Slavery Business

1712-1777: Slave trade and sugar plantations will always be a part of Caribbean history

Slavery and sugar have always been linked, from the earliest period of sugarcane cultivation in the Caribbean. Despite the complexity of the events and circumstances that created this relationship, sugar growth and slavery both were booming during the relatively peaceful early years of the 18th century.

Importing Workers

As the chart below describes, nearly every island had far more slaves than free residents by the mid-1700s. Barbados and Jamaica each have two census lines for this time period, and Jamaica's incredible growth is particularly notable.

Island Year White Pop. Slave Pop. Free Non-white Pop.
Anguilla 1724 360 900 N/A
Antigua 1724 5,200 19,800 N/A
Barbados 1712 12,528 41,970 N/A

1757 16,772 63,645 N/A
Brit. Virgin Islands 1724 760 1,430 N/A
Dominica 1763 1,718 5,872 500
Grenada 1753 1,262 11,991 173
Guadeloupe 1750 9,134 41,026 N/A
Hispaniola (French) 1754 11,540 117,411 4,911
Jamaica 1730 7,658 74,525 N/A

1758 17,900 176,900 3,500
Martinique 1751 12,068 65,909 1,413
Montserrat 1724 1,000 4,400 N/A
Nevis 1724 1,100 6,000 N/A
Puerto Rico 1765 N/A 5,037 N/A
St. Kitts 1724 4,000 11,500 N/A
St. Lucia 1765 2,397 10,270 1,050
St. Vincent 1763 695 3,430 1,138
Trinidad 1777 340 200 870

The slave trade was one of the most important aspects of Caribbean life, and something that the powers in Europe routinely squabbled over. However, the French soon learned that they could not supply all the slaves their islands needed, and the three other powers - Britain, the Netherlands, and North America - filled in about one-third of their slave trade.

Similarly, the asiento, or slave trade contract between Britain and Spain was one of Britain's main interests in the War of the Spanish Succession. British and Dutch ships carried out the majority of the slave trade in the Caribbean.

Conditions and Revolt

Working conditions for the slaves were notoriously unforgiving. Even though women made up an extremely small portion of the slaves brought to the islands - about half the number of men - they made up the majority of the gang labor forces. Men were often given artisanal work to do.

Few female slaves had children, and those children who were born to slave parents had an extremely low survival rate. Most slaves died within the first few years of reaching the colonies. Whether overwork or disease, death was common among slaves.

Because survival rates for infants were so low, planters chose to import the majority of their slaves. The slaves who were shipped from Africa may also have faced enslavement in their home country, but the conditions of African slavery were very different. Descendants of slaves could, eventually, become members of the community into which they'd been sold.

The Business of Slavery

The Triangular Trade is a term commonly used in discussions of the slave trade. Slaves would be brought from Africa to the colonies, which would send sugar and other local goods to Europe, who would in turn send goods to Africa. The goods usually sent to Africa were guns and other manufactured items because there was no industry in Africa.

In the West Indies, however, the selling of slaves was an important part of the economy. The need for more slaves was always greater than the market could provide, and the West Indian companies were opened up in the 1700s to outside trade to help provide additional slaves to colonies that produced sugar. The French encouraged this trade on their islands by exempting slaves from most import and export taxes.

Inbound Cargo

Where the slaves were received was almost as important as how many were sold. Before 1720, most of the British islands' slaves were brought to Barbados, but the tides turned, and Jamaica became the hub of the slave trade when their own sugar industry began expanding greatly.

Similarly, the French on Martinique received the majority of the incoming slaves. Ships would call on Martinique to sell slaves, then sail on to French Hispaniola, or occasionally to Guadeloupe. When ships sold all their human cargo, they would continue back for more trade. However, after 1730 Hispaniola began to be the first to receive the incoming ships, taking the majority of the French slaves.

The Dutch, on the other hand, needed fewer slaves because their arid islands could not produce sugarcane. In the 1700s, Curaçao was their largest slave market, though later St. Eustatius became the preferred spot because it was nearest to French trade and islands.

Even the Danish profited from slave trade, colonizing St. Thomas as a slave depot. They expanded in 1733 by purchasing St. Croix, and the two islands served as slave markets. In Christiansted, the large ships from Africa would land, but St. Croix's Fredriksted welcomed smaller Caribbean ships for trade, and the Danish West Indies Company's monopoly of the slave trade ended in 1734.

Supply and Demand

The European need for sugar had been increasing, and England's sugar demands led the pack. The British islands were a mono-crop society, with few settlers growing anything but sugarcane, though the French islands still grew a few other crops. The Bahamas, owned by Britain, were still mostly unsettled because they were not ideal for sugarcane cultivation.

Free trade ports were growing in importance. The Danish Virgin Islands, and Dutch St. Eustatius, Saba, and St. Maarten were all open for trade, though St. Croix did eventually begin growing sugar. However, Britain in particular favored import and export taxes so stiff that their own islands' sugar was favored, and sugar prices rose until the 1820s. Clayed sugar, which was semi-refined, was often taxed at much higher rates than muscovado (raw) sugar.

France charged lower import taxes, and in 1717 removed all export taxes, except for one 3 percent tax for goods leaving the colonies. On the other hand, Britain placed high taxes on imports and exports for its own revenue purposes.

Politics of Sugar

British tax laws also kept the British islands from making clayed sugar, giving industry in England a boost. However, the important by-product of the refining process, molasses, and as a result, rum, was not easily available from the British islands, and the North American colonies instead bought cheap rum and molasses from the French islands, which had no such prohibitions about refining their sugar.

In 1733, Britain made another move to protect its islands by writing the Molasses Act, but this act was generally ignored by the North Americans until the 1760s, when the 1764 Sugar Act attempted to prohibit the importation of rum and molasses.

In the 1730s, many of the most important West Indian families began joining Parliament. From 1730 to 1775, 70 of the top families from Jamaica, St. Kitts, and Antigua gained parliamentary seats. Sugar's power also meant that new territories acquired in 1721 lacked the power to fight planters, who insisted that Tobago, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent not be allowed to grow sugar, but instead suggested cocoa, annatto, and indigo.

Sugar didn't just affect the politics of Britain. In fact, international political conflict arose when, in the 1740s, French Hispaniola began producing more sugar than all of the British islands combined. French systems of engineering diversion dams, levees, aqueducts, canals, and reservoirs became extremely important in the growth of sugar.

Spain took an entirely different view of sugar. Their hacienda-style cattle ranches were not designed like the large plantations that were common on the sugar islands. In fact, sugar was not widely grown because only two annual convoys departed for Spain. This practice was a hold-over from previous centuries when the Spanish were required to use extreme caution in the transport of treasure shipments. After 1714, Spain began taking more direct control of its islands, particularly Cuba, but were more interested in tobacco than sugar.

Cane sugar was becoming a crucial crop, but in 1747 the discovery of beet sugar would mark the beginning of change. Europe's demand for cheap sugar and cheap labor was growing.

Back to Caribbean History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.