Doing History, Part I

This year’s Shakespeare in Paradise will feature a production entitled, “Speak the Speech,” which tells the Bahamian story through historic speeches and other primary sources. While working on this project with Festival Director Nicolette Bethel, I discovered and rediscovered a trove of interesting documents that many of my readers may not necessarily be familiar with.

Today, I share with you a “proclamation and address” by Lieutenant Governor Balfour shortly before Emancipation in 1834. In it, Balfour advises the population on the changes that are about to happen. This document was published in the Royal Gazette. I thank my students for their assistance in unearthing it from the National Archives on Mackey Street.


By His Excellency BLAYNEY TOWNLEY BALFOUR, Esquire, Lieutenant Governor and Commander in Chief in and over the Bahama Islands, Chancellor, Vice Admiral, and Ordinary of the same.


IN a few weeks Slavery will be at an end, and I therefore address you, that you may all know the chief points in the new system, and that you may not offend the Laws through ignorance.

MASTERS, remember that you must feed and clothe your Apprentices, and otherwise provide them, according to the Law. – Remember that you have no right to strike or imprison an apprentice; but if he deserve punishment, you must take him to a Special Justice.

SLAVES, you will, on the 1st of August, lose this name, and become free; but as I told you last year, you will not be altogether free, but for a few years you will have to work for your Masters as Apprentices; that is to say, as Free Servants who receive Food and Clothes and House, instead of Wages in Money.

Now, what is the difference between a Slave and an Apprentice? It is great – A master may flog a Slave; he may not, dare not, strike an Apprentice, or he will be punished.

A master may imprison a Slave in the Workhouse; he may not imprison an Apprentice.

A master may make a Slave work every day in his plantation, he may only make an Apprentice work five days in each week, and only nine hours each day, and the master must feed his Apprentice every day, and find him a House and Clothing.

But some of you are Sailors, and some are House Servants – and of course those must work every day, and perhaps for more than nine hours – But then, in return, the Law says that those who work every day shall be entirely free in four years, and those who work in the Fields cannot be entirely Free until the end of six years.

When you become entirely free you will have to pay for the House and Food and Clothes and Medicine which your Masters are now obliged to give.

If you are idle, or insolent to your masters, they will complain to the Justice, and you will be punished. If your masters treat you badly or strike you, or imprison you, you may complain, and they will be punished.

And now Farewell; be obedient and quiet, and the Law will protect you; but if you are not so, remember the Law can and will punish you.

Given under my hand and seal at Arms at Nassau, in the Island of New Providence, this twenty seventh day of June in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty four, and in the fifth year of His Majesty’s reign.
By His Excellency’s Command,
Dep. Pub. Secy.

The attentive reader will no doubt notice that there is a lot of talk about the work apprentices are required to do, but not a word about any training they should receive, as one might expect for an apprenticeship system. That is because apprenticeship in this context was but a euphemism for continued slavery, which is what five full days a week of forced labour really amounts to.

“Apprenticeship” was one of the attempts on behalf of the British government to make emancipation more palatable to the slave owners. After all, in a legal sense, emancipation amounted to a large scale expropriation of private property. Now, not only were British slave owners financially compensated for the loss of their human property, but apprenticeship allowed them to perpetuate established modi operandi for several years.

Balfour emphasises that apprentices were entitled to food and clothing, but, while the particulars may have changed, this basic principle had long been established for slaves, too. In the Bahamas, it had been regularised by the Consolidated Slave Act of 1797, and arguably, even after the end of apprenticeship, it the truck system continued exploitation of labour for payment in kind throughout much of the nineteenth century.

The first Bahamian slave law had been passed in 1723, though arguably, the “Articles and Orders of the Company of Eleutherian Adventurers” (1647) already contained aspects of slavery. Since then, ameliorative elements had found their way into newer legislation, but the main means of controlling the masses remained the same: threats of punishment, especially physical punishment.


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