THE APPRENTICESHIP PERIOD
As mentioned earlier, the Emancipation Act (of 1833) stipulated that the slaves would continue to work on the plantations as "apprentices" for a further period of six years if they were field slaves and for four years if they were house slaves. They were to work for seven and a half hours a day, or forty five hours a week. This was a deliberate action to ensure that the plantation owners were provided with free labour even after slavery was abolished. Much of this arrangement was not explained to slaves after the Emancipation Act was passed.
In British Guiana, the 1 August 1834 was declared a public holiday by the Governor. While many slaves celebrated emancipation by making merry, others went to their churches to offer prayers.
On the following morning, the "freed" Africans were more than surprised and very angry when they were ordered by their masters to return to work. On many plantations they refused to work, and the Governor himself had to visit quite a few plantations in Demerara to explain the apprenticeship regulations to the African workers. By the 5 August, the situation had reached such a crisis that he had to issue a proclamation ordering all the "apprentices" to obey the regulations.
The Africans were thus forced back to work, but they did so reluctantly. From time to time short strikes occurred, and there were acts of sabotage, as during the slavery period, on plantation property.
Harsh punishment, including flogging and imprisonment, was inflicted on disobedient apprentices. Some were also sentenced to cruel punishment on the treadmill. Even the British Government became concerned that the Africans were being unfairly treated and, as a result, it appointed "stipendiary" or special magistrates to listen to complaints from both Africans and planters. In general, however, these magistrates took the side of the planters and did little to halt the unfair treatment. In many cases, local planters were appointed as temporary magistrates by the Governor until the arrival of the appointees from England.
It was generally felt by the ex-slaves that the special magistrates were biased towards the planters. This happened because in some cases, punishments imposed by the planters were supported by the magistrates. Also, if an apprentice broke the law, such as refusing to work, the case was passed on to the regular magistrate who generally imposed very harsh punishment such as whipping and imprisonment. But a few of the special magistrates were not popular with the planters since they frequently upheld the appeals of the apprentices.
The planters themselves devised their own methods to control the "apprentices". Those who refused to do overtime work had their rations reduced and were refused their handouts of rum, sugar and salt-fish. The planter could also decide if an apprentice's work was not satisfactory, thus forcing the apprentice to do extra work when he could be working for wages. It was a usual practice for a planter to put an apprentice in the lock-up on a trumped-up charge to await the arrival of the magistrate on the plantation. However, the charges would be dropped just before the magistrate's arrival, but the apprentice would still have to work the extra time equivalent to the period he was jailed. On some plantations where the ex-slaves had provision grounds, the planters made it difficult to earn money from them. In many cases, the planters ordered that fruit trees should be cut down, while others prevented the ex-slaves from keeping livestock.
The planters, because of their control of the Court of Policy, were able to influence the passage of laws to control the ex-slaves. It became illegal for apprentices to leave the plantation even during their free time unless they had written permission from the owner or the overseer. A special regulation fixed high fees for licences for those who had special skills to practise their trade. This affected the ex-slaves who were craftsmen - such as carpenters, coopers, masons and blacksmiths - and also those who had small retail shops and fishing boats. Even those who did door-to-door selling of their farm products were pressured with high trading licence fees.
During this period, the planters were also thinking about the future when they would no longer have free labour provided by the "apprentices". They knew that after the end of the apprenticeship period, the African workers would be in a position to make demand for high wages since there were no other groups of workers available. They thus opted to encourage immigration, and some free Africans from the Caribbean islands, and also from the USA, were brought to British Guiana as paid labourers from 1835. The first group came from Antigua where African slaves were given total freedom in August 1834. Small groups of Portuguese were also brought from Madeira as indentured labourers from 1834.
Based on the monthly reports the special magistrates sent to the Colonial Office, it was clear that the "apprentices" continued to endure harsh punishments as they did under slavery. In 1837, a British Parliamentary Committee recommended that certain punishments such as the flogging of women should be halted.
By 1838, the British Government felt that further problems might arise if one group of "apprentices" would continue to provide free labour on the plantations for a further two years after the former house-slave group were finally set free in 1838. It therefore proclaimed the freedom of all "apprentices" on the 1 August 1838.
With a free population now outside the controls of the sugar planters, the Government saw the need to maintain law and order. As a result, a regular police force was formed in 1839 and it was made up of an Inspector-general, three Inspectors (one for each county) and 286 men. It also had a mounted section with 40 horses. Even before the establishment of the police force, order was maintained by rural constables and also by a small military force known as the West Indian Regiment stationed in Georgetown. From time to time, groups of these soldiers were deployed to different parts of the country when there were signs of trouble. Some members of this Regiment were ex-slaves who had been recruited even before Emancipation.