Colonial Expansion

1636-1660: The Caribbean colonies have been traded for control, with some fighting

From the earliest times, agricultural efforts in the Caribbean colonies were focused on tobacco. But as Virginia and other American colonies stepped up their production of this popular crop, prices plunged, and the islands quickly found themselves stuck in an economic rut that only sugar could cure.

Sweet Riches

Sugar quickly became an important crop in the Caribbean, but Barbados was the first island to experience the riches that growing sugar could offer. Although Britain held control of Barbados, the successful cultivation of sugar is credited to the Dutch and their colonies in Brazil.

A Dutchman also produced the first rum on Barbados in 1637. He quickly learned that this could be a cash crop as well, and when Barbados switched to sugar production in the 1640s, it became the richest colony in the Caribbean for several decades.

Most of the Caribbean survived on the backs of indentured servants until around the 1660s. However, a combination of heat and African diseases brought in by the newly arriving slaves in the 1640s and 1650s earned the region the nickname "white man's graveyard." For this reason, many British indentured servants chose to colonize the American colonies, rather than the Caribbean colonies, like Barbados.

The rising cost of employing indentured servants contrasted with the affordability of slave labor was all it took to convince the British colonies to switch to slavery. But economic need was only part of the reason behind slavery in the English Caribbean. And a 1649 servant uprising on Barbados showed that even the white servants were not pleased by their conditions.

Another problem for the indentured servants was that a number of them were Irish Catholic. They did not agree with the beliefs of their Protestant plantation owners, and conflicts were common. Barbados' internal problems weren't helped by the turmoil England, too, faced throughout history.

French Fighting

Although they made their move later than other nations, France began expanding their presence in the Caribbean, landing on a number of islands. A war with the region's native people was at the root of France's growth. The French had maintained good relations with the Caribs on every island they claimed through 1635. But in 1636, they began attacking the Caribs on Guadeloupe to steal their convocos (provision grounds). This war would spread to many islands and cause much death. In 1653, the fighting on Grenada led to an incident at what is now called Leaper's Bluff. Caribs leaped off a cliff rather than lose to the French troops. The following year, the French attacked Caribs on St. Vincent, but on St. Lucia and Martinique, the French found themselves on the defensive.

Massacres and fighting continued to decimate the populations on French islands until a peace treaty was signed in 1660. Both the British and French agreed to leave the islands of St. Vincent and Dominica to the Caribs.

Dutch Expansion

After losing most of their colonies in Brazil, the Dutch continued fighting for expansion. One of Curaçao's most important governors, Peter Stuyvesant, led an attack against St. Martin in 1644, and the following year he was made governor of New Amsterdam (present-day New York), as well as retaining his position in Curaçao.

In 1648, the Dutch and the French decided to split St. Martin, and the two countries control the island to this day. The Dutch kept the important salt areas, for which they had claimed the island originally.

A few years earlier in 1640, the Dutch founded Saba. However, this colony was home to so little agriculture that its people remained predominantly white, without much African slave labor. This was very unique among the Caribbean islands.

Curaçao served as the Dutch base for raiding not only the mainland of South and Central America, but Cuba and Puerto Rico. However, it wasn't until after the war with Spain ended in 1648 that Curaçao became a profitable colony. The Treaty of Muenster recognized the Dutch colonies, but prohibited trade with Spain.

The Dutch controlled most of the trade in the region, but Curaçao's position in the slave trade was also historically important, and the island became a slave depot. Since the Dutch controlled a majority of the region's human trafficking as well as other commerce, Spain eventually turned a blind eye to their colonies' illicit trade with the Dutch.

Although at first the Dutch and the English worked together to wrest control of the Caribbean from Spanish hands, they do not always share the region so easily. Soon, problems between the two come to a head.


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