Black slavery in the Antilles helped define Caribbean culture. Most people living in Haiti, Jamaica, and the smaller islands of the Caribbean are descended from these slaves, something that can't be said for most of the American south. To understand this culture requires a careful analysis of the sugar trade, colonial powers, and the nature of society in these colonies.
Sugar cane became a profitable commodity in the Caribbean in the 1640's, when French and English exporters switched to cane production from indigo, tobacco and other goods. At the time, prohibitions on trade with other European powers were loosely enforced. According to economic historian Robert Batie, French and English colonies "experienced the same economic trends...since their settlers lived under similar free market institutions, raised nearly identical commodities, and bought their slaves from and sold their products to the same Dutch merchants." (Batie 38) Colonies switched to sugar production as tobacco commodity prices declined over the course of 20 years. This happened as settlers flocked to the New World to become planters and flooded the market. Colonies profited as long as they produced a product that was able to bear the costs of transatlantic shipping. Batie claims that under 20,000 Englishmen and as many Frenchmen dwelt in the Caribbean by 1640, and that only Barbados and St. Christopher contained substantial populations. Of these, St. Christopher was both English and French, the former displacing the latter in 1713. (Batie 45)
Unlike tobacco farms, sugar production required a prohibitive amount of investment capital. Sugar production necessitated the hire of individuals familiar with the manufacturing process. The smallest competitive sugar plantations contained several dozen workers. This lead to the establishment of a planter elite, as the wealthy were the only ones capable of borrowing such capital. Initially, indentured servants, including 12 thousand soldiers captured by Oliver Cromwell in 1647, worked sugar plantations. (Batie 47) However, price fluctuations in commodities such as sugar and indigo discouraged future white settlement and caused many whites to flee during price slumps. Planters quickly realized that the only social mechanism that could keep a cost-effective workforce in the islands so as to continue planting sugar cane was captivity.
According to Tomich's "Slavery in the Circuit of Sugar,"
Sugar was the foundation of the golden age of West Indian prosperity during the eighteenth century. Probably the most sught-after commodity of the period, it was the largest single English import and the most valuable item in the French overseas trade. Its consumption increased steadily throughout the century as its use and that of its complements, coffee tea, and cocoa, were incorporated into the diet of ever-broader strata of the European population.
Whereas small planters and Dutch merchants dominated the tobacco trade of the early-17th century Caribbean, the mercantile system came to predominate in the region by the 18th century. Williams' Capitalism and Slavery suggests that Britain's west coast outports were critically affected by the Atlantic slave and sugar trade, and that this had a significant effect on the Metropolis. (Williams 60-4) The English conquered Jamaica from the Spanish and re-conquered the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the natives and established large slave plantations in these holdings by 1700. The populations of these islands were soon a dichotomy of white masters and black slaves. According to a contemporary account:
The negro is not more opposite to his white-skinned lord in complexion, than in manners, and intellectual attainments - the one is degraded by all the ignorance and rudeness of his native Africa; the other elevated, by the refinements in arts and manners, at least, if not also by the science, of Europe." (Stephen 30)
The account goes on to report that slavery in Dutch and English colonies was more cruel than that in Spanish and Portuguese colonies and credits the dark complexion of the Spanish master with his merciful countenance. In English colonies, blacks were regularly beaten by their white masters. There, Stephen claims, one finds a mitigated slavery and a greater proportion of free blacks and mulattos.
With eight thousand plantations, half a million slaves, 40 thousand whites and almost as many free blacks and mulattos, the colony of Saint Domingue, later Haiti, was France's largest colony in the Antilles by 1789. At that time, the colony exported over half of all the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the Americas, and accounted for two-fifths of France's foreign trade. Most wealthy planters in Saint Domingue were able to live in France off plantation revenues, while the white population of the colony consisted of less wealthy planters, and poor whites: plantation managers, artisans, clerks, shopkeepers, seamen, and peddlers. Free blacks were considerably wealthier in Saint Domingue than in English colonies. Even though they were bound by legal constraints; they could not hold office or wear fine clothing, they dominated the colony's militia and police force.
Slaves in Saint Domingue were even more diverse; according to David Geggus, "on a typical sugar estate of two hundred slaves there would be Africans from twenty or more different linguistic groups." (Beckles&Shepherd 402) Of these, the slaves born in the colony who were able to produce their own food constituted the upper class; these slaves were fluent in Creole and knew some French. From there number were selected artisans, drivers and domestic servants. In the last decade before the insurgence that was to lead to the establishment of Haiti, the 1780's, thirty thousand slaves a year were imported from Africa; these new inhabitants were known as bossales. The nature of the society led blacks to only cursorily adopt Christian religious principles, and many remained committed to the tribal practice of Voodoo. The susceptibility of Europeans to diseases prevented them from migrating to the Antilles in great numbers, which accounted for disproportionately high black populations. Even in the American states where blacks constituted the largest percentage of the population, this percentage rarely exceeded 50%. The predominance of blacks accounts for the continued influence of tribal religions in the area.
It was more effective to buy newly captured slaves than it was to breed them in the Antilles. Because a planter had to maintain a larger proportion of female blacks and children, productivity decreased per slave. After 1807 the British eliminated the slave trade with Africa, making slavery less profitable. Before this, black males between the ages of 15 and 30 were considered to make the best slaves. (Higman 2) In 1832 as slavery was drawing to a close, Jamaica was home to approximately 300 thousand slaves living on plantations with an average size of 25. 960 of these properties accounted for 53% of the population where there were an average of 175 slaves. We can assume that most slaves either lived on big plantations or were the personal slaves of planters, and that this later group had a significant amount of interaction with the white population. Of the 168 thousand slaves that worked on the large plantations, 118 thousand worked on sugar plantations, which had an average of 223 slaves. Most of this sugar was produced for export; coffee plantations had an average of 128 slaves. (Higman, 13)
Partially due to the preference for imported young male slaves, the black population started to decline following the elimination of the slave trade. To the moral theorists of Britain who were influenced by the work of Thomas Malthus, this was an argument that resulted in a charge of general cruelty and oppression. Runaway slaves escaped to the mountainous center of Jamaica, where their colonial owners were loathe to pursue them. These runaway slaves founded a society in central Jamaica that exists to this day.
Trinidad and Tobago emerged as a sugar exportation center in the 18th century as the cost of defending the islands was no longer prohibitive in light of the high cost of buying a plantation in nearby Barbados. This was complemented by an active process of British expansionism in the New World, which was promulgated by their belief in mercantilism. British faith in mercantilism was only to be replaced by liberal principles following the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. In Trinidad and Tobago, the trichotomy was similar to that of other colonies: black slaves, free blacks/mulattos, and whites. After manumission liberated the slaves in these islands, a new ingredient was added to the mix: Indians from British East India. These Indians, who first arrived in 1845 less than a decade after the liberation of the slaves, perpetuated the essence of slavery as it was embodied in the race-based class structure. Whereas they first came as indentured servants, these Indians came to supplant the light-skinned blacks as a middle rung in the planter hierarchy. This was a system all-too familiar to the Indians; India had yet to abandon its caste system. These Indians enjoyed preferential treatment from the British planter class, perpetuating the lowly status of the black in this British colony even after it gained independence from Britain in 1965.
The legacy of Caribbean slavery points to its viability as…