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  • Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955 ed. by Douglas Hay and Paul Craven
  • Simon Payaslian
Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955. By Douglas Hay and Paul Craven, eds. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

This volume, edited by Douglas Hay and Paul Craven, co-directors of the York Master and Servant Project at York University, Toronto, contains sixteen papers, including an excellent introduction by the editors. Master and servant acts formed the bases for employment law in England and the British Empire for more than four centuries, and most of these studies present valuable empirical data on master-servant cases. The principal thesis put forth is that colonial laws regulating master and servant relations constituted an integral component of criminal law, which reflected employer interests and facilitated the maintenance of the colonial system and its inherent power relations. The office of the magistrate assumed a central role in that structure, allowing for local decisions and governance, although institutional proclivities toward centralization and mobilization of labor undermined the authority of that office. The master and servant penal codes imposed various degrees of punishment to guarantee worker performance as delineated in employment contracts but were eventually challenged by organized labor.

In England, Wales, and Ireland, as Douglas Hay and Christopher Frank show in their chapters, breach of labor contract led to the imprisonment of thousands of laborers in the mid-1850s. By then, movements such as the Chartists had openly challenged the penal codes which ended in 1875 when Parliament legalized trade unions. This long process represented a significant step toward democratization.

Christopher Tomlins examines colonial statutes in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, the data regarding master-servant disputes indicate that in Chester County, Pennsylvania, for example, laws favored the former. Unlike the American colonies, however, Jerry Bannister maintains, in Newfoundland in the eighteenth century local courts imposed a ruthless penal system supporting masters’ authority. Paul Craven argues that although the Canadian penal legal system also employed fines and imprisonment to punish servants for breach of contract, master and servant statutes did not assume a similar degree of significance in local economies as in other parts of the empire. The penal system remained in effect from the first ordinances of 1663 introduced by the French in Quebec until the late nineteenth century across Canada, and well into the 1940s in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Conditions for labor, as shown by Michael Quinlan, proved considerably harsher in Australia. The introduction of master and servant laws in 1818 in New South Wales formalized the penal system, followed, despite criticism by the Colonial Office, by South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania. The Colonial Office, according to M.K. Banton, generally refrained from intervention in matters of labor relations. British employers, however, determined to secure a stable labor force, demanded severe penalties for breaches of contracts. In response, the Colonial Office often promulgated separate legislation for the natives and Europeans, but in so doing hardened the cultural boundaries between them.

While as in other parts of the British Empire the penal codes in the British Caribbean also sought to control laborers, in this case, according to Mary Turner, slaves contested and “shaped” the terms of employment. Nevertheless, mechanisms were introduced for punishment of workers after the passage of the Abolition Act, which, Turner asserts, was “essentially an employers’ charter” (p. 314) compensating former slave owners for lost slave property. To some extent contradicts Turner’s argument, Juanita de Barros’s close examination of conditions in British Guiana indicates that following the Abolition Act the colonial government resorted to harsh penalties for workers violating labor contracts, although frequent strikes and riots by laborers in the mid-1910s underscored the urgency of reforms. Barros provides useful tables containing data for master and servant cases in the 1890s. The chapters by Turner and Barros are complemented neatly by Prabhu P. Mohapatra’s analysis of the enforcement of indentures in the West Indies and Assam. The colonial state (predominantly in the West Indies) and private interests (in Assam) legally and illegally enforced labor laws. This chapter includes tables showing worker offenses...

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