Slave Labor On Sugar Plantation In The Caribbean 1500 – 1800

The establishment of an independent Dutch nation in Europe had a major impact on the distribution of slaves and plantations in America. The long Dutch struggle from the 1590s to the 1640s against Spanish domination would profoundly affect Portugal, Africa, and Brazil.

Because the Dutch had become deeply involved in the Brazilian sugar industry, Portuguese America was initially protected from Dutch imperial pretensions (Deerr, 1949-50). As early as 1602 the Dutch had established their East Indies Company to seize control of Portugal’s Asian spice trade. That competition was not peaceful and involved constant attacks by the Dutch on Portuguese shipping and Pacific commercial networks. With the foundation of their West Indies Company in 1621, the Dutch decided to compete directly in Africa and America with the Portuguese. In a systematic campaign to capture both Brazilian and African possessions, the Dutch West Indies Company sent the first of many war fleets into the South Atlantic in 1624. They temporarily captured the town of Salvador and with it Brazil’s second largest sugar-producing province of Bahia. But a year later, a combined Spanish-Portuguese armada succeeded in recapturing the province. In 1627 a second Dutch West Indies Company fleet attempted to take Recife, Brazil’s premier sugar port and center of the province of Pernambuco, the colony’s richest sugar plantation region. The next step in this competition was to deny Brazil access to its sources of African slaves. Thus new expeditions were mounted by the Company to seize Portuguese African possessions, which also resulted in the Dutch themselves becoming a dominant power in the Atlantic slave trading system. The seizure of Pernambuco and the Portuguese African settlements by the Dutch affected sugar production and the slave system in both Brazil and the rest of America. For Brazil, the Dutch occupation resulted in Bahia replacing Pernambuco as the leading slave and sugar province, it led to the reemergence of Indian slavery, and the ensuing interior slave trade opened up the interior regions of Brazil to exploitation and settlement. For the rest of America, Dutch Brazil would become the source for the tools, techniques, credit and slaves which would carry the sugar revolution into the West Indies, thereby terminating Brazil’s monopoly position in European markets and leading to the creation of wealthy new American colonies for France and England.

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At the same time the Dutch stranglehold over African slave sources reduced supplies and sent prices up. Brazilian planters once more resorted to Indian slave labor, which the Crown temporarily permitted. The source of slaves was now no longer the Tupi speakers of the coast, but distant interior tribes of various linguistic families. In terms of the rest of America, the Dutch control in Pernambuco led to their active intervention in the overseas West Indies settlements of the French and English. Though the fighting between the Dutch and Portuguese in the interior reduced Pernambuco’s role as the region’s leading sugar producer, it still sent a large quantity of sugar into the European market and revived Dutch sugar commercialization networks, which had been badly disrupted by the previous Iberian closure of their trade to Brazil. In need of furnishing their Amsterdam refineries with American sugar, especially after the precipitous post-1645 drop in Pernambuco production, the Dutch began to bring slaves and the latest milling equipment to the British and French settlers in the Caribbean (Barrett, 1965), and carried their sugar into the European market. In the 1640s, Dutch planters with Pernambuco experience arrived in Barbados as well as Martinique and Guadeloupe to introduce modern milling and production techniques. Dutch slavers provided the credit to the local planters to buy African slaves, while Dutch West Indian freighters hauled the finished sugar to the refineries in Amsterdam.

Even more dramatically came actual mass migration of Dutch planters and their slaves to these islands in 1654 when Pernambuco and Olinda finally fell to the Portuguese troops. In Guadeloupe some 600 Dutchmen and their 300 slaves arrived in this period, and an equal number landed in Martinique. It was these transplanted Dutchmen who proved decisive in effectively implanting the sugar plantation system on the islands.

The most successful of these new settlements were those planted by the English, French, and Dutch in the abandoned islands of the Lesser Antilles from the 1620s to the 1640s. Using every style of settlement practice from private companies to fiefdoms, the English and French attempted to settle these uninhabited islands with white European laborers, who mostly came as indentured (or engagé) workers. The transformation, which sugar created in the West Indies was truly impressive. The first of the big production islands was Barbados (Ligon, 1657), which probably experienced the most dramatic change. In 1645, on the eve of the big shift into sugar, over 60 percent of the 18,300 white males were property owners, and there were only 5,680 slaves. Total white population had declined from some 37,000 to some 17,000, and for the first time in the island’s history blacks outnumbered whites. By 1680 there were 37,000 slaves on the island–(almost all of whom were African-born)–some 350 sugar estates, and production had climbed to 8,000 tons of sugar per annum.

The experience of the French islands was similar to that of Barbados, though the changes occurred at a slower rate. By 1670 Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Christopher islands had some 300 sugar estates and were producing close to 12,000 metric tons of sugar yearly. Increasing sugar production brought with it increasing slave arrivals and by 1683 the major French islands had some 20,000 slaves. These were mostly carried to the islands by French slave traders who had recently penetrated the Senegambia region of Africa.

The wealth from the sugar trade not only attracted new capital and new slaves to the West Indies (Parry and Sherlock, 1966) but it also gave northern Europeans the incentive to directly attack settled Spanish possessions. Though the English failed in their attack on well-defended Santo Domingo, they did take the lightly held island of Jamaica. By the end of the 17th century, then, a whole new sugar and slave complex had emerged in the French and British West Indies (Sheridan, 1973). This left Spanish America as the third major area of importation, with some 350,000 to 400,000 slaves arriving in these two centuries. The struggling English and French colonies of North America were still relatively small importers of slaves, probably accounting for fewer than 30,000 before 1700.

The West Indies plantation regime began on islands like Martinique and Barbados, which because of soil quality and hilly terrains had difficulty developing very large units. Though the tendency was to move toward ever larger estates, the industry in the late 17th century looked in terms of acreage and size of work force much like that in the Brazilian sugar zones. Fifty or so slaves per plantation was the norm. By the 1730s and 1740s, when first Jamaica and then Saint Domingue replaced Barbados and Martinique as the largest sugar producers in their respective colonial empires (Beer, 1908, p. 413), the average estate began reaching the over-200-acre range, the number of slaves per plantation was approaching 100, and the modern West Indian plantation system was in full place. This size, which became typical for major Caribbean sugar plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries, whether French, British, or later Spanish, was unique by the standards of the other slave societies in the Americas.

Both islands got off to a slow start and were overshadowed by their respective original production islands, Barbados and Martinique. By 1703, while the white population had stabilized at some 8,000 persons, the number of slaves had climbed to 45,000. By 1720, when the slave population of Jamaica had climbed to 74,000 persons, the island had become the most populous slave colony in the British West Indies. Population increased by 12,000 slaves in the next decade, and by 1740 the 100,000 mark had been passed. In 1768 the slave population reached 167,000, while the white population had grown to only 18,000. With the growth in population had come an increase in the number of sugar plantations, a growth in their average size and also an increase in output per unit. In this decade Jamaica was producing 36,000 tons of sugar per annum, four times the output of Barbados (though 15,000 tons less than annual production in Saint Domingue). By the 1740s, when Jamaica replaced Barbados as the premier English sugar producer, an average sugar estate had 99 slaves, and three-quarters of the island’s slave population was now employed in sugar. By the 1770s an average estate held 204 slaves.

Along with this growth and concentration of the slave population came a change in the acreage of the sugar estate and an increasing concentration of ownership. The average sugar estate was 327 acres in 1670, with half the estates being 99 acres or less; in 1724 the average estate contained 1,147 acres, and half the owners had 499 acres or less. In 1670 there were only two planters out of the 724 enumerated sugar estate owners who owned more than 5,000 acres, and they held only 6 percent of the total lands dedicated to sugar. Also diversified commercial foodstuffs production for local consumption, which was a major occupation of Peruvian blacks, hardly existed in societies, which were so dependent on foreign imports or slave subsistence production for all their basic food supplies.

Certain features of plantation society, however, were special to either Jamaica or the British West Indies. Jamaica, for example, had few blacks or mulattoes who were free, and these free colored were a distinct minority even of the small free population. In terms of plantation size and structure, Jamaica was an extreme example of monoproduction for export, with sugar accounting for over three-quarters of the value of all exports. The Jamaican sugar estate, while organized like all others in its use of slaves, was larger than elsewhere, with a typical work force of over 200 slaves.

Saint Domingue demonstrated many of the patterns of growth set by Jamaica. It took Saint Domingue something like eighty years from its definitive settlement to overtake Martinique, in terms of slave population and the quantity of sugar exported. At that time its total population of 8,000 was exactly half of Martinique’s, and only 2,000 of that number were slaves. Martinique then had 58,000 slaves and Saint Domingue had only half that number. By 1740 the size of its slave labor force had passed that of Martinique by a considerable margin, and Saint Domingue’s 117,000 slaves represented close to half of the 250,000 French slaves now found in the French West Indies. Growth of the white population continued, but, as in the case of the English islands, it slowed considerably as the Black population started increasing at such impressive rates. Unlike the British West Indies, Saint Domingue also developed a relatively powerful, if small, class of free colored persons who made up almost half of the 26,000 free population on the island.

By the middle of the 18th century it was clear that Saint Domingue was the dominant island in the Caribbean. It was the greatest sugar-producing colony in America, it now held the largest West Indian slave population, and it was also quickly becoming the world’s largest producer of coffee, which had only been introduced into the island in 1723. By the late 1780s Saint Domingue planters were recognized as the most efficient and productive sugar producers in the world. The slave population stood at 460,000 people, which was not only the largest of any island but represented dose to half of the one million slaves then being held in all the Caribbean colonies. In any one year well over 600 vessels visited the ports of the island to carry its sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo, and cacao to European consumers.

As is obvious from this trajectory of the history of production and population growth, Saint Domingue began to differ substantially from Jamaica by the middle decades of the 18th century. The rise of the French and British sugar colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries had been made possible by the dynamic intervention of the Dutch in the first half of the 17th century. Until the late 1650s the British and French West Indies had been dependent upon Dutch assistance in all aspects of production, commercialization, and the provisioning of their African slave laborers. By the end of the 17th century, British and French slave traders, acting as free traders without resort to formal factories as in the case of their Portuguese and Dutch rivals, seized a major share of the West African slave trade.

This growing imperial power of the British and French soon brought them into direct conflict with their former Dutch partners. Though political ambitions outpaced economic reality, by the last quarter of the 17th century French and English production, shipping, and marketing organization was sufficiently important to break the dependence on the Dutch not only in the European sugar markets but even in the provisioning of slaves from Africa. By the beginning of the 18th century, only the Portuguese traders came close to the English and French levels of participation in the African slave trade.

Thus the rise of the French and British West Indies slave plantation economy ended the importance of the Netherlands as a major American factor in the production and marketing of plantation staples. This growth was also at the expense of Brazilian sugar production and the role of Brazilian sugar in the markets of Europe. Not only were the French and British islands both equaling Brazilian would halt the West Indian trade to Europe. Thus in the 1760s Brazilian sugar captured about 8 percent of Europe’s market for sugar and in the warfare of the 1790s took a 15 percent share of the market. This continued vitality of the Bahian and Rio de Janeiro sugar plantations guaranteed that even with the massive growth of mineral exports in the 18th century, when Brazil became the world’s greatest single source for gold, sugar still represented the single most valuable Brazilian export and accounted for half the value of its total exports.

Thus by the middle of the 18th century the slave plantation system, based primarily on sugar production, had been firmly implanted in America. It now accounted for something like 1.4 million slaves, both African and American born. This was at a minimum some 40 percent of the 3.5 million African and Afro-American slaves to be found in America, and it represented the single largest occupation in which the slaves were employed.

Though late 18th-century contemporaries sometimes argued that free labor was more efficient and productive than slave labor, it was clear that white labor would not work on plantations. The organization of plantation labor was probably one of the most efficient labor systems then operating in the Western world. Women did almost all the same physical labor as men. From small children to aged persons, everyone was assigned a task commensurate with physical abilities. The result of this use of slaves was that plantation populations had among the highest levels of economically active relative to total population ever recorded. The distribution of tasks on the plantation shows both consistency across crop types as well as some surprising differences from our classic images of the plantation. Sugar, because of the existence of manufacturing facilities on the plantation, had a higher share of skilled and semi-skilled labor that was not related to field labor. Only between 50 and 60 percent of the total slaves were engaged in field labor related to production of agricultural crops. On a typical 18th-century sugar plantation in Jamaica only 60 percent of the plantation’s slaves worked in the field. Ten percent of the workers were involved in milling and refining the sugar, and less than 2 percent were servants in the master’s household. Even more surprising is the fact that in all work gangs women dominated. On an 18th-century Jamaican sugar estate fieldhands were grouped into four gangs based on their relative youth and vigor, and women represented approximately 60 percent in every one of these gangs, from the first or so-called “great” gang to the fourth or “weeding” gang.

Although the traditional literature placed much emphasis on the household slaves, these proved to be a surprisingly small part of the total labor force in all plantation zones. No more than 2 to 4 percent of the slaves on any 17th- or 18th-century plantation were recorded as domestics. By the 1780s, then, the plantation system was in place in Brazil and the Caribbean, and it dominated slavery in America. Close to a million and a half slaves then resident in America lived on sugar plantations. The plantation zones of dense black and mulatto populations ruled over by a few whites became the norm for the Caribbean islands as well as the mainland colonies. Also common to the French and British colonies was the lack of a significant class of freedmen among the slaves. In the 18th century, free colored were less than 10 percent of the 380,000 slaves in the British West Indies, a ratio found as well among the 575,000 slaves in the British continental colonies of North America. In the French islands the free colored numbered but 36,000 compared with the 660,000 slaves. In contrast the free colored in the late 18th century were already an important part of the plantation world and its environs in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. By 1780 in Brazil, for example, there were 406,000 freed persons of slave descent and 1.5 million slaves.

Despite differences in the ratios between whites, free colored, and slaves among the colonial powers, the sugar plantation system itself–its means of production, its organization of tasks and its distribution of workers by types of occupations–remained fairly constant through time and across national boundaries. Sugar plantations were most commonly run with 100 or so slaves, though they differed in size from the 50-slave model in the Spanish mainland to the over 200-slave size in Jamaica. Despite this range, they all shared such basic labor features as the lack of a sexual division of labor in fieldwork, the use of supervised “gangs” for routinized tasks, and the distribution of slaves between skilled and unskilled occupations. Although sugar was sometimes produced by non-slave labor, almost all milled sugar was the product of slave toil, and no American society seemed capable of exporting sugar except with the use of African slave workers. Though labor arrangements would differ for other crops, as the early coffee plantations in Saint Domingue demonstrated, the basic features established by the Brazilian and Caribbean sugar estates proved the standard for the next century of slave plantation labor.