The Caribbean is considered as one of the first regions to lose the aspect of indigeneity due to the massive immigration of people from Europe, North America, Africa, and the Far East since the early 1600s1. The erosion of the indigenous Caribbean culture emerged from the intrusion of the Spanish and British authorities who colonized the Greater Antilles that form the current states of Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba among others2. Initially, the Caribbean natives engaged in subsistence farming as they planted crops like cassava and cotton. The indentured servants from Europe adopted the indigenous lifestyle as they also participated in farming activities together with the local communities3
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In the early 1700s, most of the Caribbean communities saw the need for economic development that required the intensification of agriculture production activities. Therefore, the need for mobilization of resources arose to facilitate the commercialization of agricultural production4. For instance, a 1761 decree passed by the Spanish rule in Trinidad required the Spaniards along with the Americans and the Indians to come out of the countryside woods and occupy the urban centers. Therefore, such developments underlined the need for a revolution that would strengthen the influence of the colonial powers in the region.
For this reason, the need for adequate labor prompted the slavery trade trend as seen in the case of the Sugar Revolution in the Caribbean. In this respect, this paper holds that before the introduction of sugar production in the Caribbean, indentured labor was common in the plantation of cotton and tobacco. The natives practiced subsistence farming, which required communal work. However, the Sugar Revolution required mass farming of sugarcanes and due to the shortage of labor, enslaved Africans were brought in to fill the gap.
The Forms of Labor in the Caribbean before the Introduction of Sugar Production
The Caribbean region has a rich history that depicts how the early settlers and the natives engaged in farming activities. Notably, the early government systems engaged indigenous and European servants in the production of food to sustain the growing population. However, before the intrusion of the Europeans led by the Spaniard and English authorities, the Caribbean provided labor communally for their agricultural activities that focused on staple food production.5
The forested and hilly mainland provided favorable landscapes for farming besides fishing activities. Organized into chiefdoms since the onset of the 16th century, the Caribbean communities showed some organization that aimed at improving the well-being of the people like in the case of Hispaniola before Spain occupied it6. Mainly, able men and women engaged in the cultivation of the land as they predicted the weather patterns.
Before 1500, the establishments in the Caribbean Chiefdoms opposed the trade of slaves to work in various parts of the world including North America as seen in the case of Queen Isabel’s order to return the slave voyage to Castile7. However, the entry of the Spanish rule in the region from 1493 onwards witnessed intermarriages with the local communities to tap the labor market in the region. For this reason, the development of inter-ethnic relationships that sought the essence of joining hands in economic activities. As such, the interactions prompted the development of labor divisions to facilitate agricultural activities.
Therefore, the royal authorities in places such as Hispaniola embraced the economic approaches underpinned by the foreigners by the year 1500. As a result, informal divisions of labor took effect to replace the traditional approach to agricultural activities. Notably, men engaged in irrigation farming and mining activities as women focused on cotton weaving and wood carving as seen in the case of Barbados in the early 1630s8.
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However, the small Caribbean population jeopardized the sustainability of the Spanish and English rule in the region owing to the upsurging labor demands. For this reason, the authorities encouraged the collaboration of the Europeans and the local communities to work together in the various farms and mines to meet the market demands. At some point, the Spaniards organized the importation of Indians to supplement the labor needs in the Caribbean, leading to the early forms of the slave trade in the region.
Towards the end of the 1500s, the Spaniards that occupied extensive regions of the Caribbean noted a problem with labor inadequacy as mining and farming activities developed into large-scale production. As such, the development of the formal division of labor systems emerged as the Spanish rule gained popularity. Furthermore, the unfair treatment of Caribbean people by the Spanish administrators in the farms and mines weakened the working relationship that existed earlier.9
Consequently, the trend triggered a series of rebellions from the natives thereby, prompting the need for the introduction of the slave trade as sugar production activities in the region increased to meet the global demand for the product.
The Sugar Revolution and African Slaves
The labor shortage issue in the late 1500s created a substantial hindrance to the growth and development of sugar production activities in the Caribbean. By 1632, large sugar plantations characterized the sugar revolution in the Caribbean as the Spanish and English administrators sourced labor from the cotton and tobacco fields to work in the new plantations10. However, the inadequacy of the local labor lingered as pressure from the natives in the form of revolts necessitated the establishment of a slave market. Furthermore, the skills acquired by the indentured servants from Europe prompted the development of a slave market in several parts of the Caribbean including West Indies, and Jamaica11.
In the1640s, the European servitude in the plantations had gained adequate skills and knowledge of managing agricultural activities on a large scale. Therefore, for the smooth progress of the sugar revolution, the acquisition of the Black labor proved strategic to the Europeans managing the farming activities12. Importantly, the new market trends that necessitated the production of sugar at a large scale required the European servants to employ their experience in the fields to adapt to the changes. Notably, the English rule structures in the West Indies had created a system that allowed the use of local and indentured servants since it was sufficient but now the onset of the new market forces urged consideration of the African labor, considered cheap and readily available.
Therefore, the colonial rule in the Caribbean had already established structures that favored the adoption of African slaves in the long-term since they envisioned market trends in the wake of the sugar revolution. In 1623, for instance, the English and Spaniard systems in the Caribbean intensified their competition for a substantial share of the tobacco market in Europe thereby, necessitating capital injections in the industry for their sustainability13. The trends implied a similar approach to the newly developing sugar plantations in the region. In this light, the shift towards the establishment of a slave market was a response to the market forces. Additionally, the need for the deployment of slaves in the market aimed at stabilizing the capital aspect of sugar production owing to its growth14.
Furthermore, the decline of the tobacco and cotton industries in the mid-1640s favored the full concentration on sugar production, as it proved profitable since it had a ready market in the Americas and Europe. Thus, the need for a sustainable economic system required a stable labor supply to ensure that the European colonies exercise their authority in the Caribbean smoothly. In 1645, for instance, the falling prices of indigo in the global market prompted the English administration to diverge its focus on the sugar industry that fetched greater returns compared to other products from the Americas. Likewise, the Leeward planters in the Spanish settlements proved inadequate to sustain the labor needs of the large-scale sugar production activities in Barbados thereby, necessitating the additional slave laborers from Africa.
The 17th century saw the Spanish and English authorities increasing their hunt for African slaves as their efforts of seizing the Caribs and other groups failed. Amid the dominance of the slave market by the Dutch and the Iberians, they managed to secure considerable slave populations from Africa to stabilize their labor supply in the sugar plantations. The 18th century experienced more slave trade activities in places such as Jamaica that had the largest demand for African slaves by then15.
The early invasion of the Europeans in the Caribbean did not prompt the employment of slave trade in the various agricultural activities until the development of the sugar plantations in the 16th century. Initially, the English and Spanish immigrants focused on integrating foreign servitude and the local labor in agriculture production. However, changing market trends that prompted the sugar revolution initiated the slave trade trend in the Caribbean to provide an adequate supply of labor.
A. Diptee, [Early European Settlement & Indigenous Resistance], HIST 2710.
A. Diptee, [Early European Settlement, Part II], HIST 2710.
A. Diptee, [Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean: Identity, Memory, and the Politics of History], HIST 2710.
Altman, Ida. “The revolt of Enrique and the historiography of early Spanish America.” The Americas 63, no. 4 (2007): 587- 614.
Beckles, Hilary. “Plantation Production and Proto–White Slavery: White Indentured Servants and the Colonization of the English West Indies.” Americas 41, no. 1 (1985): 21- 45.
Burnard, Trevor, and Kenneth Morgan. “The Dynamics of the Slave Market and Slave Purchasing Patterns in Jamaica, 1655 -1788.” William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2001): 205 -228.
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Burnard, Trevor. “European Migration to Jamaica, 1655 -1780,” William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 4 (1996): 769 – 796.
Forte, Maximilian. “Extinction: Ideologies against Indigeneity in the Caribbean.” Southern Quarterly 43, no. 4 (2006): 46-69.
Pons, Frank. History of the Caribbean: plantations, trade, and war in the Atlantic world. Princeton: Markus Wiener Pub., 2007.
- Maximilian Forte, “Extinction: Ideologies against Indigeneity in the Caribbean,” Southern Quarterly 43, no. 4 (2006): 47.
- A. Diptee, [Early European Settlement & Indigenous Resistance], HIST 2710.
- Hilary Beckles, “Plantation Production and Proto–White Slavery: White Indentured Servants and the Colonization of the English West Indies,” Americas 41, no. 1, (1985): 21.
- Trevor Burnard, “European Migration to Jamaica, 1655 -1780,” William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 4, 790-792.
- A. Diptee, [Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean: Identity, Memory, and the Politics of History], HIST 2710.
- Ida Altman, “The revolt of Enrique and the historiography of early Spanish America,” The Americas 63, no. 4 (2007): 590.
- Burnard, 790.
- Beckles, 25.
- A. Diptee, [Early European Settlement, Part II], HIST 2710.
- Frank Pons, History of the Caribbean: plantations, trade, and war in the Atlantic world (Princeton: Markus Wiener Pub., 2007), 123.
- Trevor Burnard and Kenneth Morgan, “The Dynamics of the Slave Market and Slave Purchasing Patterns in Jamaica, 1655 -1788,” William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2001): 208.
- Beckles, 23.
- Pons, 125.
- buckles, 23.
- Burnard and Morgan, 205.