The abolition of slavery was a slow, gradual and uneven process throughout the Caribbean. After more than three centuries under an inhumane labor system in which millions of Africans from many places died in the fields and cities of the Caribbean, the process of abolition was the subject of serious and deep thought for the sectors tied to the plantation economy, the government and, above all, for the slaves themselves. Britain led the abolitionist process that the other powers would follow, whether through pressure from the economic and political winds of the period or through the forces exercised by the Caribbean colonies. Whatever the situation, the 19th century Caribbean gradually saw the disappearance of an economic and social system that determined the structure of the colonies. Numerous economic, political, social and cultural factors combined in the Caribbean and led to the end of this terrible social structure. This essay examines more closely the process of abolition in the British colonies, because of their importance and repercussions for the rest of the Caribbean. It also considers the case of Cuba and Puerto Rico, the last two bastions of the Spanish empire in the Americas.

The end of the slave trade

The intense campaigns in the British Parliament in the last quarter of the 18th century, the civil awareness campaigns and the creation of the British Abolitionist Society demonstrated the central role that the Quakers played in the British abolitionist movement. Although the first petitions to abolish the slave trade, presented to the British Parliament in 1783 and 1787, were not successful, the abolitionists were undaunted and redoubled their efforts through the influential figure of William Wilberforce. Finally, in 1791, the House of Commons voted in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery. Despite these laudable efforts, the eruption of the Haitian Revolution and Britain’s involvement in it redirected Britain’s interests in the Caribbean. The Haitian Revolution was the perfect opportunity to displace France from its colonies and capture the sugar market in Europe.

Although the Haitian Revolution interrupted the process of abolishing the slave trade, it did not break the determination of the British abolitionists. It did, however, influence new arguments in their campaigns in the early 19th century. The abolitionists argued that if the importation of slaves into the new territories was allowed, those territories would compete with the old sugar colonies. In 1806, Parliament reacted to these arguments and decided to abolish the slave trade in its colonies beginning January 1, 1807. The Parliament acted on economic reasons. However, Britain urged the other colonial powers to match its actions. For example, despite its reluctance, the Spanish government signed a treaty in 1817 in which it committed to stopping the import of slaves to its territories at precisely the time when sugar production in Puerto Rico and Cuba was spiraling upward. Two years before, France had been forced to sign a similar treaty under the same conditions and obligations that were imposed on Portugal and Spain. Others, such as the Danish Virgin Islands and the Dutch territories fell under the British stipulations when they were captured by the British in 1807. These treaties, however, had little effect on the importation of slaves to the French and Spanish territories, where a more or less constant flow of new African slaves continued until the middle of the 19th century.

The abolition of slavery

The prohibition of the slave trade was just the beginning of a turbulent struggle for the absolute freedom for slaves. The stagnation in sugar production that the British, French, Danish and Dutch colonies were experiencing added to the economic weakness and the justifications for the slave system. The high costs of production, along with the technological backwardness of the plantations made the once profitable business ineffective in the context of imperial and international trade. In Jamaica, for example, sugar production declined from 1821 to 1832, in contrast to the period from 1799 to 1820. The French colonies showed similar patterns of stagnation, maintaining constant levels of sugar production during the early decades of the 19th century. The exceptions were Cuba and Puerto Rico, which experienced a surge in sugar production after the resounding collapse in sugar production in Haiti after 1804. Similarly, trade balances between the colonies and the colonizing countries were strongly affected. Imports to the British colonies dropped by 25% from 1821 to 1831. French exports to its colonies declined by 30% from 1841 to 1848. The latter year was when Franceabolished slavery in its territories. Along with the gradual dismantling of the sugar economy, as it had been known during the two previous centuries, the political influence and importance of colonial interests in the British Parliament also declined significantly.

The decline in sugar production and the stagnation of trade between the colonizing country and its possessions forced the representatives of the planters in the colonies to align themselves with the abolitionist proposals of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, just created in 1832First, the organization lobbied to improve the living and working conditions of the slaves through creation of laws and reforms. Some of the measures included the following:

· It was demanded that slave owners maintain a registry of those punished.
· Mechanisms were established to allow the slaves to buy their freedom through a system similar to the one that was established in the Spanish colonies.
· Slaves were allowed to present testimony in local courts.
· Whipping field slaves was prohibited.
· Slaves were allowed to own property.
· Breakup of families was to be avoided.
· Slaves were given one day a week to rest.

While these measures were passed with the goal of easing the hardship and cruelty of the slaves’ lives, and were a response to both a humanitarian ideology and the economic backdrop, they were not welcome in the colonies. The colonial legislatures strongly blocked implementation of the measures and the slaves continued to survive in the same impoverished conditions.

In the third decade of the 18th century, the increased petitions and pressure on the Parliament, along with the decline in the sugar trade and the constant slave revolts, undermined the slavery system on all sides. The revolts, for example, were increasing as issues concerning abolition in the territories were being cleared up in a Parliament that was more inclined to favor elimination of slavery in its territories. The undeniable success of the Haitian Revolution, along with rumors that the Parliament had granted freedom, made revolts ever more frequent in the English-speaking colonies. In 1808, just one year after the elimination of the slave trade, a slave revolt broke out in British Guyana. Eight years later, British troops put down a slave uprising in Barbados. On August 18, 1823, more than 12,000 slaves and 50 plantations on the coast of Demerara, British Guyana, were involved in a large-scale revolt. In 1831, one of the most significant and forceful slave revolts in a British territory in the Caribbean erupted in Jamaica. It is estimated that around 20,000 slaves participated and more than 200 plantations were affected. Its duration, like that of many other slave revolts, was ephemeral, but not its repercussions at the local level, in Britain, and internationally. Similar to the experience in Demerara, the uprising in Jamaica was led by Sam Sharpe, a leader of the Baptist Church. The religious connection in these latter two insurrections is significant because it points to the role played by nonconformist denominations in providing a language of emancipation for the most subjugated members of the plantation society. In fact, in an allusion to the religious component of the uprising in Jamaica, it later came to be known as “The Baptist War.”

The slave revolts undermined the slavery system internally. The economic, political and social tensions pressured the British Parliament in 1833 and 1834 to agree to abolish slavery in all of the territories under its rule. With a certain amount of reluctance and concern, it was stipulated that all those under age six and all those born to slave mothers would be given their freedom. Additionally, an apprenticeship system was instituted until 1840 to safeguard the social structure on the plantations. In this system, the former slave would work for his former owner for 45 hours a week. They had the right to be paid and to earn income that would allow them to shorten their apprenticeship period. Meanwhile, the owners were committed to providing food, clothing and housing to the former slaves. The abolition law also provided a fund of 20 million pounds sterling as compensation that could be used to reduce the losses the owners faced as a result of the slaves being freed.

After the reinstatement of slavery in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the French colonies in the Caribbean abolished slavery in 1848. Very similar to the situation in Britain, the message and action by the Societé des Amis des Noirs in France was important in bringing about the overthrow of the slavery system. Although slavery as a form of production had been questioned since at least the middle of the 18th century, Victor Schoelcher was the most influential figure in the efforts to abolish slavery in the French Caribbean. In the mid-1830s, the abolitionist movement began gaining ground politically and ideologically. The French government passed laws that were very similar to the ones that the British tried to impose on their colonies and that were aimed at improving the living and working conditions of the slaves. The political events in France in 1848 gave the abolitionists access to power and they wasted no time in declaring the abolition of slavery. Slaves in Guadeloupe and Martinique, encouraged by the news, took action and demanded immediate freedom. Fearing a revolt similar to the one that had occurred in Haiti, the local authorities conceded and eliminated slavery before the law was formally passed in France.

The abolitionist movements in Britain and France, the decline in sugar production in the Antilles, and the constant slave revolts reverberated and set a precedent for abolition in the other Caribbean territories. On the Danish island of St. Croix, for example, a slave uprising led by Buddhoe culminated the process, with Governor Peter von Scholten declaring the emancipation of the slaves in 1848. Slaves in the Dutch territories of the Caribbean gained their freedom in 1863, ten years before the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico.

Cuba and Puerto Rico 

Puerto Rico and Cuba, the last Spanish bastions in the Caribbean and the Americas, freed their slaves in 1873 and 1886, respectively. Socio-economic conditions in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the 19th century were different from the British and French colonies of the same era. Both islands, based on their geographic size and resources, saw the potential to increase sugar production to meet the European demand. Increased sugar production called for increased imports of slaves to the islands, despite the fact that Spain had signed an agreement in 1817 with the British government in which it committed to ending the slave trade. In Puerto Rico, slave imports had increased significantly between 1765 and 1820. In Cuba, the growth in the number of slaves was astronomical, with an increase of 155,700 between 1788 and 1817. The conditions in the Spanish colonies counteracted the efforts of the British Parliament in favor of abolition.

Despite the increase in sugar production on both islands, the competition from beet sugar impacted production and demand for cane sugar, and the resulting was a blow to the Cuban and Puerto Rican plantation economies beginning in the fourth decade of the 19th century. European beet sugar benefited from subsidies and other fiscal incentives that allowed it to penetrate the markets of France and Germany. As a result, the possibilities for economic growth in Cuba and Puerto Rico were flattened by the entrance of beet sugar into the market and, above all, by the fiscal obstacles imposed by the Spanish colonial government. While the economic environment played an important role in the abolition of slavery, the political antagonism between liberals and conservatives, the pro-independence movements, the constant conspiracies and insurrections by the slaves, and the influence of international politics were also important parts of the abolitionist process in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Slave revolts increased on both islands as sugar production increased. In Puerto Rico, for example, slave conspiracies were discovered in 1821 in Bayamón, in 1822 in Guayama and Naguabo, in 1823 and 1843 in Toa Baja, and in 1825 in Ponce. In Cuba, the so-called “La escalera” conspiracy, in which more than 2,000 blacks were detained as conspirators, terrorized the white population and landowners. The conspiracies and revolts, though they were fiercely repressed, were a constant reminder of the danger of the black slave in plantation society.

In 1866, the Spanish liberal government convened an “Overseas Information Board” for the purpose of studying the conditions and grievances that Cuba and Puerto Rico suffered. The Puerto Rican delegates presented a proposal to abolish slavery in Puerto Rico in the favorable climate of the liberal government in power in Spain at the time. It called for immediate emancipation but with compensation for the slave owners. It was estimated that there were 41,000 slaves in Puerto Rico, which made the process of abolition easier than in Cuba, where there were about 211,247 slaves. As expected, therefore, the Cuban delegates opposed such a radical plan and proposed gradual emancipation in which minimum parameters for security were established. Above all, there was a fear of an uprising like the one that occurred in nearby Haiti. The board’s reforms fell on deaf ears when a stubborn and conservative government rose to power. The road ahead thus closed off, political separation came to be seen as a viable alternative.

The abolition of slavery was inextricably tied to the revolutionary processes in Cuba and Puerto Rico, especially on the large island. On September 23, 1868, the Grito de Lares uprising in Puerto Rico, led by Puerto Rican Ramón Emeterio Betances, proclaimed the Republic of Puerto Rico. The Spanish forces gave no quarter and the insurrection was quickly crushed. Despite the setback, the abolition of slavery was included in the proclamation of the Ten Commandments of Free Men. After many setbacks and obstacles placed in the way by the slave holders and the “incondicionales,” the Grito de Yara and the Glorious Revolution in 1868 opened the way for the proclamation of a law gradually abolishing slavery, just as the Cuban reformers had proposed in the Overseas Information Board. The Moret Law, named for its author, Segismundo Moret, freed those who were born after September 17, 1868, those over age 60, and slaves owned by the state, among other measures. Slavery was finally abolished in Puerto Rico on March 22, 1873.

In Cuba, the situation was different. The owner of the Damajagua sugar mill, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, proclaimed the Republic of Cuba and freed his slaves, making them part of the liberating army. This action in western Cuba led to the first war of independence by the island, which lasted until 1878 (followed by the Little War, which lasted two additional years). The Ten Years War undermined the slave system that had its greatest support in the large plantations of western Cuba. Considering that both sides declared the slaves that participated in the war to be freed, it was expected that they would take advantage of the confusion of war to seek their own personal freedom. It was in this setting that the Spanish government acted on the Moret Law mentioned above and extended it to Puerto Rico and Cuba.

The Moret Law was the beginning of colonial efforts to abolish slavery in a gradual way. In 1880, the Council Law was passed as the final means to regulate and put off the inevitable, the absolute abolition of slavery in Cuba. The slaves would remain under the guardianship of their former owners, who would assume more responsibility for what were now called their wards. The regulation stipulated a deadline by which all the slaves in Cuba would be free. The law established the possibility of the slave buying freedom, in installment payments. Provincial and local boards were established, that in theory ensured compliance with the new law. The owners were obligated to pay a daily wage to their wards, who could take a complaint to the local or provincial boards if their bosses did not meet their obligations. The system served as a kind of intermediate step toward the abolition of slavery in Cuba. The Ten Years War, the Moret Law, and the Council Law contributed to the slow dismantling of slavery in Cuba. Finally, on October 7, 1886, the Spanish governor decreed the end of the Council Law and, therefore, slavery in Cuba.


The abolition of slavery in the Caribbean was a process of juxtapositions and ambiguities that were mainly intended to protect the interests of the landowners. In the 19th century, however, various political, economic, social and humanitarian factors came together to forge the way for the disappearance of slavery. Various theories have explained abolition from perspectives ranging from humanitarian to economic. The latter was the main vision in the thesis of historian and statesman Eric Williams of Trinidad. In his influential study, Capitalism and Slavery, he asserted that the low profitability of the slave system on the sugar plantations in the British Caribbean in the early 19th century was the main reason that the slave trade disappeared and that slavery was eventually abolished. Williams’ economics-based argument penetrated deeply into the community of historians and countered the traditional argument based on the benevolence and humanitarianism of British society. However, the historical debate about abolition was enriched further by a revision of Williams’ thesis by historians Roger Anstey and Seymour Drescher. Both questioned the quantitative premises on which Williams’ thesis was based. They argued that the slave trade was not as profitable and that the impact of the Haitian Revolution was not as disastrous for the British colonies as the Trinidadian economist had intended to show. This undermined the premises on which Williams’ thesis rested: that capitalist development and the British Industrial Revolution were products of the huge profits earned through sugar production in the Caribbean colonies.

Aside from these academic considerations, the last bastion of slavery in the Caribbean was the island of Cuba in 1886, leaving only Brazil, which abolished it two years later. The freed slaves in the Caribbean faced a period of uncertainty in which they had to adapt and survive in an environment of racial discrimination and few opportunities for work. On the other hand, the colonial economies had to adapt and maintain sugar production without one of its most valuable assets: slave labor.


Author: Hugo R. Viera Vargas, Ph.D.
Published: May 11, 2012.

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