A History Lesson for Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Trump

ABC reported today:

Gingrich, who found himself in hot water last month for saying America’s child labor laws are “truly stupid,” called on Trump to create an “Apprentice”-style program for 10 inner-city New York children to teach them “work ethic.”

“We’re going to be picking 10, young, wonderful children, and we’re going to make them ‘apprenti,’” Trump said after a high-profile meeting with Gingrichon Monday. “We’re going to have a little fun with it, and I think it’s going to be something that is really going to prove results. But it was Newt’s idea, and I think it’s a great idea.”

While it is unclear if the program will run as a reality TV show, like Trump’s NBC show “The Apprentice,” Gingrich said the program is intended to give students “an opportunity to earn money, and get them into a habit of showing up and realizing that hard work gets rewarded.”

Gingrich, the current GOP front-runner, has been a target of fierce attacks from unions and liberal commentators after he said poor school districts should fire unionized janitors and replace them with schoolchildren.

“Young children who are poor ought to learn how to go to work,” he said, defending his stance in an interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper last week. “What I’ve said is, for example, it would be great if inner city schools and poor neighborhood schools actually hired the children to do things. Some of the things they could do is work in the library, work in the front office. Some of them frankly, could be janitorial.”

Maybe I am biased because I know history, but when I hear about white guys wanting to offer apprenticeships to children from poor neighborhoods, especially since Mr. Gingrich is talking specifically about “inner city” children, I think of another time when white dudes “apprenticed” black people: post-emancipation Jamaica.

This is what post-emancipation Jamaica’s “apprenticeship” program was:

Although emancipation laws required former masters to provide apprentices with lodging and food, many owners charged for food or for rent in the form of extra labor. The special magistrates were intended to put a stop to these injustices, but they could not be at every plantation at once, and the majority worked extremely hard to improve the conditions of the apprentices.

Another problem of apprenticeship was the division of labor hours. The apprentices were required to work 40.5 hours per week for the master, but the hours were not divided. While special magistrates fought for a nine-hour day – leaving the apprentices half a day on Friday as well as Saturday free for other work – planters almost always insisted on eight-hour days, meaning the apprentices were not given much time for their own.

The plantation owners also charged exorbitant rates to former slaves who wanted to buy their own freedom, though nearly 1,500 did in two years – the highest recorded sum being more than £100. Planters were also known to work their apprentices more harshly than they had when the blacks were slaves, with more brutal punishments as well.

Such brutal punishments included the treadmill: This had been introduced to Jamaica by Lord Sligo in an attempt to help the apprentices because he had always hated the use of whips, particularly on women. The treadmill is not like those we know today, but instead was a large cylinder with a series of steps attached to it. The person’s weight on these steps caused the cylinder to spin, and they would have to step quickly to remain standing. If a person fainted or fell, he would hang by the wrists tied to a handrail while the steps hit him.

Image of said treadmill:

Captioned, "An Interior View of a Jamaica House of Correction," this illustration shows a scene during the Apprenticeship Period (1834-38); man on left being flogged, in center at bottom, a woman has her hair cut off. Below the title is a message from Jamaica's Governor Lionel Smith to the Jamaican House of Assembly: "The WHIPPING OF FEMALES, you were informed by me, officially, WAS IN PRACTICE; and I called upon you to make enactments to put an end to conduct so repugnant to humanity, and SO CONTRARY TO LAW. So far from passing an Act to prevent the recurrence of such cruelty, you have in no way expressed your disapprobation of it. I communicated to you my opinion, and that of the Secretary of State, of the injustice of cutting off the hair of females in the House of Correction, previous to trial. You have pad no attention to the subject."

According to Diana Paton, author of No Bond But the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780 – 1870:

The treadmill as invented in 1818, and…became widespread in British prisons in the 1820s. Treadmillls had been installed in Trinidad in 1824, in Berbice in the late 1820s, and in the Kingston house of correction in 1828. (88)

The significance of the treadmill to post-emancipation Jamaica: this was a society that had for centuries built its entire economy on the backs of people who were coerced through violence and force, where slave owners could brutally punish and torture their slaves with almost no oversight from the law or society at large.

In the post-slavery era, as those same white ex-slave owners tried to maintain their incredibly rich economic system, they attempted to extract that same level of labor through coercion that was legally-mandated (the apprentice system that forced labor) with the punishment coming not from owners themselves but rather the state at large (because, just as during the era of slavery, the state was almost exclusively created by and useful for white Jamaicans and Englishmen).

Despite the rhetoric of the time claiming that forms of discipline like the treadmill were morally reforming prisoners, the ultimate goal was to discipline former slaves into be willing workers on plantations.

In summary: without the type of coercion present during slavery, white Jamaicans turned to disciplining black Jamaicans in prisons, essentially punishing the latter for not being good, hard workers (sometimes just not being good enough):

The stated purpose of apprenticeship was a…process of training, in which apprentices became accustomed to wage labor. Yet in reality, apprenticeship was a system of directly coerced labor in which responsible, self-directed liberal individuals had little place. The contradiction is resolved if we realize that “reform” of prisoners always requires people to emerge from confinement adjusted to their “station” in society. Thus, for Jamaica during apprenticeship, when the biggest anxiety of both planters and colonial officials was the future continuity of plantation labor, emphasizing reform meant aiming for the re-creation of individuals as willing plantation workers. (87)

ALSO, really important to note that the people who pushed for and implemented the treadmill in Jamaica were often leaders of the anti-slavery movement:

For its antislavery advocates, the treadmill represented the peak of regulated and civilized punishment. Its mechanical operation meant that it supposedly required the same labor from all who worked on it, unlike more traditional forms of hard labor in which prisoners worked more or less diligently according to their own inclination and the degree of coercion applied. (88)

Despite the praise it received as a non-brutalizing punishment in the early phase of apprenticeship, treadmill labor in practice inflicted physical pain. Even in normal operation, the treadmill should be thought of as a form of corporal punishment. (105)

The type of “benevolence” that Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Trump think they are imparting on the poor, black children of inner city New York through any kind of apprentice system is, whether they recognize it or not (which, of course, they don’t), part of a long, terrible, and racist history.


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