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James Williams, b. ca. 1819
A Narrative of Events Since the First of August, 1834, By James Williams, an Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica
London: J. Rider, [1837?].


James Williams (c. 1819-?) lived and worked as a slave under the British system of apprenticeship on the Pinehurst plantation of the Senior family in St. Ann's Parish, Jamaica. Although the British slave trade was discontinued in 1807, slavery remained a common practice in Britain's colonies until an 1833 act of Parliament designated all slaves over the age of six as apprentices who would be freed at the end of their term of service. Beginning August 1, 1834, British household slaves were apprenticed to a four-year term of service, and field-slaves were apprenticed to a six-year term of service. Freed slaves and apprentices, however, were subject to work and living conditions that were virtually the same as those that had existed under slavery. In January 1837, Williams, then an eighteen-year-old man with no wife or children, was introduced to a group of British anti-apprenticeship activists who were visiting Jamaica. One of them, Joseph Sturge, was a wealthy English businessman who supplied the money for Williams to purchase his freedom. Sturge also arranged to take Williams to Britain and to publish his Narrative in order to promote the abolitionist cause and reveal the abuses of apprenticeship to the British public. Though the public record offers little insight into the details of their relationship, tensions later rose between Sturge and Williams. After only four months in England, Williams returned to Jamaica in September 1837. The last public record in which Williams appears indicates he was a plaintiff along with several others against his former owner for kidnapping and other abuses, but the jury of white male property owners and apprentice holders decided there was insufficient evidence for prosecution.

Williams worked with an amanuensis to write the Narrative, co-authoring the text with Dr. Archibald Leighton Palmer, a Scottish medical doctor he had met in Jamaica. It was published in June 1837 and quickly reprinted in multiple editions and in newspapers throughout Britain and Jamaica. Williams's Narrative became iconic. His name and detailed accounts of the abuses suffered by apprentices became a common reference in published debates of the period. In September 1837, a Commission of Inquiry was opened regarding the abuses of apprentices in Browns Town, Jamaica. Over a period of three weeks, evidence was gathered from a large number of witnesses, including more than 120 apprentices. The evidence verified the Narrative's truthfulness, and accounts of the testimonies were published in pamphlets with such titles as James Williams's Narrative fully confirmed in the report of a Special Commission issued from the Colonial Office.

Williams's Narrative does not provide details about his childhood, early life, or experiences outside the apprenticeship system. Instead, it is a record of the frequent punishments and abuses he experienced while apprenticed to the Senior family. The new law enacted by Parliament changed the relationship between slaveholders and slaves, not only setting an end-date to slaves' terms of service, but also decreeing that punishments against slaves would be administered by magistrates, not slaveholders. However, this system did not alleviate the physical abuses slaves suffered, and Williams's goal in writing his narrative was to show that "Apprentices get a great deal more punishment now than they did when they was slaves; the master take spite, and do all he can to hurt them before the free come" (p. 1).

"When I was a slave, I never [was] flogged" Williams writes, "but since the new law begin, I have been flogged seven times, and put in the house of correction four times" (p. 1). Throughout the Narrative, he details the collaboration between apprentice-holder and magistrate to punish apprentices for petty injustices, imagined insolences, or actual protests as a tool of apprentice-holder control. Not only do apprentice-holders refuse to supply apprentices with such provisions as food or clothing, but apprentices like Williams are regularly sentenced by the magistrates to public floggings as well as work in the millhouse and on chain gangs for minor offenses. Millhouse work is especially severe: apprentices are required to "to dance the treadmill morning and evening" (p. 6). Those unable to keep up with the movements of the mill suffer debilitating cuts to their shins by the machinery and are severely whipped on their backs to force them to keep moving. Weakened or injured prisoners are tied to the bars by their wrists and dragged through the treadmill, whipped as they are forced to work.

While Williams reveals the extreme abuses suffered by all apprentices under this system, he also draws attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women, a subject likely to further outrage his British readership. Women who are forced to "dance the treadmill" have to tie up their clothes to keep them from getting caught in the machinery, not only exposing their bodies to view but also making them vulnerable to exploitation (p. 6). Williams observes that drivers (mill overseers) at times flog the women "so severe,--they cut away most of their clothes, and left them in a manner naked; and the driver was bragging afterwards that he see all their nakedness" (p. 8). Williams is also outraged at the sexual exploitation of the women, decrying the practice of drivers who "try to get after the young women that put into the workhouse . . . Before day in the morning, when the driver open the door to take the people out of the shackles, he call for any one he want, to come to his room" (p. 15). Pregnant women and women with children are also particularly vulnerable, and Williams is angered that women "in the family way" are subject to severe beatings regardless of their condition (p. 18). Women must often take their children with them into the mill or prison, and they are denied opportunities to breast-feed, particularly if the children are free: "he don't allow them to suckle the child at all, if it cry ever so much; him say the children free, and the law don't allow no time to take care of them" (p. 15). Thus, not only are the women deprived of the right to care for their children, but drivers and apprentice-holders use the children's free status as an excuse to coerce the women to surrender their children to forced labor: "I hear that many people begin to talk that the free child no have no right to stop on the property, and they will turn them off if the mothers don't consent let them work" (p. 20).

Williams concludes his Narrative by briefly recounting his meeting with Mr. Sturge and the circumstances leading to the publication of his story. He outlines the difficulty of obtaining the valuation of his person required to purchase his freedom and his joy at finally being set free. The text concludes with a few words testifying to Williams's truthfulness—presumably in the voice of his amanuensis, Dr. Palmer—and reiterating the goals of sharing his story. "[S] lavery has not been abolished--it exists with unmitigated rigour, in its most ferocious, revolting, and loathsome aspect," he writes. "Immediately re-organize your Anti-Slavery Societies--let the country be aroused--and let the people, with one voice, instruct their representatives peremptorily to demand the instant, the unconditional, and the everlasting annihilation of the accursed system" (pp. 25, 26).

Works Consulted: Latimer, James, "The Apprenticeship System in the British West Indies," The Journal of Negro Education Paton, 33:1 (1964): 52-57; Diana, "Introduction," A Narrative of Events Since the First of August, 1834, by James Williams, an Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001, xiii-iv.

Jenn Williamson

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