The Emancipation Act of 1834 changed the course of history and the lives of many people in Great Britain and her colonies. However, despite its careful preparation by the British Parliament there were several flaws in the Act. The Act of Emancipation addressed many issues in order to bring about the much-desired abolition of slavery as smoothly as possible.
The Act consisted of three main clauses: from August 1st 1834 slavery would be abolished and pronounced illegal in every British colony; a transitional apprenticeship period would come into effect for the emancipated slaves; and a grant of a substantial amount of money would be paid to the planters of the British Caribbean colonies to compensate for their losses.
In addition to these clauses there were several minor ones: the period of apprenticeship and the interaction between the planter and the apprentice would be supervised by Stipendiary Magistrates hired by the British Government; the apprentice had to work submissively for the entire period and all attempts at escape were strictly forbidden; apprentices had to work for three-quarters of the week and overtime was to be rewarded with wages or provisions; the planter had to continue supplying his apprentices with the standard allowance they had during slavery; all slave children under the age of six and those born to slave mothers would be free; children who were destitute might be apprenticed until the age of twenty-one; the apprentice was allowed to buy his freedom before his contract was over and the planter had to accept his due payment whether he wanted to or not; in the case of voluntary discharge the master was still responsible for the care of aged or infirm slaves during Apprenticeship; and field slaves would serve their masters until 1st August 1840, and the domestics until 1st August 1838, when their contracts came to an end.
These proposed conditions were all considered to be excellent ideas. However many situations and conditions were not addressed. When the idea of a transitional period came about the parliamentarians and the abolitionists looked at its benefits from their perspectives and not from that of the slaves. They still considered the Africans’ way of life to be primitive and one of the accepted arguments for Apprenticeship, made by Edward Stanley, was that if the slaves were immediately released they would quickly revert to their ‘savage’ way of life.
They also justified the necessity of this gradualism by pointing out that an immediate release of the slaves would cause havoc in the colonies and ruin the planters. They did not seem to realise that in the eyes of the slave, Apprenticeship was just another name for the bondage they were forced to live in before their ‘freedom’ was declared. Also the partiality of this freedom would not satisfy the temperaments of the slaves who after so many years of persecution would want their freedom in its entirety. The aforementioned compensation to the planters of the British Caribbean, which amounted to 20,000,000 pounds, was the subject of much debate in the British Parliament.
The abolitionists believed that the sum was too great but in the end James Stephens’ suggestion received approval. The fault with this part of the Act was that the method of division of the compensation, amongst the British islands was not specified. The differing territories and population sizes would cause distinct variables and the power sustained by the planter on the colony could be abused in the workings of the system in an effort to gain as much of the compensatory money as could be gotten. Each planter was to receive benefits according to the valuation of his slaves and the extent of his losses but the process of this valuation was imprecise therefore allowing planters the capacity to take advantage of the British Government’s generosity.
The clause which said that the planters had to give the apprentices whatever allowances he or she had during slavery could also work in the planters favour because the slave may have gotten next to nothing before, in terms of medical care, provisional grounds, sufficient clothing or adequate lodging. The section of the Act pertaining to the fates of the children of slaves was entirely insufficient and it lay them open to exploitation by their masters. The Act stated that a child under the age of six would be free but in the care of its mother. This would mean that the child would have to remain on the plantation with its apprenticed mother, so in other words the child would still remain under the power of the planter even if it were free.
Even worse are the disadvantages placed on the children of destitute mothers who could be apprenticed out at the will of the planter. The planter through the ambiguity of the Act could control the living conditions of his slaves. Therefore the children could be easily proclaimed destitute and be used for the planter’s personal gain. The conditions of work on the plantation, the allotment of punishment and the extent of the jurisdiction of the Stipendiary Magistrates are also among the unmentioned factors of the Emancipation Act. The Act left the overtime wages up to the decision of the planters; it only spoke of the insubordination and disobedience of the apprentice to his master but it did not speak of the cruelty and the unfairness of the planter to the apprentice.
Therefore this left the master open to deal out punishments to the ‘freemen’ as he did during slavery because it did not address the rampant issue of workhouses or the use of the whip. The planter could also maintain a power hold over the Stipendiary Magistrates since they were unused to the conditions of colonial life and the functioning of its systems. They also had no large amount of control over the planters’ actions. When taken into careful consideration a salary of 300 pounds per annum, in an unsatisfactory working environment, is not enough to secure the loyalty or honesty of the average person when more can be gained through deception. Therefore corruption could be expected from some of the magistrates whose over-ambition may have led them to accept bribes from those willing to give them.
In conclusion one can therefore form the opinion that the Act of Emancipation was imprecise in its methods for the workings of the systems it proposed. The Act was very unclear when it came to how the apprentices should be treated and what real freedoms they were to be granted. It seems that the British Parliament assumed that the relationship between the planters and the apprentices would eventually work itself out under the scrutiny of the Stipendiary Magistrates. Also the preparations made to benefit the newly ‘released’ slaves paid more attention to the economical profit that could be made during the transitional period of apprenticeship than on the overall welfare of the slaves.
In other words when the Act of Emancipation was put into effect in 1834, the slaves would not have had many reasons to celebrate since for a further four to six years, they would be tied to the plantation that represented all the things that they wanted to get away from when their freedom was obtained. The proposals of the Emancipation Act of 1834 were also quite indistinct in defining the actual authority of the planter in the workings of the apprenticeship system. One can formulate the assumption that the vagueness of the Act itself can be attributed to the fact that the interests of the apprentices after their release was not of the utmost importance to the majority of the British Government. Therefore the end result appeared to hold no real freedom for the ‘emancipated’ slaves.