Academic journal article The Historian

Premature Abolition, Ethnocentrism, and Bold Blackness: Race Relations in the Cayman Islands, 1834-1840

Academic journal article The Historian

Premature Abolition, Ethnocentrism, and Bold Blackness: Race Relations in the Cayman Islands, 1834-1840

Article excerpt

Whereas the situation of the inhabitants of the Grand Caymans having engaged the particular attention of His Majesty's Government, more especially as to the effect of the recent changes under the laws of the Imperial Parliament have upon the structure of society in those Islands belonging to Great Britain, where slavery formerly existed; and the opinion of the law offices of the Crown having been obtained; I have received His Majesty's commands forthwith to communicate the decision at which they have arrived upon the question ... (1)

EXCERPT FROM THE PROCLAMATION of the emancipation of apprentices in Grand Cayman, as publicly read on 3 May 1835

As the slaves' emancipation in the British West Indies became more and more likely, certain colonies in the region experienced slave revolts that represented, on the one hand, the slaves' willingness to fight, or, in any case, "act up" for their freedom, and on the other, a response to their masters' determination to keep them subjugated. (2) In Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823), and Jamaica (1831-32), such revolts were violently suppressed by the slavocracy, which had a vested interest in slavery and the economic dividends of its continuation. Altogether, the years leading up to 1834 were fraught with racial tension as never before, regardless of any spirited abolitionist movement in Britain that first focused on eradicating the slave trade and ameliorating the general conditions of the enslaved and then, when the latter proved ultimately ineffective, doing away with slavery altogether.

Since the inception of African enslavement in the British West Indies in the early seventeenth century, slaves had employed various subversive tactics with which to restore a freedom they had enjoyed in Africa, but, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, it was most pertinent that the socio-economic reality begotten by slavery had become increasingly untenable. (3) This was precisely because the amelioration gains wrought by abolitionism since 1808 were not adequate to placate the slaves' insatiable hunger for freedom; many of them were, by 1816, convinced that this was being withheld from them, together with the recalcitrance of the monetarist planter class, whose members felt it their God-given right to own, control, overwork, and punish their human properties. (4) Abolitionism, after amassing great influence in British politics in the 1820s, eventually persuaded British Parliament that the Caribbean could not continue along its explosive path, and, on 1 August 1834, slaves in the British West Indies were emancipated. Since, however, the planter class remained in positions of social power and political privilege, and secured the sympathy of the British government, ethnocentrism and racism hardly ended with emancipation.

Thus, British West Indian freedmen and -women were, by law, required to become apprentices following their conditional emancipation in 1834. Non-field laborers would undergo apprenticeship until 1838, while fieldworkers were to be released from their training in 1840 (children under six who could be provided for by their mother were to be automatically freed). (5) According to the imperialistic Zeitgeist, apprenticeship was a necessary civilizing instrument that would adequately prepare erstwhile slaves for unfettered economic, social, and political freedoms. However, many historians of the Caribbean, including David Eltis and W.K. Marshall, view apprenticeship as just another form of slavery, or, indeed, a clever continuation of it. (6) It is generally held that apprenticeship was really established as a way to appease angry planters in the British West Indies--who, incidentally, were further appeased by the British government with a compensated 20 million [pounds sterling] (to be paid by the British taxpayer) because of their "loss"--by ensuring the cheap to free labor of former slaves. (7) A crass example of the racial discrimination and exploitation that continued after emancipation, one legal condition of apprenticeship confirmed that the apprentice could only receive anything resembling a wage if he or she worked more than a forty-five-hour week; similarly, apprentices were legally compelled to work like slaves for their former masters if they expected to continue to live on the latter's property; and with the introduction of various taxes for apprentices after emancipation, any meager wage they made went towards, for instance, securing their lodging, effectively keeping them dependent on those responsible for their enslavement in the first place. …

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