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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.

Frontispiece to atlas of the West Indies, 1775 - opens new window

Sugar Islands in the Caribbean
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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.
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 Map of Antigua, showing settlements and sugar mills etc., c. 1739 - opens new window

Map of Antigua, c.1739 (155KB)
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The Plantations

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 Glossary - opens new windowenclosure developed in Britain from the 17th century.

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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 the enslaved.

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.


 Royal African Company, shipping slaves to West Indies - opens new window

Africans Shipped to
the Caribbean to Work
on Plantations
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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.

Stephen Fuller examination, price of slaves - opens new window

The Price of an
African Slave
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History of the sugar-cane (extract) - opens new window

How to Maintain ‘Negroes’
on Plantations (123KB)
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The British sugar industry was at its peak in the mid 18th century, particularly in Jamaica. Plantations producing 50,000 Glossary - opens new windowhogsheads 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.

Brutal Reality

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.

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Women Slaves

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.

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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.

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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, London, 1969

Eltis, D., Behrendt, S. D., Richardson, D., Klein, H. S., The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM, Cambridge, 1999

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), London, 1997

Shepherd, V. A., Women in Caribbean History, Kingston, 1999

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