On this day … 19 May 1838

The Preston Chronicle carried a lengthy report on an anti-slavery meeting at the town hall. It may seem strange that such a meeting was being held after Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and paid handsome compensation to the slave owners. But emancipation was not immediate. Former slaves aged over six became ‘apprentices’, in some cases for five years, in others for seven. They were still slaves in all but name, and their conditions actually worsened, since for the former slave owners, they were a ‘wasting asset’.

When slaves were as much the property of the plantation owners as their livestock, it was in the interest of those owners to maintain their health and fitness. But with freedom for those slaves in sight, many plantation owners reduced considerably the sustenance they had formerly supplied.

The Preston meeting was incensed by the injustice of this illusory emancipation, and passed a resolution to be presented to the House of Lords, which read as follows:

That your petitioners deeply regret, that Slavery, under the name of Apprenticeship, still exists in the British colonies.

That in common with the great body of the British people, your petitioners never recognized a right of property in human beings; although a payment of money was submitted to, rather than allow the poor slaves to remain longer in bondage; but the enormous sum of twenty millions having been paid, your petitioners consider that the British nation was fully entitled to expect a ready compliance with all the stipulations, which in fixing a period of apprenticeship, the British Legislature considered it a duty to make, in favour of the apprentices.

That such stipulations have been violated, and the Colonial Legislatures having refused to exact the necessary laws for the protection of the apprentices, who have for nearly four years been subject to great oppression and cruelty, your petitioners are of opinion that the whole system of apprenticeship, as a matter of equity, falls to the ground, and that the negro, on every principle of right and justice, is entitled to be forthwith recognized as a freeman.

That your petitioners, sympathizing with the much oppressed negro, whose conduct has been most exemplary, in the midst of oppression and suffering, are convinced that nothing short of the entire abolition of the present system can remove the evils that now exist.

Your petitioners therefore humbly pray your Right Honourable House, to adopt such measures, as shall effect the total and immediate abolition of the apprenticeship system throughout the British colonies.

Those attending the meeting had been moved to pass the resolution after being told that ‘under the apprenticeship system, a discipline of greater barbarity and atrocity prevailed than existed in the worst period, and under the most atrocious forms of unmitigated cruelty’. They learned that:

What gave additional aggravation to the dreadful condition in which the slaves were now placed, and still greater aggravation to the dishonesty with which the planters had evaded their bargain with the British nation, was that under the apprenticeship system the horrors of slavery were increased; with all the former toil, their degradation, their wrongs – with all the cruelties to which they were subject, and their privations of feeling and condition, they now had to submit to hunger, for one half of the food which they were formerly accustomed to receive, had been withdrawn.

Preston’s petition was just one of many urging immediate and full emancipation, which was finally granted on 1 August 1838.


2 thoughts on “On this day … 19 May 1838

  1. I couldn’t agree more
    Great article! It’s interesting to learn about the apprenticeship system and how it was used to continue the exploitation and degradation of former slaves. It’s appalling that the planters would withhold sustenance from those who had already suffered so much. I am curious to know more about the reactions to this resolution, both within the House of Lords and among the general public. Were there any significant changes made as a result of this petition?
    Johanna Casiddy


    1. The direct result of this pettion, Johanna, and many more like it, plus a general disgust at the operation of the apprenticeship system in the country as a whole, was its abolition on 1 August that year.


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