Slavery in the Caribbean

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Slavery in the Caribbean

Europeans arrived in the islands of the Caribbean in 1492. Columbus, on his first voyage, visited the Bahamas, Cuba, and the island that he named Española (Hispaniola, to the English) but its natives, the Taino-Arawak, called Ayiti. On subsequent voyages he would visit other islands, as well as the South and Central American mainlands. The first people he met, in the Bahamas, were a friendly indigenous tribe called the Arawaks. Columbus recorded his thoughts about them in his log:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want (Zinn 1980, p. 1).

He reported to the king and queen of Spain that the Indians "are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone." With a little financial help from the Crown, he said, he would be able to provide "as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask" (Zinn 1980, p. 2).

Slavery thus existed, at least in the minds of Europeans, from the moment they first set foot in the Caribbean. On Columbus's second voyage, he began taking captives from various islands, all the while demanding gold. Five hundred Indians were sent back to Spain in chains to begin a lifetime of slavery. Only 200 survived the voyage. "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold," Columbus wrote.

Caribbean Indians were put to work in mines or on plantations. Through disease, murder, and overwork, their numbers decreased dramatically in a short time. There were an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 Indians on Hispaniola when Columbus arrived; by 1514 that number had dwindled to 29,000, and by 1550 they were all but gone. The pattern repeated itself throughout the islands. Bartolomée de Las Casas (1474–1566), who knew Columbus and first voyaged to Hispaniola in 1502 as a settler, eventually became a priest and bitterly denounced the treatment of native peoples. "It was a general rule among the Spaniards to be cruel," he wrote. "Not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all" (Dubois 1994, p. 14). Ironically, Las Casas recommended alleviating the Indians' suffering by importing African slaves, an idea he later repented. Soon, however, that is exactly what the Spanish were doing.

This new wave of slaves was set to work mining for gold and working on tobacco and indigo plantations. Within a few years labor was also being devoted to sugar; Columbus had introduced it in 1493, and by the midsixteenth century there were over thirty sugar factories producing thousands of tons per year on Hispaniola alone. Spanish interests, however, were distracted by gold discoveries in Mexico and South America, and the islands' economies began to stagnate. Later, as other European nations began to colonize the islands, sugar became the dominant crop. In fact, B. W. Higman notes in his 2000 article, as Europeans grew more and more dependent on it as a sweetener, sugar seemed to take on a life of its own. Trade boomed, as did, naturally, production. This led to a huge increase in slave labor. The largest sugar producer, by the mid-eighteenth century, was the French colony Saint-Domingue (on the western end of Hispaniola; Spain still controlled the eastern part of the island). The British colony Jamaica (also seized from Spain) was not far behind. This boom led to a huge increase in labor. Although European indentured servants had provided a large portion of the labor force, by the 1700s Caribbean plantations were worked almost exclusively by African slaves; this led, in turn, to a marked increase in the slave trade.

Several factors combined to make the daily life of slavery in the Caribbean quite different from that in North American colonies. First, sugar planters had to invest in equipment for mills, as their product had to be processed as soon as possible, unlike tobacco or cotton. It could spoil within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Thus to be profitable the mills had to be active for as much of the day as possible. At harvest time Jamaican slaves might work eighteen or nineteen hours a day for weeks on end. This made sugar production a much more labor-intensive job than other forms of agricultural work that could be done by slaves: in a sense, it was simultaneously agricultural and industrial. As a result, planters were more likely to purchase male slaves, which kept birth rates low. The harsh work conditions, combined with disease, led to high death rates. Planters found it more cost-effective simply to import ever more slaves to replace those lost than to improve conditions. Jamaica imported a total of over 750,000 slaves, yet at the time of emancipation (1838) there were just a little more than 300,000 on the island. In contrast, North America imported 427,000 Africans, and at the time of total emancipation in 1865 there were more than four million blacks in the United States. As Michael Tadman (2000) shows, where sugar was grown, the death rate for slaves was inordinately high.


Listed below are a few examples of laws included in a 1685 royal edict for enforcement of order in the French American islands:

II. All the slaves in our Islands will be baptized and instructed in the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion.

XI. We forbid priests to officiate at the marriages of slaves unless they can show the consent of their masters. We also forbid masters to make their slaves marry against their will.

XII. The children born of marriages between slaves will be slaves and will belong to the master of the female slaves, and not to those of their husbands, if the husband and wife have different masters.

XIV. Masters are to be put into Holy Ground in cemeteries so designated; their baptized slaves and those who die without having received baptism will be buried at night in some field near the place where they died.

XV. We forbid slaves to carry any weapon, or large sticks, on pain of whipping and confiscation of the weapon, with the sole exception of those who are sent hunting by their master and who carry their note or known mark.

XVI. In the same way we forbid slaves belonging to different masters to gather in the day or night, whether for a wedding or otherwise, whether on their master's property or elsewhere, and still less in the main roads or faraway places, on pain of corporal punishment, which will not be less than the whip and [branding with] the fleur-de-lis. (pp. 50-52)

SOURCE: DuBois, Laurent, and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2006.


Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004.

Higman, Barry W. Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834 Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Higman, Barry W. "The Sugar Revolution." Economic History Review 53, no. 2 (2000): 213-236.

McDonald, Roderick A. The Economy and Material Culture of Slaves: Goods and Chattels on the Sugar Plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Richardson, David. "The Slave Trade, Sugar, and British Economic Growth, 1748–1776." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17, no. 4 (1987): 739-769.

Tadman, Michael. "The Demographic Cost of Sugar: Debates on Slave Societies and Natural Increase in the Americas." American Historical Review 105, no. 5 (2000): 1534-1575.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492–Present. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

                                         Troy D. Smith

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Slavery in the Caribbean

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Slavery in the Caribbean