Essay on Caribbean Colonization History: Labour and the Sugar Revolution

Published: 2021/11/05
Number of words: 1608

Sugar production in the Caribbean was a significant part of the European economy in periods before the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Sugar was outsourced from the Caribbean, and the lands in the region were covered by sugarcane plants and mills used to refine the sugarcane (Forte 48). Similar, in those periods, there was a great demand for sugar in Europe, and Europeans sought land and labour to fill the shortage of sugar production the Caribbean was fertile and fit for large scale sugar production. Sugarcane was not initially cultivated in the Caribbean; however, the region provided good lands vital to large scale sugarcane production. Sufficient access to labour was also critical in the production of sugar. The producers had to have enough manpower in production estates to cater to the shortage and demand for sugar in Europe (Forte 48). But, sugarcane production was not that easy; in fact, reports suggest that most workers died while working in the fields. Likewise, the working conditions were harsh and demanding but to be effective; labour was an essential requirement. Physical, skilled, unskilled, and mental labour was vital in sugar production in the Caribbean.

Early sugar production in the Caribbean was done in Barbados in the 1640s. The producers often used a mixture of convicts and prisoners from Europe and enslaved individuals from mainland Africa (Higman 215). Sugar production was profitable, and it rapidly spread through different regions in the Caribbean and North America. Initially, Spanish sugar producers employed Indian slaves in sugar production farms; however, devastating epidemics and sparse population made it clear that native labour was insufficient. There was a need to bring in a massive workforce from other places. An increased number of slaves was sailed from Africa to the Caribbean in 1512 to fill the insufficiency. More importantly, the Europeans came with other things, including technology and ideas, a process that Audra Diptée refers to as the Colombian exchange (3a_Early Settlement_1550-1640, Part 1 4:54). Before long, the terms sugar and slavery were indelibly connected to this scenario, an instance that lasted until the end of the 1900s (Higman 216). The slaves and the European prisoners were subjected to physical and mental labour in the fields; they were expected to cut the plan and carry it to the boiling and extraction houses. Slaves toiled in the farms and boiling houses and supplied the required amount of labour needed. At times, the slaves were denied the luxury of sleep.

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The plantation system developed in the Caribbean broadly divided the region into large areas suitable for farming (Higman 214). In like manner, the region’s economy became dependent on sugar production. The need for agricultural labour led to substantial demand for slaves, with every passing day decreasing due to the increasing number of deaths. Sugarcane production in the Caribbean also led to the development of a sharply divided society along class lines. In the South, the distinction between the wealthy and the poor was more significant than in the North. Some colonies and a few wealthy landowners owned a bulk of the land, while most of the population included poor farmers, indentured servants, and slaves. Sugarcane farms owned by wealthy individuals utilized advanced technology and a unique industrial labour discipline. Beckles agree that in the periods between 1650 and 1750 sugarcane farms included sophisticated methods of production (40). Others intensively utilized production factors that contributed to the creation of an economic enterprise (Beckles 40). According to Audra Diptée’s “Sugar Revolution,” most farms employed indentured servants who were only allowed to work for a specific period; they were paid and were allowed to leave (18:51). However, the indentured servant system only applied to skilled European labourers. Over five hundred thousand Europeans are believed to have gone to the Caribbean as indentured servants before 1840.

As stated above, sugarcane was a foreign crop introduced to the Caribbean islands by European settlers. Tobacco, on the other hand, was more prevalent and was a native American crop (Smith 389). The tobacco crop had been domesticated by native American people years before the Europeans arrived in the Caribbean. According to Audra’s podcast termed “4b_Early Settlement, 1550 – 1640, Part 2,” tobacco was relatively easy to grow and required less processing (20:41). Also, the people in this region smoked tobacco for numerous reasons, including social and religious reasons, and the plant’s use was widespread among the Americas. The people cultivated tobacco on a small scale, and because the soil was fertile and the climate was optimum with a daily temperature of 20 and 30-degree Celsius, much labour was not required (Mohan, and Strobl 13). The combination of suitable climatic conditions, fertile soil, and other necessary factors made tobacco cultivation require less labour. In most Spanish and Portuguese colonies, tobacco was cultivated for local consumption, but other territories engaged in the tobacco exportation. In Venezuela, for instance, tobacco was highly prized and attracted much foreign attraction. Nonetheless, all these changed with the introduction of sugarcane. More importantly, the introduction of sugarcane and sugar production in Barbados, an island with a tremendous beginning, degraded tobacco’s value. European settlers switched from tobacco to sugar production, which created an enormous amount of wealth for them.

For the first time, the wealth created by sugarcane was desired, and most tobacco farms were transformed into sugarcane plantations. More significantly, the introduction of sugarcane production in the Caribbean in the 1550s and its subsequent rapid growth led to the establishment of the plantation economy, which highly depended on labour, particularly the labour provided by enslaved Africans (McGrath 33). Farm owners increasingly sought after African slaves to work in their extensive sugarcane plantations. Many also believed that African slaves could survive the unpleasant conditions of heat and humidity that was much hostile for indigenous slaves. Similarly, as the Caribbean situation mirrored the climate prevailing in West Africa, European planters realized that African slaves would be more suitable for farm conditions than their countrymen.

Another reason why most European sugar producers switched to utilizing African slaves was the notion that enslaved Africans were cheap to maintain than indentured European servants who required wages (McGrath 41). In addition to demanding wages, most indentured servants were leaving their work to start their businesses and to colonize Caribbean other lands that were widely available. Once the slaves arrived from Africa, they were often washed and oiled and finally sold to major sugarcane plantations (McGrath 41). Children were often separated from their parents and wives from their husbands. Enslaved Africans were usually engaged in forced labour, which included various strenuous activities, which was back-breaking. The tasks were gruesome, and slaves were often required to work long hours in the hot scorching sun. In most cases, African slaves were needed to clear planting lands, plant canes, and harvest the canes by hand.

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The conditions were harsher in the boiling houses, and death rates were high due to overworking, diseases, poor nutrition, and brutal treatment. Over 800 000 African slaves had been shipped from their African homes to the Caribbean by 1800. Most were sent to Jamaica, and others were imported into Virginia and Chesapeake in America (Burnard, and Morgan 221). The exact number of enslaved Africans that were forcefully transported by European traders across the Atlantic between the 15th and late 19th centuries has, over the years, trigger increased debates. It is challenging to estimate the exact number as many slaves transported from mainland Africa did not survive the voyage. A current report estimates 11.8 million departures, and only 10.3 million slaves arrived in the Americas. According to this report, over one million slaves died on the voyage.

The introduction of sugar production in the Caribbean in the 1550s brought tremendous changes in the region. In like manner, it triggered unwanted changes in areas such as West Africa where slaved were sourced. Slaves were critical in the production of sugar, and the labour they supplied helped enrich European plantations. Over ten million African slaves were shipped from Africa to work in sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. On arrival, these slaves were subjected to physical labour under challenging and often demanding conditions. African slaves were usually required to clear planting lands, plant canes, and harvest the canes by hand. Many slaves died as a result of this. Similarly, there were European farms that utilized advanced technology and well established industrial labour disciplines. Other plantations featured advanced production and processing integration. Also, sophisticated production factors were used, an aspect that activated the world’s most developed economic enterprises. The shift from indigenous slaves to African slaves was attributed to the intense mortality rate associated with extreme working conditions. African slaves were required to fill or replace those who had died.

Works Cited

Beckles, Hilary. “Plantation Production and Proto-White Slavery: White Indentured Servants and The Colonization of the English West Indies.” Americas, vol. 41, 1985, pp. 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, vol. 58, no. 1, 2001, pp. 205-228.

Forte, Maximilian C. “Extinction: Ideologies Against Indigeneity in the Caribbean.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 4, 2006, pp. 46-69.

Higman, B. W. “The Sugar Revolution.” The Economic History Review, vol. 53, no. 2, 2000, pp. 213-236.

McGrath, Siobhán. “Fuelling Global Production Networks with Slave Labour: Migrant Sugar Cane Workers in The Brazilian Ethanol GPN.” Geoforum, vol. 44, 2013, pp. 32-43.

Mohan, Preeya, and Eric Strobl. “The Economic Impact of Hurricanes in History: Evidence from Sugar Exports in The Caribbean from 1700 To 1960.” Weather, Climate, And Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2013, pp. 5-13.

Smith, Frederick H. “Sugar Cane Capitalism and Environmental Transformation: An Archaeology of Colonial Nevis, West Indies, By Marco G. Meniketti.” New West Indian Guide, vol. 92, no. 3-4, 2018, pp. 389-390.

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