Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

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Why did the apprentice system fail in 1838?

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With the legal abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1834, the apprentice system was implemented to help both former slaves and plantation owners transition away from the system of chattel slavery. However, this new system contained certain essential flaws that led to its abandonment in 1838.

The first flaw was that as apprentices, former slaves did not fare much better than they had during their enslavement. They could still be worked extremely hard with few if any comforts or rights. Corporal punishment continued to be widely practiced. Throughout the British colonies, former slaves protested this system of gradual emancipation and insisted that they receive immediate and full liberation. This resulted in widespread work refusals throughout the West Indies and even the sabotage of working equipment.

Another flaw that led to the end of this system revolved around the relative independence of colonial governments. When the Abolition Act was signed into law, it was up to each colonial government to figure out how to implement its conditions. This led to a wide variety of conditions and local laws throughout the colonies. As such, the conditions of the apprentice system were very different in some places than in others. This led to a large degree of animosity and ill-feelings among both ex-slaves and plantation owners throughout the colonies who felt that they were not getting a fair deal.

When reports of the conditions faced every day by apprentices in the West Indies reached abolitionist circles in England, people realized that apprenticeship was essentially slavery by another name. Calls for full emancipation quickly grew, and in August of 1838, the apprentice system was officially abolished.

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Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act. However, in practical terms, British slavery did not end until 1838. Many British colonies were structured around chattel slavery, so Parliament instituted the "Apprenticeship System" to prevent the collapse of the colonies. All slaves over the age of six were termed "apprentices" and were supposed to essentially remain slaves for a set period of time, after which they would be set free (The colony of Antigua elected to forgo the the Apprenticeship System and set its slaves free immediately). Neither the apprentices nor the plantation owners were satisfied with this compromise. Many apprentices refused to work, and the plantation owners retaliated by abusing them. These abuses eventually became public, and popular opinion turned against the Apprenticeship System. The Apprenticeship System was formally abandoned on August 1, 1838, and all the apprentices received their freedom.

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