THE West Indies was vital for England during the slave trade era.
Wealth generated from the West Indies made a great impact on the fortunes of the Englishmen.
Several British coastal cities grew enormously owing to wealth generated from the West Indies.
It was not only the English who had an interest in the West Indies.
Spain and France also had interests.
The Spanish were into gold mining in the West Indies before the advent of farming.
In the gold mines, they used local labour as slaves.
The first English settlement on any island in the west Atlantic was accidental.
Castaways from an English vessel, wrecked on its way to Virginia in 1609, found safety on Bermuda.
When news of the island reached England, a party of 60 settlers was sent out in 1612.
Three decades later, religious frictions in the Bermuda community caused a group of dissenters to seek a place of their own.
From 1648, they settled in the Bahamas, a chain of uninhabited islands forming the fringe of the northern Caribbean.
This is where Columbus made his first landfall in 1492.
In the intervening half-century, the Spanish shipped the natives (some 40 000 Arawak Indians) to work in the mines of Hispaniola.
The West Indies was a collection of several islands which made up British territories in the Caribbean.
They comprised Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize (formerly British Honduras), Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Jamaica (formerly Colony of Jamaica), and Trinidad and Tobago. Before the decolonisation period in the later 1950s and 1960s, it included all British colonies in the region, together with two mainland colonies, as part of the British Empire.
They were also known as British West Indies (BWI).
Its importance was further demonstrated as it became a source of conflict between the British and French, leading to documented rivalry between the two European states.
Sir Josh Child noted that the island was important to Britain and said every European employed in the West Indies created four jobs in England.
Another Englishman, Sir Dalby Thomas, acknowledged how precious the colony was to England when he said: “The pleasure and grandeur of England has been advanced more by sugar than any other commodity.”
The North Atlantic Sea separated Britain and the West Indies by approximately 3 559 miles (5 728 km).
The plantations were valued at £50 million in 1775 while three years later, the same plantations’ value had increased to £70 million.
The appreciation in value of the West Indies and economic significance it had translated to how vital the island was to Britain.
Sugar overtook tobacco as a cash crop on the market.
Oliver Ransford in the book The Slave Trade says: “The West India sugar magnates became famous in Britain for their affluence.
They dazzled society.
Novels for the period abound in wealthy planters, and the phrase ‘rich as a Creole’ became common place.
When George III caught sight of a particularly opulent carriage driving through London he was heard to mutter, Sugar. Sugar. Eh! All that sugar’.
The planters exerted an undue influence on all sectors of English life.
Their immense wealth enabled them to control many parliamentary elections, and when Lord Chesterfield tried to buy a seat for his son in 1767 he learned ‘there was no such a thing as a borough to be had now, for the East and West Indians have secured them all at the rate of three thousand pounds at least.”
Ransford further wrote: “The eldest of the three fabulous Beckford brothers from the West Indies, who incidentally were all Members of Parliament, was especially noted for his extravagance: he made a great stir at one banquet by seating six dukes, two marquises, twenty-three earls, four viscounts and fourteen barons, and then served them sixty different courses. Families like the Lascelles mingled and married with the aristocracy and even with Royalty.
Yet many of these opulent sugar kings never saw the source of their riches.
For not only did the planters send their children to be educated at home, but many of them settled permanently in England, leaving their estates in the care of managers.”
The West Indies was a prized source of Britain’s wealth.
The number of the British and slaves grew with time, same as the output of sugar.
Between 80-90 percent of sugar produced in the West Indies fed the bulk of Western Europe.
A major feature of European settlement in the West Indies was its transitory nature.
The object of adventurers, especially the British, was not to stay permanently in the West Indian colonies but to return to Europe with their fortunes made.
Absenteeism became well-established during the early 18th Century when many successful planters retired to Britain, leaving representatives in charge of their estates.
These absentees were a crucial element in the West India Interest, a powerful lobby that brought together merchants from the major ports, planters and parliamentarians.
It was the West India Interest that engineered the Molasses and Sugar Acts in the first half of the 18th Century.
These acts protected British West Indian sugar on the British market and increased the prosperity of the planters.
The plantations and slavery created a hierarchical society based upon ‘racial’ distinctions and law.
During the 17th Century, the major strata of West Indian society were Europeans and their descendants (‘whites’) —who were generally free, though some were indentured workers serving a period of contract labour — and enslaved Africans.
By the 18th Century, miscegenation had become more prevalent.
Many children of mixed ethnicity were manumitted (obtained their freedom), creating an intermediate stratum of free ‘people of colour’ (persons of mixed ethnicity) and free ‘blacks’ (manumitted slaves of African descent).
By law and by custom, however, only whites enjoyed full civil rights; the free ‘mixed-race’ and black populations suffered many legal disabilities.
Slaves — who included many mixed-race persons by about 1800 — were non-persons; chattels to be bought and sold.
Also known as the sweet grass, sugar fortunes ran into thousands of pounds.
Sugar was introduced in the West Indies from Brazil in the 17th Century.
Its botanical name is ‘saccharum officinarum’. It is a perennial grass in the family poaceae, grown for its stem (cane) which is primarily used to produce sucrose.
Almost every island was covered with sugar plantations and mills for refining the cane for its sweet properties.
Until the abolition of slavery, the main source of labour was African slaves.
Between 1700 and 1709, the trade in sugar increased dramatically due to the increasing popularity of sugar to sweeten luxury drinks such as tea and coffee.
In 1700, Britain’s sugar consumption was four pounds (weight) per person, while a century later, that had risen to 18 pounds per person.
The increased availability and popularity of sugar was due to a gradual increase in the standard of living (whereas before, only the very rich could afford such luxuries as sugar) and the discovery of more New World colonies which were ideally suited to the growing of luxury crops such as sugar.
Although sugar was the most important crop in the Caribbean, other crops like coffee, indigo and rice were also grown.
The growing of sugar resulted in the swelling of the population in the West Indies.
Both slave and white populations grew.
Oliver Ransford notes: “When sugar cultivation began on the island 18 000 whitemen were living there together with 5 000 Negroes.
Twenty years later the number of slaves had increased eightfold.
Figures returned from other islands similarly bear out the speed at which the slave system fattened: In 1690 there were 40 000 slaves in Jamaica, a hundred years later an additional 800 000 had been brought in.”
It was estimated that the British brought in 3,1 million African slaves in the West Indies to work in the sugar plantations.
By the 18th Century, 80 percent of the population in the islands was black.
But why did they opt for Africans?
European planters thought Africans would be more suited to the conditions than their own countrymen, as the climate resembled that of their homeland in West Africa.
Enslaved Africans were also much less expensive to maintain than indentured European servants or paid wage labourers.
By 1750, sugar surpassed grain as the most valuable commodity in European trade – it made up a fifth of all European imports.
The sugar market went through a series of booms.
It is this boom through slave labour that led to the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
The rise in demand and production of sugar resulted from a major change in the eating habits of many Europeans.
They began consuming jam, sweets, tea, coffee, cocoa and other sweetened foods in much greater volumes.
Taking advantage of this growing demand for sugar, the Caribbean islands set about increasing production.
In Barbados, sugar amounted to 93 percent of the island’s exports.
The West Indies fitted well into the Triangular Slave Trade matrix.
After receiving the slave labourers from Africa, the raw materials of sugar, tea and coffee, among other things, were loaded on to the ship for yet another voyage to Europe.
From Europe, the journey would be to Africa with finished goods for trade with the caboceers.
“The story of sugar was not all sweetness. Sugar and slavery developed hand-in-hand in the English islands” (Dunn 1973, 189).
It involved a lot of work, long hours and harsh treatment. From the field into the sugar processing mills, treatment was bitter at all ends.
“Sugar cane takes 14 to 18 months to mature (Dunn 1973, 190). Cane grows best in the wet months from June to November and ripens in the dry months of January to May. Planters staggered cultivation so that the cane did not all mature at once. The cane was planted either by digging a trench and lying old cane cuttings end to end, or by digging holes and inserting cuttings of cane two feet long (Dunn 1973, 191). A gang of thirty enslaved Africans using hoes could plant two acres in a day. The cane was fertilised with animal manure. When the cane was ripe, the enslaved workers cut the sugar cane by hand with broad curved machetes and loaded the stems onto carts. Mills were slow and inefficient so during the harvesting season the slaves worked in the mill and boiling house 24 hours a day to process the crop. ‘During crop time they work night and day almost incessantly,’ wrote Revd William Smith in 1745.” (Smith 1745, 232)
Neo-colonialism prevails on most islands and West Indians are acutely aware of their dependence on overseas capital, decision makers and technologies, particularly in the French-affiliated islands of the Lesser Antilles.
The importance of multinational corporations in West Indian economies is reflected in the pre-eminent position of North American companies in the Jamaican, Haitian and Dominican Republican bauxite industries and (to a lesser extent by the early 21st Century) in Trinidad’s petroleum economy; the role of British-based companies in West Indian sugar production and refining; and the monopolistic position of both British and North American companies in the marketing of bananas from Jamaica and the Windward Islands.