On 1st August 1833, that is to say, one hundred and eighty years ago, the Parliament of our former colonial master, Great Britain, passed a law abolishing the institution of slavery throughout its colonial empire, including in Dominica and the rest of the British West Indies.

From Slavery To Apprenticeship

Included among the main provisions was, first, that enslaved Africans and their creole descendants born into slavery were declared to be no longer slaves under the law. Their legal status as the lawful property of their owners was brought to an end. Second, all slaves under the age of six years on 1st August 1834 whose parents were able to support them were to be freed immediately. Third, all persons not immediately freed were entitled to buy their complete freedom from their owners, piece by piece, if need be. Fourth, all slaves six years of age or older, instead of being freed immediately, were to remain in a state of apprenticeship to their owners for a period of time before they received full freedom. The stated period was six years for those who, as slaves, had been involved in the production of staple crops on the plantations; they were called "praedial" apprentices. And, for the rest, including domestic slaves, the period of apprenticeship was set at four years; they were called "non-praedial" apprentices. And, fifth, the apprenticeship of the ex-slaves was to be managed and supervised by persons, called "stipendiary magistrates", recruited from Britain and sent out to the plantation colonies.

As was directed by the British Abolition Act, the legislature of Dominica passed a local Abolition measure in April 1834. The main provisions were these. It was stipulated, first of all, that slavery "shall be and is hereby utterly and forever abolished and declared unlawful." Further, it declared all persons who were slaves on 1st August 1834 to be free "absolutely." In respect of children, those born to slave mothers after 1st August 1834 were not to carry the status of "slave." They were declared free "from birth." Children under the age of six years were to receive immediate freedom, provided their parents had the means of maintaining them. But, where their parents could not, the child might be apprenticed to his or her mother's former owner. Moreover, if the mother's employer was judged to be "unable or unfit," the child might be apprenticed elsewhere.

Freedom For Sale

Provision was made for ex-slaves to be freed from the necessity to undergo apprenticeship. They might obtain immediate full freedom in one of two ways. They might purchase their apprenticeship with whatever monies they were able to save as slaves. Or, their former masters might set them free gratuitously, that is to say, without having to pay. The process was called manumission. In the first case, an ex-slave was given the right to take before the "nearest" Magistrate any former owner who put obstacles in the way of purchase of his or her freedom. And, as to a former master manumitting his former slave, he was not permitted to do so unless the apprentice, so freed, was capable of maintaining himself. Thus, where the person to be freed was more than fifty years of age, or afflicted by a disease, or mentally retarded, or "afflicted by bodily infirmity such as renders him incapable of providing for himself," the former master would be required to give and carry out an undertaking to support the apprentice in question during the whole or remaining part, as the case may be, of the apprenticeship period.

The Act stipulated that apprentices were to be fed, housed, clothed and medically cared for by their former owners. The quantum of "such food, clothing, lodging, medicine, medical attendance and such other maintenance" was to be as set out in the island's Slave Code enacted in 1831. Where it was not possible for these requirements of food to be met, apprentices were to be provided with land on which to grow all the provisions they needed. These parcels of land were called "provision-grounds." The law went further and specified that provision-grounds should be "adequate both in quality and quantity for (the apprentice's) support, and with a reasonable distance from his or her usual place of abode." It warned against employers providing "unproductive" land for that purpose. And it urged that, "where there may not be lands proper for the cultivation of provisions," employers should "by some other ways and means make good and ample provision in order that (apprentices) may be properly supported and maintained."

A Bit Of Free Time

Of course, it was recognized that apprentices would need free time in which to cultivate their provision-grounds. The law, therefore, set aside 4½ hours weekly for that purpose. Apprentices were to utilize such free time "at such periods of the year" as their employers deemed "least detrimental and injurious to the cultivation of the plantation … and the gathering in of the crops and the manufacture of the produce thereof." Moreover, apprentices were not entitled to claim their 4½ hours on more than three consecutive days at a time. The intention was clear: Apprentices ought to be enabled to produce food adequate for survival, but no more.

Forced Labour

Needless to say, foremost in the minds of planters who passed the Act was the survival of the plantation economy. This would not be possible unless apprentices provided compulsory, that is to say, forced labour to their ex-masters for some time yet. In that respect and, accordingly, in respect of sanctions against apprentices who failed to provide the forced labour demanded of them, the local Act went to the extreme. Apprentices were to provide 40½ hours of forced labour weekly. They were to do so between "sun-up" on Monday and "sun-down" on Friday. But clauses in the law enabled employers to extract many, many more hours. For example, if an apprentice was absent from work "without reasonable cause," he was to provide the employer with two hours for each hour he had been absent, up to a maximum of fifteen extra hours weekly. Further, if absent for more than one day, that is to say, for nine hours, he or she would lose two 9-hour days, in other words, eighteen hours of his or her free time. For absence "without reasonable cause" for two successive working days, the penalty was a sentence of hard labour for not more than one week. Absence for three or four days in succession "without reasonable cause" attracted a sentence of fourteen (14) days maximum. An entire week's absence "without reasonable cause" was punished by a sentence of thirty (30) lashes maximum and, in addition, loss of not more than fourteen (14) days' free time. And, for "willful absence" for more than three months continuously, the penalty was either to make good to the employer the hours lost during the period of absence; or, to "make satisfaction … for the loss sustained by such absence." Such cases of delinquency were triable summarily before a Stipendiary Magistrate. Of course, what constituted "reasonable cause" was left to the discretion of the Magistrate. But, at the end of the day, the employer had his way. Where the option to repay for time lost in labour was chosen, this was to be done after the expiration of the period of apprenticeship.

Not surprisingly, the legislation went to great lengths to identify situations in which employers might extract additional forced labour from the apprentices. Some of these were not obviously related to the 40½ hours quota of compulsory labour. For example, apprentices were penalized for drunkenness at work, for engaging in a fight, or for willfully or negligently damaging the employer's property. For such misconduct, they lost a maximum of fourteen days' free time. And, for a second such offence committed within a week, the punishment was doubled. Apprentices were also penalized for neglect of their huts and provision grounds. For allowing the one or the other to "fall into decay and bad order," the employer was authorized to put the same, "in order," and, further, to defray any expenses incurred thereby from apprentices' free time. And, most notably, for making "frivolous or groundless" complaints against employers, apprentices might be sentenced to repay, in days labour, up to a maximum of fifteen (15) hours in one week. This worked out to be double the time lost to the estate as a result of preparation of the complaint.

Saturday and Sunday

Saturday was declared to be a day of free time for praedial apprentices. And Sunday was set aside as a day of worship for all apprentices. But both provisions were qualified so as to enable employers to work apprentices on both days. As to Saturday, the employment of apprentices engaged in tending cattle, in the domestic services, in protection of property, and in "works of necessity" was allowed. And, in these circumstances, employers were entitled to withhold the free time of apprentices on Saturday and, in return, provide the same to the apprentice on "some other day." As well, employers were given a generalized authority to demand "immediate and continued" apprentice labour "in cases of urgent necessity." This authority might be conveniently invoked to work apprentices on Saturdays.

In respect of Sunday, the law was manipulated in the same way. For example, divine worship might be sacrificed, and Sundays might under the law be used, to tend cattle and perform other "works of necessity." Further, no goods, wares, merchandize or provision were to be sold on Sundays. But, provided it were done "outside the hours of divine service," druggist shops, taverns and lodging houses might be kept open. And fish, milk and fresh meat might be sold on that day.

Copyright (c) William Para Riviere, July 2013