CARIBBEAN / Sugar and Slavery in the 17th Century
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Sugarcane field.
I. Introduction

In the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, cultivation of sugar cane and producing sugar, mainly for the European markets, defined the socio-economic, political, demographic and cultural development of the Caribbean region. It is important to note, however, that the development of societies in the Caribbean based on sugar production was somewhat irregular and uneven at the time. As a result, the effects were felt in different ways and unequal intensities. Still, despite the heterogeneity of these experiences, it is possible to survey the common social and economic patterns and institutions that were the foundations of the Caribbean societies.

The 18th century sugar plantation made the commercial links between the Caribbean, Europe and Africa clear. Within this triangular commerce, African slavery was developed as one of the most terrible institutions in the history of humanity. Millions of Africans were moved to the New World and inserted into a kind of society characterized by an ideology of discrimination and racism that still persists, to greater or lesser degrees, in the political and economic structures of more than a few countries in the Caribbean.

The first efforts

The first efforts to produce sugar for European consumption took place in the territories colonized by the Spanish crown in the 16th century, especially on the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. In 1568, some 46 sugar presses were established on these two islands, most of them powered by livestock. Sugar cane planting in the Spanish Caribbean in these early years did not last long. The crown was more interested in the more lucrative lands in the viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) and the viceroyalty of Peru in South America. It was to be expected. Sugar production was too costly in comparison to the extraction of mineral riches in the continental territories. The Caribbean territories — except perhaps for Havana, because of its role as a shipyard for the fleets leaving for Spain — became peripheral territories of little economic importance for the crown.

Britain, followed by France, Holland and Denmark, took note and turned their focus and capital toward the small Caribbean islands in search of new ways to build wealth. Their incentive was the recent increase in demand for sugar in the European market, especially in Britain, and the instability of tobacco prices during the early years of the 18th century. Sugar cane production from Brazil was significant but was not sufficient to satisfy the palate of thousands of Brits and Europeans. Sugar went from being a luxury and a status symbol for the most privileged classes to become an indispensable and accessible ingredient for the rest of the British population.

The demand had to be met. On the island of Barbados, by the end of the third decade of the 17th century, growing sugar cane, because of the island’s excellent geography and climate, had become a golden opportunity for British colonists who could not compete with the quality of tobacco from Virginia and other British territories in North America. The cost, however, was significant. Growing sugar cane required huge swaths of land and substantial amounts of labor. Profitability was affected not only by natural conditions, but also by the efficiency in extracting the sugar before it decomposed. It was essential, therefore, to have sufficient capital to obtain the machinery and cheap manual labor needed to process the cane. The costs of producing sugar during the 17th and 18th centuries did not deter Britain and France from taking on the challenge. The social and economic development of the Caribbean was inextricably tied to sugar production for the European market.

The British colonists in Barbados, influenced by their experience growing cane in Brazil — in turn inspired by the Portuguese experience on the islands of Madeira and Sao Tomé — noticed the high yields of African slaves versus hired white workers. The transition from hired white workers to African slavery is one of the most terrible chapters in the history of humanity. It is estimated that more than 10 million human beings were captured and forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean to live a degrading life of hard labor on the other side of the Atlantic, on the Caribbean plantations that awaited them and would consume them.

II. The slave trade

Slavery was known in all of sub-Saharan and Mediterranean Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. It was mostly tied to domestic work and other tasks without socio-economic importance, however. Slavery in Africa was not an institution of the magnitude and importance it would come to have in the Americas. In general, slaves were prisoners of war, criminals, or were enslaved because of their debts. Though it was an intolerable deprivation for those who experienced it, slavery in Africa never resembled the deplorable conditions and mistreatment to which millions of persons were subjected in the Caribbean.

The displacement of human beings to the Caribbean plantations required logistics and organization that was unprecedented in the history of humanity. The demand for manual labor on the small but important island of Barbados in the middle of the 17th century set off a race to meet the needs of the Caribbean colony. After several failed attempts, The Royal Company of Africa was created in 1672 to supply enslaved Africans to the British colonies in the Caribbean. The demand for slaves in the colonies, however, was greater than the supply the company could provide. In 1698, the British parliament allowed the transfer of African slaves to the Americas by private companies, as long as they paid a fee to the Royal Company of Africa.

The French soon joined in. In 1664, the French government, under the orders of Finance Minister Jean-Babtiste Colbert, established the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales. Although this attempt at monopolization by the French government — against many of the owners and planters in the Americas — did not yield the expected profits, it was the prelude to a greater role by France in the slave and sugar trade during the 18th century, when the island of Saint Domingue became the world’s largest sugar exporter.

The Barbados experience was fundamental to the subsequent growth and expansion of the plantation economy throughout the Caribbean. The 18th century was one of economic growth and human exploitation. The main slave traders were the kingdoms of Britain, France and Portugal. Paul Lovejoy estimates that between 1701 and 1801 the British transported some 2,532,300 souls to the New World. Meanwhile, the slave trade by France and Portugal brought about three million Africans to the American territories. The trans-Atlantic trade during the 18th century brought slaves from various regions, depending on availability and other political and social factors in the regions. Robin Blackburn estimates that of the total of 6,132,900 slaves imported, 40% came from west-central Africa, another 40% came from the Gulfs of Benin and Biafra, and 15% from the Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone and Senegambia.

The exchange between Africans, Europeans and their Caribbean colonies was known as the triangular trade. The slave trade success by Britain, France and Portugal was tied to the availability of European consumer goods that could be exchanged on the African coasts, an efficient merchant marine that could transport the slaves to the Americas, and sugar and tropical products to return to Europe, where the cycle of triangular trade began again.

Inevitably, the human costs of the African slave trade to the Americas were incalculable. The mortality rate, especially during the trans-Atlantic journey, ranged between 8% and 18%, depending on the departure site, the health conditions on the ships, the nutritional value of the food and the length of the journey from Africa to the Americas. For economic reasons, the slave traders had to take responsibility for the health of their merchandise. But the slave ships of the first half of the 18th century continued to be the scene of deadly illnesses such as dysentery, chicken pox and measles, which took thousands of lives. Blackburn estimates that some 23 million Africans captured during the 17th and 18th centuries died before reaching American soil.

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