Archive of Official British Directives Detailing the End of Slavery and the “Apprenticeship” System in the British West Indies

Signed by Charles Grant

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GRANT, CHARLES, 1st BARON GLENELG. (1778-1866). Scottish politician and British colonial administrator. Archive of signed manuscript and printed circulars. (“Glenelg”). 19 leaves written in an unidentified secretarial hand and 13 printed leaves. 57pp. Small folio. January 31, 1838-October 17, 1838, London. To WILLIAM NICOLAY (1771-1842), British Army officer and governor of several islands in the British West Indies including Mauritius from 1832-1840. An exceptional collection of nine important letters from the Secretary of War and the Colonies, the content of which has been only partially published. All the letters, whether manuscript or printed, are addressed to William Nicolay (“Lieut. General Sir Wm Nicolay”).

Charles Grant, 1st Baron Glenelg

 

Born in India, the son of the Scottish chairman of the British East India Company and the nephew Bombay’s governor, Grant followed a political career, representing Inverness in the House of Commons and obtaining several appointments including Lord of the Treasury, Chief Secretary for Ireland, Privy Counsellor, President of the Board of Trade, Treasurer of the Navy, and President of the Board of Control. Beginning in 1835, Grant served as Secretary for War and the Colonies, a cabinet-level position that oversaw both the army and all the British colonies except India. At the time of his appointment, Grant was created Baron Glenelg, a barony that ended upon his death. Glenelg resigned his post in February 1839 over disagreements stemming from his policies in Canada.

In this series of communiques, Glenelg writes to William Nicolay, a career officer who served under Lord Cornwallis in the Anglo-Mysore Wars, was present at the capture of St. Lucia, and during the 1790s held several administrative positions in St. Lucia as well as Trinidad and Tobago. Upon his return to Europe, Nicolay commanded forces at the Battle of Waterloo rising to the rank of major general. He was governor of Dominica (1824-31), Saint Kitts and Nevis (1831-32), and Mauritius (1832-40).

Although Great Britain had outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and devoted no small expense to enforce the Royal Navy’s suppression of it in the Atlantic, the practice persisted, especially on the sugar plantations of the British West Indies where the vast enterprise of plantations depended on captive labor. By 1832, the cultivation of sugar beets had led to a decline in sugar prices prompting a financial crisis for the already debt-burdened sugar cane growers. The Reform Act of 1832 abolished the “rotten boroughs” that had allowed plantation owners to exert an outsized influence on Parliament, further eroding their political power and allowing Parliament to pass the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which had hitherto been blocked by slave interests. The act outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire except for Ceylon, St. Helena, and the territorial possessions of the East India Company. Notably, slavery was replaced by an “apprenticeship” system in most of the British West Indies in 1834 and in Mauritius in 1835. Under this new system slaves younger than six years were freed, but older slaves were reclassified as “apprentices,” subject to an additional four or six years of servitude prior to full manumission depending on their status as domestic or field (so-called praedial) slaves. Rather than benefitting the former slaves, the new apprenticeship system, by some accounts, was even more inhumane, allowing a small number of magistrates to administer often harsh punishment and oversee a vast labor system, rife with abuse.  These cruelties and the delay to grant unconditional freedom to slaves led to protests, revolts and labor slowdowns throughout the West Indies, escalating tension between the “apprentices” and the plantation owners. Nigerian scholar Moses D.E. Nwulia has asserted “that the apprenticeship system [merely] converted chattel slaves into serfs [and] …strengthened rather than weakened the old patterns of master-servant relationships that were not conducive to the smooth working of the emergent multiracial…multiethnic, society (“The ‘Apprenticeship’ System In Mauritius: Its Character and Its Impact on Race Relations in The Immediate Post-Emancipation Period, 1839-1879,” African Studies Review).  Ultimately, the apprenticeship system became the subject of such public scrutiny that it ended two years sooner than planned, in 1838, throughout most of the British West Indies, except in Mauritius where it was abolished on March 31, 1839, at Glenelg’s urging and despite considerable opposition from Mauritius’ Council of Government. Glenelg, in a circular letter in our archive dated April 16, 1838, strongly urges the early termination of the apprenticeship system: “I think it desirable that you should at an early opportunity convene the Legislature of the Colony under your government, and communicate to it the intelligence that Parliament has found it necessary to pass this act in furtherance of the great measure for the Abolition of Slavery… You will, at the same time, impress upon their most serious attention how deeply seated and how generally prevalent throughout the population of this Kingdom is the solicitude for bringing, if possible, to an early close the system of Apprenticeship established by the Act of 1833… You will suggest the policy and expediency of their anticipating by wise and humane enactments the wishes and desires of the people of this Country, on a subject on which so deep in general an interest is felt. By such a course they would avoid the serious embarrassment and inconveniences which may be apprehended from the effect on the minds of the Negros from the repeated discussions and continued agitation on this question during the remaining term of the Apprenticeship, if it should not be abridged, and they would conciliate the gratitude and good will of the laboring population, on whose disposition to work for fair remuneration and on equitable terms, the Proprietors will be hereafter in great measure dependent. I am persuaded that no exertion will be wanting on your part to allay excitement and to produce good will and harmony among the different Classes of the community – an object in which the interests of all are most deeply concerned.”

In the present archive of nearly 60 pages, Glenelg also discusses problems related to the large-scale importation of indentured laborers from the Indian sub-continent, including their health, their status in the eyes of planters accustomed to slave practices, tension with residents of African origin, and the absence of Indian women. Another concern described in these papers is the education of the local population with Glenelg detailing the British government’s apportionment of educational funds to the Ladies Negro Education Society and Lady Mico Charity Schools, which placed missionary societies in charge of education in Mauritius and other islands.

In a letter dated March 24, 1838, Glenelg addresses the continuation of slave practices despite their abolition including cases of workers who were now free but nevertheless had maintained their slave status and the scandal of child sales: “a considerable number of free children… were advertized for sale in the Public Gazette.” Much of this letter also discusses the question of corporal punishment, which is no longer permitted: “the disuse of corporal punishment is the first step towards the substitution of moral for the animal stimulants in the minds of the negro.” Finally, he pleads for “a moral, social & political advancement of the people” noting that “the loss of a few pounds of sugar can not be allowed to interfere with the attainment of it” and continues in detail about corporal punishment: “The single ground on which the continuance of the power of flogging in the hands of the Special Magistrates could be justly defended was the apprehension that in the degraded state to which the Negros had been reduced, cases might occur in which other modes of punishment would be of no avail, & nothing but the fear of physical pain would operate as an adequate deterrent from crime. It is in such cases only that the power can properly be exercised. Whenever solitary confinement or imprisonment with hard labor would be equally effective as a discipline & correction of the delinquent they ought to be inflicted in preference to flogging without reference to the interests of the party complaining.”

Regarding the abolition of corporal punishment, Glenelg writes on August 21, 1838: “Experience has I think fully proved that where they are kindly and considerately treated the means of coercion may be proportionably diminished. Under this conviction Her Majesty [sic] Government have had no hesitation in proposing to Parliament, and Parliament has cheerfully sanctioned the entire abolition of corporal punishment after the 15th August next for all offenses peculiar to the Apprenticeship.”

The circular letter of April 16, 1838, intended for all the colonial governors, announces an amendment to the Act for the Abolition of Slavery in the British Colonies to better protect local populations, discussing “the duties which will devolve upon you in carrying the new law into execution” and further discusses “regulating the distribution of the Hours of Legal Labor.” As part of the Slavery Abolition Act, compensation was paid to slave owners with the British Government setting aside £20 million, much of it borrowed from Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore and equal to roughly 5% of British GDP at the time; remarkably the loan was not fully repaid until 2015. Regarding the assessment of property for the purposes of compensation, Glenelg writes on April 16, 1838, about “The appointment of Official Umpires to act on the appraisement of the services of any Apprenticed Laborer seeking his discharge,” noting “Your selection will of course be made from the persons best qualified for the discharge of this duty. But it will be an indispensable condition of every such choice that the umpires shall not themselves be possessed of Apprenticed Laborers or interested in raising the average value of the services of that Class of Laborers.” Our remarkable archive of letters reveals the intricacies involved in the ongoing and difficult transitioning of the British West Indies, especially Mauritius, from slavery and the Apprenticeship System. Bound in a gray paper volume. Some occasional tears in the lower left margins of several pages, otherwise fine. A complete transcript of the archive is available upon request.

Archive of Official British Directives Detailing the End of Slavery and the “Apprenticeship” System in the British West Indies

Signed by Charles Grant


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