‘Conditions analogous to slavery’: Workers in the British West Indies after emancipation

Although the slave trade had been abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807, it would not be until 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act would be passed, and on the 1st of August the following year slaves in the British West Indies would begin their lives as free men and women. The controversial ‘Apprenticeship’ system followed, but was ended prematurely in 1838 and a system of ‘free labour’ was introduced. This essay will seek to analyse the situation freed workers in the British West Indies faced in comparison with their circumstances prior to emancipation, concluding that workers encountered struggles that emancipation could not remedy, and some which would be intensified.

In order to understand the conditions which workers faced in the postemancipation years, it is important to understand the events that led to abolition. One of the most significant factors was the growth of industrialisation, which led to the demand for free trade in opposition to mercantilism. In Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams highlights that as capitalism developed, it was increasingly less viable for the West Indies to remain a monopoly supplier of sugar to Britain due to its inflated price. The cost of French sugar was one-fifth less than British, which of course affected the British consumer and industrialists. But this also meant Britain was receiving pressure from colonists in New England who wanted to buy and sell in the open market. American independence would then intensify the pressure on Britain. In addition, the Reform Act 1832 ended corruption which meant plantation owners could no longer buy their seats in Parliament, which were used to maintain their monopoly and to stop anti-slavery movements. As capitalists in favour of free trade became stronger through industrialisation, they began to take their places in Parliament.

As Williams put it, the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith had turned against the plantation owners. A new liberal era commenced, and as free trade rolled out the plantations lost their value, and emancipation followed. The crisis of the plantations was exacerbated by the increasingly frequent rebellions. The Jamaican revolt of 1831-2 particularly hit Britain hard, costing over £1 million. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Britain – although reluctantly – concluded that abolishing slavery was the logical solution. There had been significant domestic pressure, too, as abolitionist movements became more widespread.

What can be gathered from this is that, ultimately, the freeing of slaves was by no means a moralistic effort, focused on the lives of those enslaved. Although there were indeed abolitionists who sought human liberation, the force behind emancipation was economic, and this would be vindicated in the treatment of workers thereafter. As Cooper et al. put it, ‘for some abolitionists … emancipation represented a human liberation whose success could not be measured in terms of the continuity of sugar exports. But in a colonial system in which government revenues and the supply of cheap sugar to British consumers, as well as profits for planters and a whole chain of merchants, depended in the continuity of sugar production, it was difficult to keep rhetoric on such a lofty plane.’


The apprenticeship system was to be an interval between slavery and emancipation, and applied to each slave over six years of age. Praedial slaves – those tied to land – would work forty-five hours a week for six years, and non-praedial slaves – usually domestic workers – would work ‘without limit to the hours of labour’ for four years, in return for food and clothing. As Cooper et al. explain, it intended to ‘push slaves to acquire the habits of free labourers’, which meant the ‘dread of starvation’ instead of ‘the dread of being flogged’. The official rhetoric ‘was turning emancipation into … a test of the slaves’, rather than a test of ‘a labour system that depended for its success on denying them access to the resources on nature.’

Furthermore, apprenticeship was a form of compensation for slave owners – in addition to the reparation payments received – affording them ‘an interval intended to facilitate the creation of social and economic machinery that would perpetuate the established order’ thereafter. Indeed, as O. Nigel Bolland explains, apprenticeship faced widespread opposition by the workers in the form of disorders and demonstrations, and many viewed it as a conspiracy by local elites to keep freedom from them. In an inquiry by the Anti-Slavery Society into conditions faced by workers under Apprenticeship in the British West Indies in 1837, it was found that labourers faced in many ways much deeper oppression than they had under slavery. In the words of the report, far from the full and free liberty granted in the Abolition Act, ‘sufferings are more acute, and [the] chance of obtaining justice less, under the present system, than during the time, when his deplorable state of debasement was called by its proper name––Slavery.’

As highlighted by the Anti-Slavery Society, planters were determined to get as much labour as they possibly could under apprenticeship, which meant that workers had far less time ‘to call their own . . . than they formerly had.’ Planters persistently violated the provisions of the Imperial Act; withholding workers’ earned food and clothing, and using ‘torturous’ physical abuse on workers –some who ‘had never been punished in their lives under the old system.’ Coercion by police and contract laws was intensified, and labourers’ complaints were treated as ‘frivolous and vexatious, or as malicious’, and would result in punishment. If complaints managed to go to court, there was little chance of workers being subject to a fair trial, and would often find themselves charged for defending themselves, whilst the accused would be found not only to have acted ‘justly, but legally’. ’This is the grand reason,’ the pamphlet reads, ‘why so few complaints are made by the negroes against their employers.’

Women often faced the cruelest circumstances. They were made to work equally with men, whether pregnant or nursing their children, and were often forced to pay back lost time through confinement, whereby they were not permitted to leave to tend to their children. This isolation meant that a ‘frightful mortality was taking place amongst the children’. It is reiterated that this was a worsened situation than women faced under slavery.’ According to the report, when women complained of this injustice, ‘their masters turn round upon them, and say, they do not care what becomes of their children, for they are free.’

Indeed, there are scholars such as Bolland who do not consider emancipation as an ‘event’ of 1833, and instead see it marked by the end of Apprenticeship in 1838. For Cooper et al., ‘apprenticeship was, precisely, a metaphor. . . . it taught former slaves no skill — they knew perfectly well how to cut cane.’

Free Labour

After the advent of free trade, Jamaica faced ‘heightened the competition with slave-grown sugar and underscored [its] economic weakness.’ As William Burn put it, after apprenticeship ended, ‘no solid foundation for the future had been laid in economy or government and no great amount of racial goodwill had been created.’ By the 1860s, workers in much of the British Caribbean were facing grave circumstances; while inflation had escalated due to drought and the halt in trade with America due to the Civil War, the price of sugar had hit a century-low.

As wage labourers, former slaves remained in an exploitative system, dependent on their employment to secure their wellbeing, and an increasing number of hurdles to maintain their livelihoods. Corruption in the Government meant that ‘mostly white oligarchies … actively manipulated land, labor and tax policies to keep wages depressed and drive the freed Negroes to plantation work.’ Workers were no longer eligible for the ‘customary allowances of free medical attention, housing, and provision grounds’ which they once were. Furthermore, because attention was centred on short-term profit, these governments ‘neglected schools, roads, sanitation, hospitals, poor relief, courts, and prisons.’

Frustration with the lack of progress since emancipation boiled over in the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica. This uprising symbolised, as William Green put it, ‘a society divided against itself with its people fragmented into separate social, racial, and economic groups struggling for incompatible objectives under consistently eroding physical and material circumstances.’ Again, as with  the ‘test’ of apprenticeship, expectations were placed on the workers rather than the unrealistic expectations of economic liberalism. As sugar production plummeted the prevailing response was that of racism; not doubt of the ideology of economic liberalism itself.

Citizenship and Political Power

The concept of ‘citizenship’ and ‘sovereignty’ had, by the time of emancipation, become solidified. As Thomas Holt explains, the culmination of ‘classical bourgeois liberal thought’ had introduced the relationship between the individual and society, meaning ‘greater freedom of action, self-possession, and autonomy of self in relation to others’. But former slaves living in colonised lands would not find themselves in receipt of these promises. Indeed, being ‘free’ in the legal sense by no means signalled freedom from discrimination; nor does it still today.

As Cooper et al. put it, from the time of emancipation and far beyond, citizenship was a question of culture; that of ‘what sort of people were “in,” what sort “out.”’ The hierarchical character of the sugar colonies was maintained. In the larger islands, attempts were made by officials to stop former slaves from migrating to non-plantation areas ‘not just because of concern that access to Land would drive up the supply price of labor, but because dispersal would stand in the way of the state’s efforts to build the right sort of society and culture.’ In Jamaica, segregation was no longer ‘the rule’ in public places, but ‘elsewhere, social patterns had changed very little.’ Whites often refused to associate with people of colour. There would be a few who were ‘accepted in white society’, but they were distinguished as upper-class, educated blacks; not labourers.

By the 1850s, there was increasing anxiety amongst elites that ‘black political power in Jamaica might actually be used in black people’s political and economic interests.’ In response to this fear, officials looked to ‘blunt the impact of black political participation’ through governmental restructuring in 1854. This was followed by a tax on voters in 1859, which meant the vast majority  of blacks were disfranchised, and finally Jamaican self-government was completely abolished in 1866, following the Morant Bay uprising. This was similar across the West Indies, where if not a poll tax, ‘strict property requirements’ meant that black workers were as good as exempt from voting. By the 1870s, all of the sugar colonies became, under the Liberal government of Gladstone, ‘London-controlled autocracies based on armed might.’

Furthermore, from the 1870s the pseudo-science of ‘Social Darwinism’ was becoming prevalent as the new justification for racist imperial ideology, and would extend well into the twentieth century. Darwin’s theory of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’ was applied to men, to make claims that certain races were inherently superior and others inferior; some destined to rule, others to be ruled. The continuing subordination of black workers in British West Indies was further justified through this theory, which dovetailed with the ideology of capitalism, free trade and competition.


It was the League of Nations and later the International Labour Organisation, between 1926 and 1930, that claimed that free labour created ‘conditions analogous to slavery.’ The freedom of slaves was granted in the context of the needs of developing capitalism and imperialism, and thus it was impossible to overcome the inherent contradiction in creating democracy in ‘a social order ultimately dependent on economic and social inequalities’. Slavery was narrowly defined as to give ‘an aura of normality to other colonial practices,’ and the ‘slavery/freedom antinomy’, as Bolland puts it, obscures the very familiar struggles workers continued to face.



Anti-Slavery Society, ‘The present condition of the negro population in the British colonies; particularly in relation to the working of the apprenticeship system: established under the “Act for the abolition of slavery”.’ in Wilson Anti-Slavery Collection (1837)

Bolland, O. N. ‘Systems of Domination after Slavery: The Control of Land and Labour in the British West Indies after 1838’ in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 591-619 (Oct. 1981)

Burn, W. L. Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937)

Cooper et al. Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labour, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies (London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

Crook, P. ‘Social Darwinism and British “New Imperialism”: Second Thoughts’ in The European Legacy, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 1-16 (1998)

Gott, R. Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt (London: Verso, 2011)

Green, W. A. British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment 1830—1865 (London: Oxford University Press, 1976) 130.

Heuman, G. J. Between Black and White: Race, politics and the Free Coloreds in Jamaica 1792-1865 (Oxford: Greenwood Press, 1981)

Heuman, G. ‘Riots and resistance in the Caribbean at the moment of freedom’ in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 135-149 (2000)

Holt, T. C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938 (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992)

Latimer, J. ‘The Apprenticeship System in the British West Indies’ in Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 52-57 (Winter 1964)

Miers, S. Britain and the ending of the slave trade (London: Longman Group, 1975)

Miers, S. ‘Slavery to freedom in sub-Saharan Africa: Expectations and reality’ in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 237-264 (2000)

Smith, J. P. ‘Empire and Social Reform: British Liberals and the “Civilising Mission” in the Sugar Colonies, 1868-1874” in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 253-277 (Summer 1995)

Smith, J. P. ‘The Liberals, Race, and Political Reform in the British West Indies, 1866-1874’ in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 131-146 (Spring 1994)

Williams, E. Capitalism and Slavery (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964)


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