Slavery in the British and French Caribbean

Emancipation proclamation of Guadeloupe.

Slavery in the British and French Caribbean refers to slavery in the parts of the Caribbean dominated by France or the British Empire.


In the Caribbean, Barbados became an English Colony in 1624 and Jamaica in 1655. These and other Caribbean colonies became the center of wealth and the focus of the slave trade for the growing English empire.[1]

As of 1778, the French were importing approximately 13,000 Africans for enslavement to the French West Indies.[2]

According to one recent review, there has not yet been enough scholarship published on the place of white women in British Caribbean plantation societies.[3]

General Overview

The Lesser Antilles islands of Barbados, St. Kitts, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia and Dominica were the first important slave societies of the Caribbean, switching to slavery by the end of the 17th century as their economies converted from tobacco to sugar production. By the middle of the 18th century, British Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) had become the largest slave societies of the region, rivaling Brazil as a destination for enslaved Africans.

The death rates for black slaves in these islands were higher than birth rates. The decrease averaged about 3 percent per year in Jamaica and 4 percent a year in the smaller islands. The diary of slaveowner Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica details violence against slaves, and constitutes important historical documentation of the conditions for Caribbean slaves.

For centuries slavery made sugarcane production possible. The low level of technology made production difficult and labor-intensive. At the same time, the demand for sugar was rising, particularly in Great Britain. The French colony of Saint-Domingue quickly began to out-produce all of the British islands' sugar combined. Though sugar was driven by slavery, rising costs for the British made it easier for the British abolitionists to be heard.

Anglo-American Slavery

The Slavery system that developed in the Lesser Antilles was a outgrowth of the demand for sugar and other crops. The Spanish loosened its foothold in the Caribbean during the first half of the 17th century which allowed the British to settle several islands and to ultimately seize Jamaica in 1655. To protect these investments, the British would later place a contingent of the Royal Navy in Port Royal.

In 1640 the English began sugar production with the help of the Dutch. This started the Anglo-American plantation societies which would later be led by Jamaica after it was fully developed. At its peak production between 1740-1807 Jamaica received 33% of the total slaves that were imported in order to keep up its production. Other crops besides sugar were also cultivated on the plantations. Tobacco, coffee, and livestock were all produced as well using slave labor. Sugar however stands out most prominently due to its exorbitant popularity during the time period and the dangers of its production which claimed the lives of many.

The slaves incoming to the Anglo-America's were extremely fragile both mentally and physically. The middle passage alone accounted for roughly 10% of all deaths. Some experts believe that one out of every three slaves died before ever reaching their departing African port. It should be mentioned that the majority of Anglo-American slaves came from Western Central Africa. These factors and others caused any arriving slaves to be feeling alienated, fragile, and that death was right around the corner. The conditions suffered by slaves during the voyages were inhospitable. The slaves would be placed in close quarters, fed barely enough to sustain them, and often times victim to any disease that was contracted on the mainland prior to voyage. The slaves would not see sunlight during this period and were prone to weight loss and scurvy were common.

The living and working conditions in the Lesser Antilles was very harsh for the slaves that were brought in to work the plantations. The average life of a slave after "adjusting" to the climate and environmental conditions of Jamaica was expected to be less than two decades. This was due to the slaves having a limited defense against the diseases and illnesses present to Jamaica. This decimated all incoming slave populations. Attempts were made to help curtail this problem but ultimately were fruitless.

To help protect their investments, most planters would not immediately give the hardest tasks to the incoming slaves. Slave owners would also set up a walled area away from the veteran slaves in order to stymy any disease that might be contracted. These areas would contain between 100-200 slaves at any time. Later when they (the new slaves) would be bought, they would be placed into the care of the older and more experienced slaves who were veterans already accustomed to the plantation in hopes of increasing the survival rates. Examples of tasks assigned to new slaves include planting and constructing buildings. This was to help the new slaves acclimate to their new home. The new slaves would typically form relationships with the veteran slaves taking care of them. These relationships however were not always good, and abuse did occur.

Sugar production in the Lesser Antilles was a very grisly business. On Jamaica from 1829 to 1832 the average mortality rate for slaves on sugar plantations was 35.1 deaths per 1000 enslaved. The most dangerous part of the Sugar plantation was the cane planting. The cane planting part of sugar production during this era consisted of clearing land, digging the holes for the plants, and more. The slaves were forced to work under the punishment of pain usually. Overseers were used to motivate and punish the slaves by using the whip or other methods of flogging. The slaves themselves were also working and living with barely adequate nourishment and in times of hard work would often be starved. This contributed to low birth rates and the high mortality rates for the slaves. Some experts believe that the average birth rate mortality at plantations to be roughly 50% and above. This extremely high rate of infant mortality meant that the slave population that existed in the Lesser Antilles was not self sustaining thus requiring a constant importation of new slaves. Living and working conditions on the other non sugar plantations was considered to be better for slaves however it was considered a marginally better existence only.


Main article: Abolitionism
This scene depicts Voltaire's Candide and Cacambo meeting a maimed slave near Suriname. The caption says, "It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe". The slave that utters the remark has had his hand cut off for getting a finger stuck in a millstone, and his leg removed for trying to run away.

Slavery was first abolished by the French Republic in 1794, which took effect in all French colonies. Slavery in the French West Indies was reinstated in 1802 by Napoleon I as France re-secured its possessions in the Caribbean, aside from Saint-Domingue, which declared independence on January 1, 1804. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. In France, the slave trade was abolished by Napoleon in 1815, while slavery was re-abolished in 1848.

Effects of the abolition

With the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the new British colony of Trinidad was left with a severe shortage of labour. This shortage became worse after the abolition of slavery in 1833. To deal with this problem, Trinidad imported indentured servants from the 1830s until 1917. Initially Chinese, free West Africans, and Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported, but they were soon supplanted by Indians. Indentured Indians would prove to be an adequate alternative for the plantations that formerly relied upon slave labour. In addition, numerous former slaves migrated from the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad to work.

In 1811 on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, Arthur William Hodge, a wealthy plantation owner and Council member, became the first person to be hanged for the murder of a slave.

Whitehall in Britain announced in 1833 that slaves in its territories would be totally freed by 1840. In the meantime, the government told slaves they had to remain on their plantations and would have the status of "apprentices" for the next six years. On 1 August 1834, an unarmed group of mainly elderly Negroes being addressed by the Governor at Government House about the new laws, began chanting: "Pas de six ans. Point de six ans" ("Not six years. No six years"), drowning out the voice of the Governor. Peaceful protests continued until a resolution to abolish apprenticeship was passed and de facto freedom was achieved. Full emancipation for all was legally granted ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838, making Trinidad the first British colony with slaves to completely abolish slavery.[4]

After Great Britain abolished slavery, it began to pressure other nations to do the same. France, too, abolished slavery. By then Saint-Domingue had already won its independence and formed the independent Republic of Haiti. French-controlled islands were then limited to a few smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles.

See also

Slave huts in Bonaire at the Salt evaporation pond)


  1. "British Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade". The Abolition Project. E2BN - East of England Broadband Network and MLA East of England. 2009. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  2. Kitchin, Thomas (1778). The Present State of the West-Indies: Containing an Accurate Description of What Parts Are Possessed by the Several Powers in Europe. London: R. Baldwin. p. 21.
  3. "White Women in British Caribbean Plantation Societies". Topical Guides. H-Slavery. May 30, 2016. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
  4. Dryden, John. 1992 "Pas de Six Ans!" In: Seven Slaves & Slavery: Trinidad 1777 - 1838, by Anthony de Verteuil, Port of Spain, pp. 371-379.


External links

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