Sugar and Slavery

1654-1698: Sugar is tied to service, and planters make a profit on cheap labor

Although many Caribbean islands were settled, it took labor to provide the sugar on which the islands' trade would develop. Slave labor was available, but it did not become widely used until later. Instead, indentured servants would come to the island, and when their term of service was up, they would be granted land.

Indentured Service

White servants came to the Caribbean before most of the African slaves, but they did not always arrive in numbers large enough to serve the needs of the sugar crop. Still, not all indentured servants were obtained legally. Some were "barbadosed," which is much like the modern phrase: being "shanghaied," and were kidnapped and brought to the Caribbean.

Each year indentured servants would arrive. Barbados, the first colony to capitalize in sugar, received many:

Year Number of Indentured Servants
1654 59
1655 157
1656 275
1657 508
1658 461
1659 523
1660 348

Women were sent to the islands as maids. Cromwell's council also voted to send a number of Irish girls and young men to Jamaica, and he ordered the Scottish to round up any idle robbers or vagabonds and send them to the island as well.

By the late 1600s, however, most of the British islands - except for Jamaica - were so fully populated that they could not persuade whites to come as indentured servants. There was no more land to give to these servants once their term was up, and by 1698, Barbados, one of the first islands to run out of land, had more than 18 slaves to every white male.

Sugar's Dissent

While sugar was growing in importance, a number of people, particularly among the French, raised their voices in warning. Barbados had worked its fields as far as they could be worked by 1653, though this didn't stop them from continuing their growth of sugarcane.

In the 1550s, Bartholomew de Las Casas warned Jamaican settlers against farming only for export. However, about a century later in the 1660s, French visitors wrote about the region's agricultural diversity as divided among their exports: sugarcane, cotton, and indigo.

It was during the mid 1600s that it truly came to light that the British and French West Indies were all more interested in growing exports than their own foods. In fact, a proposal in British Parliament came up in 1698 to ban the exportation of corn, meal, flour, bread, and biscuit to the British colonies, but it was not passed.

The French also suggested diversification. Rather than isolating their industry and export to agricultural goods, they suggested artisanal work as well: glassmaking, linen, cultivation of silkworms, and various uses of sheep's wool and goats.

Education and the Arts

During this time that West Indies sugar plantation owners were growing wealthy, other areas of the colonies were not so strong. Planters would send their children back to Europe to be educated because neither British nor French colonies found any use for local education, but the Spanish made sure to build schools and other necessities for their colonies.

Books were scarce in the colonies, and some said that the planters only wished to talk about things such as crop prices and hurricane damages. Concerns extended to plagues, drought, runaway slaves, and sick horses and cattle.

Absentee ownership also grew during this period. Instead of staying to look after their own crops and plantations, rich owners would employ an overseer, or, often, an attorney to keep watch over his estate.


Arguments against slavery have existed for nearly as long as the practice itself. This is no less true in Caribbean history. While more and more slaves were being imported to work in sugar plantations, Europe was experiencing some backlash from those who disliked the idea.

Of the four main European powers, only Spain had any prior experience with slavery when colonization of the West Indies began. However, in 1685 the French instituted the Code Noir, or Black Code. This is just one example of the laws created that allowed European nations to practice slavery. These are samples of the code's provisions:

  • Slaves were to be baptized.

  • Marriages between slaves were encouraged under consent of the owner.

  • They would not work on holy days or Sundays.

  • Sexual intercourse between free people and slaves was prohibited, and offending slaves and their children would be confiscated as a penalty. Children followed the mother's status.

  • Slaves could not carry large sticks or arms.

  • Slaves of different owners could not gather together at night.

  • Rations per slave per week were set, and food could not be traded by slaves for free days.

  • Slaves were given two changes of clothes and a set amount of linen per year.

  • Property could not be owned by slaves.

Free Labor

John Locke in 1688 stood out for inalienable human rights, but he also felt that slavery, as the result of lawful war, was simply the state of continued war. At this same time a distaste for slave labor came to be the mark of an English gentleman. The Quakers were also against slavery.

Another argument for slavery was a Christian one. The Catholic Church and Spain supported slavery and taught the slaves Catholicism, as did the Portuguese. However, the final argument was that slavery was retribution for a crime committed.

A French Dominican missionary named du Tertre wrote about the slaves in 1671, and in his writings asked that white planters treat their slaves well, with charity and humanity. He said that blacks were treated worse than horses were in France and was hoping to persuade people to free their slaves.

Despite the many books written against slavery, the condition would continue. This was based greatly upon the need for cheap labor to keep sugar costs low. And so these arguments would continue in Europe until the slaves were freed. However, this would not happen for a long time.

Back to Caribbean History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.