The end of slavery

The Emancipation Act of 1833 came into effect on 1 August 1834. It was the final law to be made in the campaign to end slavery in British territories . The new law freed immediately those slaves under the age of six years old. Older slaves were to be ‘apprenticed’ for up to eight years. Traditionally, an apprentice is someone who is taken on, for four to seven years, by another person to be taught a trade. The apprentice usually receives board and lodging in return for the work they do whilst learning. The term apprenticeship was applied to the stage between slavery and freedom. The idea was that the slaves were ‘learning’ how to be free. They worked as before for their former owner, for three-quarters of their time, and could work for others for the rest of the week and receive a small wage. This period was supposed to get the ex-slaves prepared for their freedom in eight years time at the end of the apprenticeship. The situation was little changed from slavery.

In the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Bermuda the plantation owners realised that it was cheaper to pay a daily wage than to feed and house their apprentices (ex-slaves). The plantation owners therefore freed their slaves at once.

The anti-slavery movement had not quite won the battle to end slavery, as the ex-slaves were not much better off under the new system. A campaign began against ‘apprenticeship’. Petitions, as advertised in this banner, were popular ways of showing support, and attracted the working class as well as the middle-class liberals. This banner would have been hung from a window or balcony to publicise the petition being circulated.

The campaigners’ pressure finally won. Parliament voted for complete emancipation (freedom without apprenticeship) to take effect from 1 August 1838. 750,000 people were freed. If slaves wanted to, they could work as wage earning employees on the plantations. But the dream of the freed slaves was to own their own land and work for themselves. In Jamaica, many abandoned the plantations in search of their own land to cultivate, taking over waste land in the island. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, where there was no empty land to cultivate, many had no option but to continue working on plantations for their former owner for low wages.