Fettered freedom: the Emancipation Act, 1834

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


The news that “free paper come” was received by the enslaved African population across Tobago with much jubilation and great expectations.

The island had been home to an increasing enslaved African population since the British determination to create a plantation colony there after it was acquired in 1763.

When news reached Tobago that the law had been passed by the British Parliament in 1833, there were just over 11,000 hopeful Africans on the island who looked forward to the start of a new phase of their lives after having endured the rigours of enslavement umder exploitative plantation owners.

But on the planter side, the mood was far more sombre, because there were concerns about their ability to maintain the operations of their plantations without the controlled labour force to which they had grown accustomed. Based on their prejudiced notions about the inherent racial deficiencies of the African, they anticipated violence and mayhem. They expected their former enslaved possessions to revert to their “natural savagery” and inflict vengeance on them.

The imperial authorities felt the same. The Abolition Bill was passed after the most devastating slave rebellion in Jamaica in 1831, which was put down with military force. With Emancipation, extra troops were drafted into Jamaica and the Royal Navy patrolled the Caribbean as precautionary measures.

The imperial administration took advantage of the appeal of ceremony and rituals to the Africans, and enlisted the support of the churches to assist in the maintenance of social order in the British colonies. Colonial officials organised thanksgiving services under the auspices of the existing churches, and colonial governors mandated churches to remain open on August 1, 1834. These were official, sanctioned efforts at social control of the Africans.

Although the law was entitled the Emancipation Act, it provided less freedom to the Africans than they anticipated, and more liberties to the plantation owners. The law stated that planters were to be paid £20,00000 compensation for the loss of their property, but made no provision for the enslaved workers for their years of free labour to the plantations. Children under six were immediately free, but the nature of the relationship between the free children of apprenticed parents on the estates was not specified. This became a bone of contention.

The Africans were required to serve a period of apprenticeship ⁠– four years for skilled workers and six years for labourers. They were to give 45 hours per week to their former masters and they were to be paid for any work done beyond that period of time.

Stipendiary magistrates were sent out to the colonies to manage the operation of the system. This was a restricted freedom which workers found difficult to understand.

The proclamation of lieutenant governor of Tobago, Henry Darling, provides a very good indication of the restrictions imposed on the apprentices. The proclamation was addressed to "the free apprenticed labourers of Tobago." It contained 48 clauses ⁠– the first 11 spelt out the allowances due to the apprentices, 12 outlined the responsibilities of the planters, four specified the duties of the special magistrates, and the remaining 21 explained the duties of the apprentices and specified the punishments they would receive for non-compliance with the regulations.

The changed status meant that the apprentices could no longer be bought, sold and flogged by their former masters. But the agency of punishment was transferred to the prison, where the inmates could be imposed sentences with hard labour, solitary confinement, whipping with the cat for up to 39 strokes, or on the treadmill, as prescribed by the magistrate.

The treadmill, a device created in 1818 to make prisoners develop habits of industry, was a particularly brutal mechanism of punishment. It was a rotating staircase that forced the prisoners to keep moving up the steps in time with the rate of rotation or be flogged.

The prison replaced the master’s whip. Absence from work, absconding, indolent or careless work, making frivolous complaints against planters and holding gatherings of three or more to organise revolts or social disorder all attracted heavy prison sentences. Women were not whipped, but were punished only by solitary confinement and hard labour.

The apprentices were required to continue to serve their former owners as labourers a bit longer, with the rationale being that the apprentices must pay their masters with their labour for a part of what would have been lost to the planters by their immediate freedom.

Nowhere in the proclamation was there any reference to the provision by the imperial government to pay the planters hefty compensation for the loss of their property.

Planters were therefore compensated twice, with the cash from the imperial government and with mandatory labour from the apprentices. This regulation was made in response to planter fears that full freedom would be followed by a withdrawal of labour from the estates and result in the demise of the island’s sugar industry ⁠– responsibility for which the imperial authorities were careful to avoid.

In addition to their very weak attempts to justify the provision, which was tantamount to giving with one hand and taking back with the other, an appeal was made to the moral obligation of the apprentices to demonstrate, by their orderly conduct, how appreciative and deserving they were of the blessings of freedom that they were about to enjoy.

This did not hide the fact that the real reason was to guarantee planters a continued supply of labour.

Then came the provisions which were indicative of the continuation of planter control over the workers. They were to receive the same food and clothing allowances that were provided to them prior to 1834, and they were required to remain resident on the estate to which they were attached.

This facilitated planter control, as apprentices were only allowed to change residence with the permission of the planter. Each person over 12 was to be allocated a provision ground of half an acre on or in close proximity to the estate. With this provision came the expectation that the apprentices would remain on the estates after the termination of apprenticeship, since it was not anticipated that they would own land.

Every estate was required to provide medical and hospital services for the sick, but planter compliance was not likely, as there was no sanction stated for planter default.

The special magistrate was empowered to set the price of freedom for those apprentices who desired to manumit themselves before their time was expired. In addition, the magistrates were empowered to appoint six special constables to keep order in their districts, and on each estate to appoint one or more apprenticed labourers to serve as constables to keep peace and order. These constables were given the authority to apprehend and confine suspicious lurking strangers to prison.

Law and order were to be achieved through the divide-and-rule mechanism.

The most glaring feature of the Emancipation Act was the failure to make any change in the island’s system of administration. With continued planter domination of the agencies of government, efforts to implement the system of restricted freedom in Tobago after 1834 were assured.


"Fettered freedom: the Emancipation Act, 1834"

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