Freedom and Freedmen

1820-1848: History in the Caribbean is filled with bloodshed and hard times on many islands

While the British islands were struggling toward emancipation and creating a life for their freed slaves, the other islands of the Caribbean faced a number of other issues. Tussles for power and autonomy dominated the Spanish islands, while others saw popular uprisings.

Following the Leader

Haiti's earliest history was one dominated by bloodshed and the subjugation of the lower classes into a slave-like system. Because of this, power changed hands often. Jean-Jacques Dessalines died shortly after crowning himself emperor, but Henri Christophe believed himself to be the natural second choice.

Instead, an assembly met and Christophe chose not to attend. The assembly created a government where the president was a figurehead, and the assembly's leader would have all of the power. They then named Christophe president, and Jean-Pierre Boyer became the head of the assembly. This split Haiti into two portions led by each leader.

In 1820, Christophe also died in an uprising, and Boyer rejoined Haiti, then in 1822 he led a campaign to take over the Spanish portion of the island. Haiti occupied this land until 1844. France also agreed to recognize Haiti during this period, when Boyer agreed to pay a fee for the displaced whites from their revolution, but he also returned the island to semi-slavery in an attempt to bring the war-torn nation out of poverty.

The Dominican Republic itself rose up to remove the Haitians from power on this Spanish-speaking portion of the island of Hispaniola. It declared its status as an independent nation in 1844 and spent many years working toward stable leadership.

Power Troubles

After the slave trade was abolished on Cuba, slaves were smuggled onto the island, and this helped Cuba to become extremely rich, while Spain was suffering as a poor nation. Due to Spanish trade restrictions, which had only recently been lifted, Cuba had not developed sugarcane plantations, and this meant their soil had not yet been tapped out.

Their sugarcane production increased greatly, and the smuggled slaves helped to ensure this increased supply. Another help was the influx of white workers. Spain did not completely rely on slave labor, and incoming "peninsulares" were not well-liked by the Creole whites, those who had been born on the island.

However, in 1825 Spain gave its two islands' governor-generals nearly unlimited powers. People could be removed from the island without reason, and the people of Puerto Rico and Cuba both were troubled by this. Cuba's sentiment turned toward independence, but Spain threatened to emancipate its slaves if they sought independence from the crown.

Meanwhile, Cuba built its first island-crossing railroad in 1838. The expansion meant sugarcane could be quickly and efficiently moved from the estates to the port cities for export. In later years, mechanized milling also increased productivity of the plantations. Hurricanes that devastated coffee plantations in Cuba in 1844 and 1846 led to a greater emphasis on sugar production as well.

Apprenticeship Hardships

Britain was trying to create a realistic transition from emancipation to full freedom, which kept the nation busy with many problems of its own. The apprenticeship period was designed to help slaves get on their feet and to help owners prepare for their loss, but some islands suffered more than others.

On Jamaica particularly, not much changed. Squabbles over what hours slaves were required to work or how much food they should receive kept the mediators busy. Still, many slaves freed themselves during this time, and the true hardships would come when slaves left their plantations, hoping to become peasant farmers when apprenticeship ended.

Pressure to Abolish

The British had some influence on the other European nations, and they pressured all to abolish slavery after they had done so. However, this did not happen immediately. Political climates on all of the Caribbean islands would first need to change.

Danes and Dutch

The Danish were important as traders, but when the British and the Spanish opened up free trade, there was no need for the Danish port at St. Thomas. However, Denmark's islands remained somewhat stable, and they worked on self-improvements for many years, beginning with an 1839 decree requiring free elementary education for all islanders, free or slave.

Interestingly, a slave rebellion in 1847 hastened Danish emancipation. The date was scheduled for 1859, but revolutionary slaves decided they did not want to wait 12 years for their freedom, and Moses "Buddhoe" Gottlieb led them to a revolt in Fredriksted. Their actions earned their freedom in 1848.

The British forced an end to Dutch slave trade much earlier, and smuggling was no longer necessary when Spain opened its ports to trade. However, the Netherlands attempted to unify its islands in 1828. This attempt failed in 1845, but a lack of sugar trade left little encouragement for abolition of slavery. Sint Maarten's slavery, however, was abolished in 1848, abruptly putting an end to salt mining and sugar production.


During the colonial period of history, the French colonies were treated notably well by their mother country. French colonial landowners were on the assembly, and the colonies were considered important parts of the nation. Because of this, French government tried to promote the economic advances of its islands.

Abolitionists in France did not gain power until 1848, at which time the Schoelcher Committee was appointed to enforce emancipation. The French compensated the owners, but they did not create an enforced apprenticeship period. Because of this, both Guadeloupe and Martinique experienced steep droops in sugar production and brought in free blacks and Chinese workers, as well as Indian indentured servants through a deal with Britain.

Socially, a great stratification between the different castes and races still existed, but France offered many opportunities for growth beyond their caste for free blacks and mulattoes. This was an important difference between the other sugar islands and freedom on the French islands.

The British government was hardly finding their abolition period easy to manage, but the islands would come to their own workable systems. Meanwhile, Britain itself was putting pressure on the rest of Europe to follow its lead. But Haiti's political troubles were far from over.


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