and the Trade
European Powers in the Caribbean
The British took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. By this
time they, along with the Dutch, French and Danes, had managed
to break Spanish domination of the Caribbean islands, which
had been established from the late 15th century. Britain's
conquests in the West Indies had begun with Bermuda, in 1609,
and included Barbados in 1625.
In the conquest of the West Indies, the indigenous peoples,
such as the Arawaks and Caribs, were almost entirely destroyed.
Sugar Islands in the Caribbean
|Britain also had other colonies, and used enslaved labour,
on the American mainland and in other places such as Mauritius.
However, the West Indies was the main destination for Africans
enslaved by the British. This chapter therefore concentrates
on the Caribbean islands.
Map of Antigua, c.1739 (155KB)
The West Indian islands offered the lure of high profits.
These were realised through the plantation system, which was
begun by the Spanish and developed by the Dutch and French.
Britain took it a step further with large-scale production
of tobacco, coffee, cotton and sugar cane. Pioneering smallholdings
in the West Indies were amalgamated into bigger plantations,
perhaps following the practice of enclosure
developed in Britain from the 17th century.
Labour for the Plantations
Enslaved African labour was crucial to the frenetic commercial
activity of Europeans at this period. On the plantations,
the work was hard and labour-intensive. In the beginning,
for a brief period, small numbers of White servants (some
of them indentured) were employed by the European settlers,
but this form of labour proved inadequate, partly because
of the high mortality rate of these labourers. Their place
was taken by enslaved Africans. Later on, after emancipation,
indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent replaced
In the early years of the British occupation of some West
Indian islands, the number of Africans imported was small
in comparison with what was to come. In 1645, for example,
Barbadian planters bought 1,000 enslaved Africans. However,
from the late 17th century planters increasingly looked to
Africa for new labourers.
Africans Shipped to
the Caribbean to Work
Between 1702 and 1808, about
840,000 Africans were shipped to Jamaica (and a further 100,000
imported into Virginia and Chesapeake, in America). The number
of enslaved Africans forcibly carried across the Atlantic
between the 15th and late 19th centuries by European traders
has been hotly debated. It is impossible to be certain about
the figures, particularly as many of those who embarked in
Africa did not survive the voyage. One recent estimate gives
a total of 11.8 million departures from Africa for the Americas,
and 10.3 million arrivals. Another puts the number of Africans
arriving in the Americas at 15.4 million, of whom perhaps
a third were women and girls.
The price of slaves to plantation owners was high. A slave
could cost anything from £5 to £80, depending
on age, gender, state of health and skills - and also on the
period. Since they were treated as commodities, their 'value'
went up and down with the market.
The Price of an
How to Maintain 'Negroes'
on Plantations (123KB)
The British sugar
industry was at its peak in the mid 18th century, particularly
in Jamaica. Plantations producing 50,000 hogsheads
of sugar in 1700 were producing 100,000 hogsheads by 1753.
Although initially sugar was an expensive item on the shopping
list of the wealthy, in just 50 years Britain's sugar imports
from the West Indies had increased by 50%. The biggest sugar
planter in Jamaica was Peter Beckford, who owned 11 estates.
Some 200 slaves worked one estate of 600 acres.
White plantation owners devised theories to justify slavery:
'Negroes were lazy', and 'Black indolence had to be kept in
check'. Methods of keeping them 'in check' included branding,
tarring and burning. Overseers or 'slave-drivers' generally
carried a whip, and corporal punishment, which left deep flesh
wounds, was used to control the slaves. Whilst not all slave-owners
meted out physical punishment, slavery was a system conceived
and nurtured in an environment of violence.
At first, mainly men were imported in the belief that they
were stronger workers. Initially, male slaves would be worked
to death and a fresh supply would replace them. Later, more
women were introduced to carry out field labour and domestic
work and give birth to the next generation of slaves (although
slave marriages were not recognised).
The historian Verene Shepherd found that, after 1801, in
Barbados women formed 53.5% of the enslaved population. Elsewhere
in the British territories, there was a high concentration
of female slaves, with women also outnumbering men in St Kitts,
Nevis and St Vincent.
Exploitation and Abuse
Legislative assemblies in the islands passed laws called
'slave codes', setting out the rights of masters and the duties
of enslaved people. Some of these codes also decreed that,
although they were chattels, slaves were not to be abused
- but such provisions were not rigidly enforced and were often
ignored. Both men and women were open to exploitation. Many
enslaved women and girls, even those who were pregnant, did
not escape being branded, chained or beaten.
Enslaved women in fact endured a higher level of exploitation
than the men, because many were also treated as sexual objects.
They laboured as field hands, or as servants in their masters'
homes. Then, at the end of a long and exhausting day, they
were expected to provide sexual services to planters, managers
and visitors. Such relationships resulted in many British
colonial families having two ethnic strands. It became common
practice for one strand to remain in the Caribbean, while
the other returned to Britain.
References and Further Reading
Carnegie, J., and Patterson, P., The People Who Came,
Book 2, Kingston, 1989
Curtin, P. D., The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census,
Eltis, D., Behrendt, S. D., Richardson, D., Klein, H. S.,
The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM,
Hall, D. (ed.), In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood
in Jamaica, 1750-86, London, 1992
Knight, F. W. (ed.), The Slave Societies of the Caribbean
(General History of the Caribbean, vol. 3),
Shepherd, V. A., Women in Caribbean History, Kingston,
Walvin, J., An African's Life: The Life and Times of
Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797, London and New York, 1998
Walvin, J., Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire
(2nd edn), London, 2001