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Conversations with America The West Indies

Updated on April 21, 2011

Conversations with America: A Digression

The simplified representation of colonial trade is dominated by the Triangular trade, by which slaves were turned into sugar which was turned into rum which funded further purchases of slaves in Africa1.  This route of trade is easy to remember, and certainly teachers spend a lot of time with it in middle and high school.  However, the very simplicity, and hence comprehensibility, of the diagram serve to mask the importance of the West Indies in American slavery.  It was not only a source of sugar, although the sugar plantations of the Indies, especially of Haiti, made it a source of great wealth for European proprietors, but also a preferred slave source.  The West Indies broke Africans to their new condition, and such 'seasoned' slaves were preferred to slaves brought directly from Africa; slave-owners considered the seasoned slaves less likely to revolt, and less dangerous if they did. 

According to a team of historians led by David Eltis, approximately 12.5 million Africans were brought as slaves into the Americas from the Spanish conquest to 1873. The transport and sale of African slaves was a lucrative business, and the trade formed one important source of wealth in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe2.  In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram, the family patriarch, departs to attend to his Antigua plantation, exhibiting another way in which slaves made Europe rich and a difference in the manner West Indian and Southern American plantations were maintained.  The brutality of slavery in this novel provides the material wealth that allows for a comedy of manners, and Sir Thomas, like the great landlords of Ireland during the Famine, does not reside on his plantation, but in English comfort, where the savagery of the system is not a present fact, but a distant consideration overwhelmed by the calculus of profits, dowries, and status.  The Caribbean: a good place to make money, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Many issues dealt with in the American colonies and in the years of the early Republic first appeared on the Caribbean islands.  The Spaniards were the first European presence in the Caribbean with sizeable populations on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (an island now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Jamaica.  Their European rivals soon appeared in the region as well and Spain was not able to sustain its monopoly over the New World and the Caribbean.  The transference of European rivalries and conflicts into New World landscapes also occurred in the territories of the future United States, as did the plantation economy with its reliance on slaves.  English slave trader-adventurers, such as John Hawkins, participated in the development of Spanish colonial slavery by providing contraband slaves directly to the colonies, despite the Spanish crown's attempts to control their importation.  The money was too good to ignore, and worth the risks if caught by Spanish officials. 

The Caribbean was open to Europe in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch Republic, France, and England all took islands of their own.  By 1640 the Dutch were in Tobago, Curacao, and St. Eustatius, with a government supported trading company actively promoting the slave trade.  At the same time, the French Company of the Islands of America colonized Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Marie Galante; later France added St. Lucia and Grenada to their possessions.  England seized the islands it could: St. Chirstopher, Barbados, Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, and, physically driving out the Spaniards, England's prize, Jamaica.  These islands and their populations of decimated Indians and kidnapped Africans became pawns in a European game of diplomacy and power, simultaneously providing Europe with the profits of the plantations and the slave trade. 

Statistics show a rapid increase in the black population of the Caribbean islands, but this was not due to the fertility of the slave population itself.  In the Caribbean, planters found it easier to purchase new slaves than to rely upon the reproductive abilities of the slaves they already had.  West Indian slaves died en masse.  For example, in one year 2,656 Africans were born on the island of St. Vincent.  That same year, 4,205 Africans died.  Malnutrition, overwork, sadistic treatment and even more sadistic punishments, disease, and complications of otherwise survivable conditions caused by all these resulted in a plantation system that was kept alive only by the continuing importation of more and more slaves.

The West Indies were not fit to live in, at least not for Europeans.  They were hot and unhealthy.  While Africans, Europeans claimed, were accustomed to such conditions, Europeans were not and rapidly lost their vigor and their morals on the islands.  The deadly nature of the climate was so well known to Englishmen that Oliver Cromwell shipped some 12,000 Irish to Barbadoes between 1648 and 16553.  As Cromwell was not fond of the Irish Catholics, we must assume he meant these men and women no good.  The ambitious and the adventurous went to the West Indies to gain their fortune, but they did not intend to stay, and so the large landholders, the wealthy men and women of the islands, did not live there, did not build an infrastructure or attend to the social, economic, and political conditions surrounding their possessions.  Like Austen's Sir Thomas, the absentee landlords of the West Indies attended to the islands only when their plantations encountered difficulties, imperiling their incomes.

This was the birthplace of the Southern plantation.  The treatment of slaves in the West Indies was sadistic, partaking of the casual brutality of the Spaniards towards the Indians in Cuba and a dread systematization in legal codes.  The outnumbered white population of the islands lived in fear of their black 'property', and the idea of a slave as a thing is probably an inappropriate metaphor: things do not attack you on their own, but are impelled to strike you by some external force.  Whites feared the slaves would rise on their own and wreak a terrible vengeance on their captors.  In law, the slave was less a thing than a beast, as noted by Paul Outka4.  Slaves were dangerous because, despite all efforts to dehumanize them, to physically and psychologically 'break' them to their new, unnatural condition, they retained agency, even if it was severely limited, and they could use this agency against their masters. 

Slavery was established, and African slaves were imported in sufficient numbers to threaten the whites of the West Indies.  In 1673, Jamaica had a population of 10,000 blacks and 8,000 whites.  In 1775, Jamaica had a population of 200,000 slaves and 18,000 whites.  English planters at home pressured Parliament and gained an 'Act to regulate the Negroes on the British Plantations', the Africans described as 'of wild, barbarous and savage nature to be controlled only with strict severity', in 1667.  According to the provisions of this act, slaves could not travel away from the plantation without a pass, nor could they possess any weapons.  An owner who whipped a slave to death incurred no punishment, while a slave who struck a white person was whipped on the first offense, and branded on the face upon a second.  The French had their Code Noir, and, compared to the English and Dutch versions, it was humane, but only in comparison to codes that were extremely inhumane.

The actions of colonists living on the islands when provoked by fear exceeded even the harsh measures imposed by the laws.  For example, in 1790 Vincent Oge, a wealthy mulatto, and others were found guilty of conspiracy in Santo Domingo (modern Haiti).  The French Revolution threatened to change the world, and Oge and his fellow conspirators were sure that the Revolution meant an end to discrimination against free men based on color alone.  The captured rebels had their arms, legs, and spines broken with clubs as they hung on a scaffold.  They were then fastened to a wheel, where the judge ordered they remain until they died.  Upon their deaths, their heads were put on poles and displayed.  The white lords of Santo Domingo were not ready for the rights of man.

Private punishments outside of the law, when slaves were under the hand of the overseer or in rare instances the owner, were, if anything, worse than anything provided for by the law.  Planters inserted gunpowder into a slaves anus and lit it.  Planters could, and apparently did, exert any force in controlling their slaves and in punishing them that seemed to them, in their individual judgment, fit, right, or merely amusing5.  In the interest of controlling slaves through terror, no effort was too extreme, and yet, all failed.  Slaves continued to rebel, to use poisons, to murder, and to conspire.  They continued to run away, forming self-sustaining communities, a few successful enough to survive and to force colonial governments to recognize their independent existence.  One rebellion would establish the North American world's second republic, and the only black republic born of a successful slave rebellion: Haiti.

Now, at last, we get to the key connection between American plantations in the south and the West Indies.  They were connected by 'seasoning', that period of adjustment covering 3 to 4 years, after which the slave was considered a practiced, well-trained hand.  These were the slaves Southern plantation owners desired, not the weak who would not survive the 3 or 4 years of seasoning and not the dangerous Africans whose memories of freedom and attachment to it were too strong.  There was also an internal trade in seasoned slaves.  British Jamaica, for example, sent over 10,000 slaves to Cuba in 1756 alone.  90,331 slaves were imported by the British of the Indies in 1784-1787; 19,964 were exported.  Of course, the West Indies slave trade was not able to satisfy the hunger for labor in North America; the Indies had a hunger for labor itself.  However, the movement of seasoned slaves throughout the West Indies, into North America, and into Latin America and South America, indicate that the slave trade cannot be adequately represented by the Triangle Trade, despite the ease with which that route can be memorized and framed into a question in a standard multiple-choice test. 


  1. By and large, Europeans took advantage of African slave systems and tribal rivalries to their own benefit in acquiring slaves.  This was a simpler, more economical route to gaining slaves than all-white slave raids.  However, the European involvement in the African slave trade disrupted the social and cultural systems of the Africans involved, threatening the powers of the chiefs, whose power in many tribes was based on their ability to provide and deny material goods, and increasing the frequency of wars as a means to gain captives for the trade.  The transformation of culturally sanctioned and regulated forms of slavery within Africa into the first step in an international trade in human flesh resulted in wide-ranging and unforeseen consequences for all the tribes involved.
  2. Much of the information for this essay is drawn from From Slavery to Freedom: a history of African Americans, 9th edition, by John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a good survey of African American history readily available.  In fact, where I do not indicate otherwise, assume that the information was drawn from the second chapter of that text.  Eltis's statistical study's results are available online at: .
  3. Painter, Nell Irvin.  The History of White People. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2010.  A must read!  In her introduction, Ms. Painter writes: "race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm."  The book examines the expansion of the term 'white' (the Irish and the Italians were not always white, for example) and the utility of the Other 'black' in achieving this.
  4. Outka, Paul. Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 55, where he writes that the slave was property as a domestic animal, with the same agency and voice as such an animal.  Outka's book is an interesting look at the different ways in which the American landscape is seen by whites and by blacks, conditioned by history and their different experiences of it.
  5. The sadism of slavery in the West Indies is Bosch-like in its horror and distance from what we consider normal morality, even the normal morality of a slave state.  I think what makes it exceptionally disturbing is the extent to which men and women in the Indies actively invented increasingly painful and humiliating punishments.  Many seemed to delight in their roles as the punisher and executioner of other beings, and they did so in ways that they would not have thought appropriate in butchering a beast.  And this is where I disagree with Outka.  I do not think the slave was considered property, not really.  Legally, the slave was property, equal to any beast on one's farm, however, the planters knew the slaves were not beasts.  One does not go to such extremes to punish a beast, nor does one take such great pleasure in doing so.  Mankind only enjoys the power to kill, to humiliate, and to torment to this extent where the victim is also human.


From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 9th Edition
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 9th Edition

High quality survey history of African Americans from the Spanish arrival through the election of Barack Obama. This textbook is well-organized, well-researched and lavishly illustrated.



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