Slavery in the British and French Caribbean

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Emancipation proclamation of Guadeloupe.

Slavery in the British and French Caribbean refers to slavery in the parts of the Caribbean dominated by France or the British Empire.

The History of slavery[edit]

In the Caribbean, England colonised the islands of St. Kitts and Barbados in 1623 and 1627 respectively, and later, Jamaica in 1655. These and other Caribbean colonies later became the center of wealth and the focus of the slave trade for the growing British Empire.[1]

French slavery[edit]

In the mid 16th century, slaves were brought from Africa to the Caribbean by European mercantilists. Originally, white European indentured servants worked alongside African slaves in the New World. [2] At this time, there were not widespread theories of race or racism that would cause different treatment for white and African slaves. Francois Bernier, who is considered to have presented the first modern concept of race, published his work “A New Division of the Earth according to the Different Species or Races of Men Who Inhabit It” in 1684, over 100 years after slaves were brought to the New World.[3] While this was published in the late 17th century, race theory was not largely popularized among merchants or colonizers until the 19th century.[3] Racism ultimately dismantled the working integration of white and African slaves.

As of 1778, the French were importing approximately 13,000 Africans for enslavement to the French West Indies each year.[4] While slavery had been active in French colonies since the early 16th century, it was theorertically not legitimized by the French government until the Revolutionary convention in 1794.[5] The French slave trade functioned along a triangular route, wherein ships would travel from France to colonized African countries, and then to the Caribbean colonies.[6] The triangular setup was intentional, as France aimed to bring the African laborers to the New World, wherein their labor was of higher value because of the natural and cheap resources cultivated from the land, and then bring the product back to France.[6] In French, the commerce triangulaire referred to this Atlantic economy based on slave trade.[7]

In France the slaving interest was based in Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and Le Havre during the years 1763 to 1792. The men involved defended their business against the abolition movement of 1789. They were merchants who specialized in funding and directing cargoes of stolen black captives to the Caribbean colonies, which had high death rates and needed a continuous fresh supply. The merchants intermarried with each other's families; most were Protestants. Their derogatory and patronizing approach toward blacks immunized them from moral criticism. They were strongly opposed to the application of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to blacks. While they ridiculed the slaves as dirty and savage, they often took a black mistress. The French government paid a bounty on each captive sold to the colonies, which made the business profitable and patriotic.[8]

These merchants, however, were not the only ones excluding the colonized peoples from the Declaration. "Man," at the time, implicitly only included white, European, straight men,[9] which placed every "other" into a separate category outside the realm of man and citizenship. By creating a joint "man and citizen," The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen equates humanity with citizenship, so slaves and colonized people who did not realize rights as French citizens were largely stripped of their humanity as well, which could be rationalized under the Declaration.[9]

The Slave Trade[edit]

In this mercantilist economy of the French Atlantic slave trade, wealth and goods were moved in an insular, unidirectional fashion to the exclusive benefit of Europe. In fact, the French had a policy coined “the Exclusif” (exclusive in English), requiring French colonies to only sell exports to France and purchase imported goods from France.[10] This promoted the concept of “centripetal trade” in which all profit and capital spread amongst the New World colonies eventually circulated back into the hands of European powers.[2] The slave trade was just one faction of the mercantillist economy. In addition, Europeans brought “pacotille” or “cheaply made European goods” to trade with Africans. This often took the form of colonial products such as sugar, rum, tobacco, coffee, or indigo.[5] Thus African leaders, who themselves were in control of selling African captives with Europeans, did not retain the wealth they acquired in the slave trade. Rather they were the targeted customers of poorly-made pacotille.[5]  Their profits from the slave trade then circled back to manufacturers in Europe, just as the Exclusif had intended.  

The English translation of the triangular trade does not capture the essence of the French word traite, or trade.[2] The distinct differences between the English and French words give way to the inherent nature of the Atlantic slave trade. The definition of trade in English implies a sense of mutual consent and a reciprocal action. When one engages in trade, the parties exchange items of somewhat equal value. The etymology of traite has far more exploitative intentions. Rather than being derived from the verb traiter (to trade), traite was derived from the verb traire, meaning to milk, as in "traire une vache" (to milk a cow).[11] This denotes a far more extractive and manipulative relationship than the English idea of trade, particularly when it is used in an economic setting. The definition of traite in Antoine Furetière’s 1690 Dictionnaire universel coincides with “milking”; traite is defined as “trafic, commerce avec les Sauvages… On va dans le Senega a la traitte des Nègres…”[12] (Traffic, commerce with Savages… One goes to Senegal for the trade in Negroes). Rather than using avec (with in French), Furetière uses the preposition des, translating to “trade in Negroes,” not “trade with Negroes.”

The French trans-Atlantic slave trade has qualities of both an economy of trade and traite. Many historians consider the slave trade to be “an economy of trade according to “rational” sets of prices, and not as a pure extraction of theft of Africans from Africa by Europeans.” Indeed, the victims of chattel slavery were commodities given a “rational” price tag. At the time the Dictionnaire universel was written the cost of a slave in a French colony was £19.[13] While this is a somewhat arbitrary number, from an economic standpoint, this is an example of trade in the sense that goods of “similar” value were exchanged. However, the Europeans purchasing slaves directly from Africa bought slaves for about half the price of slaves in the New World with the thought that slaves in Africa did not have environmental factors or technology to be as efficient as slaves in the colonies. Examples of slave prices in Africa include 172 coweries, 1/25 of a horse, and 9000 pounds of sugar. The relativity of the price of a slave contributed to the centripetal force of triangular trade. It drew profits for merchants who bought the same slaves in Africa from Africans for a low cost and then upticked the price for Europeans in the New World. While the exchange itself might be considered trade, the power of Europeans to monopolize the slave trade and control the market poses a strong confounder to the situation, pointing the trans-Atlantic slave trade to also be an economy of traite.[2]

Creole women in the French Caribbean[edit]

This section is entirely based on Jacqueline Couti's book Dangerous Creole Liaisons, Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses from 1806 to 1897.

Creole women were an essential part of the history of the slavery period in the French Caribbean and especially on Martinique Island as well as in France.

Creole women always have been a source of exoticism and adventure for people in the mainland, in the French imaginary, their sensuality represented this exoticism related to Martinique and French Caribbean islands in general as they looked different and were believed to have different sexual practices as white French women at the time (due to their African and Native origins). As Creole women were slaves, the masters would turn to them to fulfill their sexual desires and leave behind white French women. The ideal woman at the time was a white pure mother explaining the reason why so many slave owners turned to Creole women, hence abandoning their duties as fathers according to the French beliefs and traditions. Authors like Traversay argue that the fault is in fact on Creole women as they are the one supposedly luring men into failing white, respectable, French women. With the end of the 18th century comes a troubled time for France in general. As the monarchy is collapsing, the new government aims to change the image of France as an equal and right country with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the first document allowing every man basic rights and paving the way for future human rights’ declarations. With this new era of human rights, the government still intends to keep a refined and traditionalist image of the country. During the revolution, white women were the representation of this newly acquired liberty with the examples of Liberty Leading the People and Marianne. A problem, therefore, occurred when both liberty and the image of women were problematic in the French Caribbean, slavery and Creole women were simply not a good representation of free, pure and motherly France according to the ones in charge. Authors (like Levilloux and Maynard) now glorify this new image of France, appealing to the new democratic public, considering the new world and more importantly the French Caribbean and Creole women as a representation of the colonialist past of the French monarchy : lavish, sensual, erotic and exotic, values that can no longer be considered acceptable by the new regime. Interracial marriages and relations were therefore forbidden as they tried to change the image of the country, as much as the French Caribbean was considered morally lost, they still had to take control and avoid métis children and freed slaves to take over the islands. The different revolutions were also traumatic for the Creole people, as they supported the return of monarchy with the Bourbon dynasty since the 1814 Restauration, the July Revolution was felt like a final blast on them.

Around this time came the modern idea of racism with the skin color at the center of questioning. Black skin was then considered unpure and almost disease-like in order to differentiate the ‘true’ colons and French citizens from Natives and former slaves and Creole people. The hierarchy of race began in this late 18th century period with whiteness at the top of the scheme.

In this scenario, black women are at the origin of white men's lust and are considered once again, the source of the loss of the white culture in the Caribbean. Creole women and their bodies, in particular, are seen as representing the ‘abject mix’ (Dangerous Créole Liaisons, 67) between African bodies and white bodies. But the masters, unwilling to change their habits, find new excuses to explain their behavior. Incest, therefore, became the black sheep. By scaring people into believing all Creole and Africans could be related, white Europeans on the island made sure that mixing of races was still a better option than incest. Creole women were stuck in this ‘in between’ where whatever they did, they would be seen as erotic temptresses (if they slept with white people, they were driving good men away from potential good wives or their own wives and France would resent them but if they didn't, they would be accused of incest and perverted practices and local white men would resent them).

General overview[edit]

The Lesser Antilles islands of Barbados, St. Kitts, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia and Dominica 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, and as mercantilism became the dominant economic system in Europe. The mercantilism model limited imports and highly valued exports, which largely drove imperial efforts across Europe by utilizing slave labor in order to produce cheap goods to be sold at higher market prices upon their return to Europe. By the middle of the 18th century, British Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) had become the largest 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 diary of slaveowner Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica details violence against slaves, and constitutes important historical documentation of the conditions for Caribbean slaves.

For centuries slavery made sugarcane production economical. 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 combined. Though sugar was driven by slavery, rising costs for the British made it easier for the British abolitionists to be heard. Sugar thus became inherently linked to slavery, and the link was publicized specifically in abolition and anti-sugar movements, but was understood by many French citizens.[14] Voltaire, for example, wrote of a sighting of a maimed slave in Candide, writing: "C'est à ce prix que vous mangez du sucre en Europe" ("this is what it costs for you to eat your sugar in Europe").[15]

In addition to sugar, France additionally capitalized on "pacotille," or cheap goods such as rum, tobacco, coffee and indigo.[5] These cheap products were brought from Europe and traded to African elites in exchange for enslaved people. Profiting from "pacotille" was another method of perpetuating the mercantilism economic model.

Anglo-American slavery[edit]

The slavery system that developed in the Lesser Antilles was an outgrowth of the demand for sugar and other crops. The Spanish loosened their foothold in the Caribbean during the first half of the 17th century, which allowed the British to settle several islands and to ultimately seize Jamaica in 1655. To protect these investments, the British would later place a contingent of the Royal Navy in Port Royal.[16]

In 1640 the English began sugar production with the help of the Dutch. This started the Anglo-American plantation societies which would later be led by Jamaica after it was fully developed. At its peak production between 1740 and 1807 Jamaica received 33% of the total slaves that were imported in order to keep up its production. Other crops besides sugar were also cultivated on the plantations. Tobacco, coffee, and livestock were all produced as well using slave labor. Sugar, however, stands out most prominently due to its exorbitant popularity during the time period and the dangers of its production, which claimed the lives of many.[17]

England had multiple sugar islands in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, Barbados, Nevis, and Antigua, which provided a steady flow of sugar for sale; slave labor produced the sugar.[18] An important result of Britain's victory in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714) was enlarging its role in the slave trade.[19] Of special importance was the successful secret negotiation with France to obtain a 30-year monopoly on the Spanish slave trade, called the Asiento. Queen Anne of Great Britain also allowed her North American colonies like Virginia to make laws that promoted black slavery. Anne had secretly negotiated with France to get its approval regarding the asiento.[20] She boasted to Parliament of her success in taking the asiento away from France and London celebrated her economic coup.[21] Most of the slave trade involved sales to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, and to Mexico, as well as sales to British colonies in the Caribbean and in North America.[22] Historian Vinita Ricks says the agreement allotted Queen Anne "22.5% (and King Philip V, of Spain 28%) of all profits collected for her personal fortune." Ricks concludes that the Queen's "connection to slave trade revenue meant that she was no longer a neutral observer. She had a vested interest in what happened on slave ships."[23][24]

The slaves incoming to the Anglo-American colonies were at high risk both mentally and physically. The Middle Passage alone accounted for roughly 10% of all deaths. Some experts believe that one out of every three slaves died before ever reaching their African port of departure. It should be mentioned that the majority of Anglo-American slaves came from Western Central Africa. These factors and others caused many slaves on arrival to feel alienated, fragile, and that death was right around the corner. The conditions suffered by slaves during the voyages were hostile. The slaves were placed in close quarters, fed barely enough to sustain them, and oftentimes they fell victim to diseases contracted prior to the voyage. The slaves would not see sunlight during this period and were prone to both weight loss and scurvy.[25]

The living and working conditions in the Lesser Antilles were very harsh for the slaves that were brought in to work the plantations. The average life of a slave after "adjusting" to the climate and environmental conditions of Jamaica was expected to be less than two decades. This was due to their limited familiarly and immune defense against the diseases and illnesses present in Jamaica. Disease decimated incoming slave populations. Attempts were made to help curtail the problem, but ultimately were fruitless.[26]

To help protect their investments, most planters would not immediately give the hardest tasks to the newest slaves. Slave owners would also set up a walled area away from the veteran slaves in order to stymie the spread of disease. These areas would contain 100–200 slaves at any time. Later, after new slaves had been bought, they would be placed into the care of older and more experienced slaves who were already accustomed to the plantation in hopes of increasing their chances for survival. Examples of tasks assigned to new slaves include planting and constructing buildings. Though newer slaves typically formed supportive relationships with veteran slaves taking, these relationships were not always positive, and abuse did occur.[citation needed]

Sugar production in the Lesser Antilles was a very grisly business. On Jamaica from 1829 to 1832 the average mortality rate for slaves on sugar plantations was 35.1 deaths per 1000 enslaved. The most dangerous part of the sugar plantation was the cane planting. Cane planting during this era consisted of clearing land, digging the holes for the plants, and more. Overseers used the whip in an attempt to both motivate and punish slaves. The slaves themselves were also working and living with barely adequate nourishment and in times of hard work would often be starved. This contributed to low birth rates and the high mortality rates for the slaves. Some experts believe that the average infant mortality at plantations to be 50% or even higher. This extremely high rate of infant mortality meant that the slave population that existed in the Lesser Antilles was not self-sustaining, thus requiring a constant importation of new slaves. Living and working conditions on non-sugar plantations was considered to be better, however, only marginally.[27]


This scene depicts Voltaire's Candide and Cacambo meeting a maimed slave near Suriname. The caption says, "It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe". The slave that utters the remark has had his hand cut off for getting a finger stuck in a millstone, and his leg removed for trying to run away.

Slavery was first abolished by the French Republic in 1794, but Napoleon revoked that decree in 1802.[28] In 1815, the Republic[clarification needed] abolished the slave trade but the decree did not come into effect until 1826.[29] France re-abolished slavery in her colonies in 1848 with a general and unconditional emancipation.[30][31]

William Wilberforce's Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution finally was abolished, but on a gradual basis.[32] Since slave owners in the various colonies (not only the Caribbean) were losing their unpaid labourers, the government set aside £20 million for compensation but it did not offer the former slaves reparations.[33][34]

The colony of Trinidad was left with a 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 1810s until 1917. Initially Chinese, free West Africans, and Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported, but they were soon supplanted by Indians who started arriving from 1845. 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.

In 1811 on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, Arthur William Hodge, a wealthy plantation owner and Council member, became the first person to be hanged for the murder of a slave.

Whitehall in Britain announced in 1833 that the gradual abolition would end by 1840; by then, and slaves in its territories would be totally freed. 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 in Trinidad, an unarmed group of mainly elderly Negroes being addressed by the Governor at Government House about the new apprenticeship 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. This made Trinidad the first British colony with slaves to completely abolish slavery.[32] The successful resistance of the implementation of the full six-year term of the Apprenticeship system and Abolition of Slavery in Trinidad was marked by ex-slaves and free coloureds joining in celebrations thru the streets in what became known as their annual Canboulay celebrations. This event in Trinidad influenced full emancipation in the other British colonies which was legally granted two years ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838.

After Great Britain abolished slavery, it began to pressure other nations to do the same. France finally abolished slavery in 1848. 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "British Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade". The Abolition Project. E2BN – East of England Broadband Network and MLA East of England. 2009. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d Miller, Christopher (2008). The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade. Duke University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-8223-4151-2.
  3. ^ a b Pierre, Boulle (2003). The color of liberty : histories of race in France. Peabody, Sue., Stovall, Tyler Edward. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 20. ISBN 0-8223-3130-6. OCLC 51519592.
  4. ^ Kitchin, Thomas (1778). The Present State of the West-Indies: Containing an Accurate Description of What Parts Are Possessed by the Several Powers in Europe. London: R. Baldwin. p. 21.
  5. ^ a b c d Yee, Jennifer. 2016. “The Real Cost of Sugar: Ethics, the Slave Trade, and the Colonies.” Pg 60 in The Colonial Comedy: Imperialism in the French Realist Novel. Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ a b Miller, C. L. 2008. “Introduction.” Pg 4 in The French Atlantic triangle: literature and culture of the slave trade. Duke University Press.
  7. ^ Miller, C. L. 2008. “Introduction.” Pg 5 in The French Atlantic triangle: literature and culture of the slave trade. Duke University Press.
  8. ^ Perry Viles, "The Slaving Interest in the Atlantic Ports, 1763–1792," French Historical Studies (1972) 7#4 pp-529-43.
  9. ^ a b Joseph-Gabriel, Annette K. 2019. “Introduction.” Pg 9 in Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire. University of Illinois Press.
  10. ^ "Haiti: The Revolution of 1791-1803". Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  11. ^ "traire | translate French to English: Cambridge Dictionary". Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  12. ^ Furetière, Antoine (1619-1688) Auteur du texte (1690). Dictionnaire universel, contenant généralement tous les mots françois tant vieux que modernes, et les termes de toutes les sciences et des arts... ([Reprod.]) / par feu Messire Antoine Furetière,...
  13. ^ Eltis, David; Lewis, Frank D.; Richardson, David (2005). "Slave Prices, the African Slave Trade, and Productivity in the Caribbean, 1674-1807". The Economic History Review. 58 (4): 673–700. ISSN 0013-0117.
  14. ^ Yee, Jennifer. 2016. “The Real Cost of Sugar: Ethics, the Slave Trade, and the Colonies.” Pg 62 in The Colonial Comedy: Imperialism in the French Realist Novel. Oxford University Press
  15. ^ Mander, Jenny. 2019. “Colonialism and Slavery.” Pg 272 in The Cambridge History of French Thought, edited by M. Moriarty and J. Jennings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  16. ^ Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd, eds. Caribbean slavery in the Atlantic world (2000).
  17. ^ Kenneth Morgan, Slavery, Atlantic trade and the British economy, 1660–1800 (2000).
  18. ^ Richard B. Sheridan (1974). Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623–1775. Canoe Press. pp. 415–26.
  19. ^ David A. G. Waddel, "Queen Anne's Government and the Slave Trade." Caribbean Quarterly 6.1 (1960): 7–10.
  20. ^ Edward Gregg. Queen Anne (2001), pp. 341, 361.
  21. ^ Hugh Thomas (1997). The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440 – 1870. Simon and Schuster. p. 236.
  22. ^ Richard B. Sheridan, "Africa and the Caribbean in the Atlantic slave trade." American Historical Review 77.1 (1972): 15–35.
  23. ^ Vinita Moch Ricks. Through the Lens of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. p. 77. ISBN 978-1-4835-1364-5.
  24. ^ Herbert S. Klein and Ben Vinson III, eds., African slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (2007).
  25. ^ K. F. Kiple, The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History (1985).
  26. ^ Keith Mason, "Demography, Disease and Medical Care in Caribbean Slave Societies." (1986): 109–119. DOI: 10.2307/3338787
  27. ^ Kiple, The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History (1985).
  28. ^ "French Revolutionary Wars Timeline: 1794". Emerson Kent. Emerson Kent. 2016. Retrieved February 2, 2017. the first abolition ... revoked in 1802. The second, and final, abolition will be passed in 1848.
  29. ^ "CHRONOLOGY-Who banned slavery when?". Reuters. Thomson Reuters. March 22, 2007. Retrieved February 2, 2017.
  30. ^ Oldfield, Dr John (February 17, 2011). "British Anti-slavery". BBC History. BBC. Retrieved January 2, 2017.
  31. ^ Dusenbury, Jonathan (October 10, 2016). "SLAVERY AND THE REVOLUTIONARY HISTORIES OF 1848". Age of Revolutions. Age of Revolutions. Retrieved February 2, 2017. Enter Victor Schoelcher. After returning from Senegal in early March of 1848, the prominent abolitionist persuaded Arago to place him in charge of a commission to end slavery. On April 27, the commission drafted a decree of general and unconditional emancipation in the colonies.
  32. ^ a b Dryden, John (1992), "Pas de Six Ans!", In: Seven Slaves & Slavery: Trinidad 1777–1838, by Anthony de Verteuil, Port of Spain, pp. 371–379.
  33. ^ "Slavery Abolition Act 1833". 28 August 1833. Archived from the original on 24 May 2008. Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  34. ^ Oldfield, Dr John (February 17, 2011). "British Anti-slavery". BBC History. BBC. Retrieved January 2, 2017. the new legislation called for the gradual abolition of slavery. Everyone over the age of six on August 1, 1834, when the law went into effect, was required to serve an apprenticeship of four years in the case of domestics and six years in the case of field hands


Slave huts in Bonaire at the Salt evaporation pond)
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