confused special pleading which I have had to read, with its repetitions and exaggerations, has not affected the quality of what I have written.  I am afraid, too, that my purpose must appear pretentious when compared with my very modest results.  I cannot say- only omniscience could say- whether emancipation was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  I can only give my opinion that a reasonable man in this country in 1833 was justified in supporting emancipation in some shape or form.  In the matter of apprenticeship I suppose that I finish on middle ground between contemporary official opinion which regarded the system as having been a considerable success and contemporary non-official opinion which regarded it as having been an almost complete failure (p.9)

As he concludes:

Neither the sceptic nor the humanitarian could feel complete satisfaction with the result of the apprenticeship experiment.  A great abuse had been ended.  A system of administration had been improvised and had worked with a success which was in the circumstances almost remarkable.  There had been less disorder than the most optimistic abolitionist could have hoped for.  On the other hand, the expression given to the humanitarian impulse had not been sufficiently careful.  It had created some new problems and left unsolved, sometimes untouched, many which had existed before.  The West Indies were in better condition in 1838 than in 1834, but the improvement was due less to the legislative expression which had been given to humanitarianism than to the rise in men’s spirits which took place when the burden of slavery was removed.  No solid foundation for the future had been laid in economy or government and no great amount of racial goodwill had been created… It was so, partly because the machinery of Parliamentary government had proved unequal, in the years 1833-8, to its task of giving the desirable legislative expression to the idea of emancipation  (p. 381)

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