Slavery in the British and French Caribbean
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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.
The Lesser Antilles islands of Barbados, St. Kitts, Antigua, Martinique and Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia 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 had become the largest and most brutal 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 main causes for this were overwork and malnutrition. Slaves worked from sun up to sun down in harsh conditions. They were supervised under demanding masters, who gave them little medical care. Slaves also had poor living conditions and consequently they contracted many diseases. The diary of slaveowner Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica details the extreme 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.
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, however unsuccessfully in St Domingue leading to its final declaration of independence on January 1, 1804. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and the 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.
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.
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.
- Amelioration Act 1798
- Slavery in the British Virgin Islands
- Barbados Slave Code
- Code Noir
- Demerara rebellion of 1823
- Barbados Cricket Buckle
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