A mighty experiment
Griffith-Hughes, Elisabeth Anne
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When Britain abolished slavery, in 1834, it did not grant immediate freedom to the slaves, but put in place an apprenticeship period of four to six years depending upon occupation designation. This period, along with compensation of 6 million pounds, was awarded to the planters for their property losses. It was meant to be used to "socialize" the former slaves and convert them from enslaved to wage labor. The British government placed the task of overseeing the apprenticeship period in the hands of a force of stipendiary magistrates. The power to punish the work force was taken from the planters and overseers and given to the magistrates who ruled on the complaints brought by planters, overseers, and apprentices, meted out punishments, and forwarded monthly reports to the governors. Jamaica was the largest and most valuable of the British West Indian possessions and consequently the focus of attention. There were four groups all with a vested interest in the outcome of the apprenticeship experiment: the British government, the Jamaican Assembly, the planters, and the apprentices. The thesis of this work is that rather than ameliorating conditions and gaining the cooperation they needed from their workers, the planters responded with coercive acts that drove the labor force from the plantations. The planters’ actions, along with those of a British government loathe to interfere with local legislatures after the experience of losing the North American colonies, bear much of the responsibility for the demise of the plantation economy in Jamaica.