Emancipation was carried by votes, instead of being seized after bloodshed. The British thus had an opportunity to try to arrange its terms in ways which would have set the two communities to learning to live as free men from the date of the establishment of a legally free society. This opportunity was neglected. The society was reconstituted by the will of the British. But for the work to be solidly founded, it needed close and sympathetic supervision. That the British could have done, though they were not fit to do more than that. They were themselves only just beginning to learn how to run a free society. Their disgust with slavery had allowed the ground to be cleared. But although they appropriated the office of supervisor of the society in 1833, it was some time before they worked out what functions they were willing to perform.
The British policy of intervention in the domestic affairs of the society had been adopted reluctantly. It was the only way to end slavery peacefully. The policy was justified on the assumption that the slave masters would never themselves dismantle the slave society. But after the Act of Emancipation had been passed, the British Government acted as if that assumption had been wrong. It seemed to believe that the masters would govern the society and manage their estates in harmony with the principles of the Act. Instead of co-operating, the masters sabotaged the Act again and again. They thus goaded the British Government into accepting the argument that the only way to give substance to the Act of Emancipation was for it to take complete charge of the affairs of the society.
But the half-hearted effort made in 1839 to suspend the Jamaican Constitution for five years was carried in the House of Commons by so small a majority that the Government regarded it as a defeat. So within five years of emancipation, the British Government’s resolve to function as the supervisor of the new society had been weakened by those Englishmen who had a sentiment for liberty as an abstraction. They were unwilling to disturb the political privileges and the property rights of their kith and kin in Jamaica.
The British Government now adopted the policy which would determine the way it exercised the role of supervisor between 1840 and 1865. The basis of the new policy was the conciliation of the white community. The old policy had been founded on mistrust of the masters. The hostility of the House of Assembly to the British Government had been one result. The second was more grave than the first. For the old policy had served to exacerbate the painful social relations of slavery. To prolong that policy was to delay the beginning of new social and economic relations. It would be better for the blacks, better for the whole society, to change the policy. So argued the British administrators who recommended the new policy to the British Government
The attempt to make the white community accept responsibility for the whole society by force had failed. The attempt to assume full control of the affairs of the society had been abandoned. The attempt would now be made to persuade the white community of the wisdom of themselves conducting responsible politics. ·
The old policy assumed the absence of good will in the white community. The new policy assumed the absence of self-interest in the black community. This policy professed to have at heart the interest of all parties. In fact, it suited the interest of two only, the white community and the British Government The essence of the new policy was that it put away a big stick which was never to be used anyway. To that extent, it was more honest than the old policy. But it was equally ineffective. It put away a stick, but dangled no carrots. The British Government should have done in 1839 what it eventually did in 1944: enfranchised the whole population. Instead the British Government coaxed the whites into lowering the voting qualifications. They did, but only enough to enfranchise a minority.
It is true to say of the black that he was then unfit; but in all the senses in which this judgement is true and relevant, it is also true of the white. In both cases their disabilities were due to their being the creatures of a slave society. Therein lies whatever justification there was for allowing the British Government a role in the affairs of the society. An effective role would have, for a time, put both communities at an equal political disadvantage. The policy of conciliation buttressed the existing advantages of the white community and encouraged the blacks to be dependent on Missus Queen. We may judge the success of that policy both by the Appeal of the Poor People of St. Ann and by the reply to it, the Queen’s Advice.
Some of the elected members did turn their energies to the constructive politics of establishing a free society. But they had to work within the old parliamentary system of the House of Assembly which had been perfected for opposing policies of the Executive. It was relatively easy for those who preferred to live in the past to use this machinery to wreck or frustrate efforts to grapple with the present. The result of such politics, the persistent neglect of the welfare of the society as a whole, was the riots which erupted in the middle years of the nineteenth century.
There is another reason why British intervention in the society did not take a more positive form. It was due to the eclipse of the humanitarians by the accountants, as a major force in British parliamentary politics. British colonial policy after 1830, so far as it was concerned with the protection of indigenous peoples against settlers in South Africa and New Zealand, and of ex-slaves in the West Indies, meant spending money on the soldiers and the administrators necessary for its execution. Between 1834 and 1845 the Negro Education Grant largely supported primary schools in the West Indies. But the accountants in the Imperial Parliament persistently questioned the philosophy behind these activities until the Colonial Office and the Treasury understood that it would be very difficult to get the House of Commons to vote the money necessary to sustain that policy. When in 1841 he signalled the approaching end of the Negro Education Grant, Lord John Russell justified the decision on the grounds that the Negroes were much better able to pay for the education of their children than could English labourers.
In equity, the British Government should have helped to pay for the building of a free society. Since it was unwilling to do so, it should have used its office of supervisor of the society to ensure an equitable incidence of taxation; that is to make those who benefited most from the economic structure of the society contribute significantly to the public coffers.