Martin Carter
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Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Slavery in the British and French Caribbean

Slavery in the British and French Caribbean was the Slavery in the parts of the Caribbean dominated by France or the British Empire. The Lesser Antilles islands of Barbados, Antigua, Martinique and Guadeloupe were the first important slave societies of the Caribbean, switching to slavery by the end of the 16th century as their economies converted from tobacco to sugar production. By the middle of the 17th century, British Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue had become the largest and most brutal slave societies of the region, rivaling Brazil as a destination for enslaved Africans.

The death rates for black slaves in these islands were higher than birth rates. Three out of four babies born into slavery died before the age of five. The main reason why the birth rates were lower than the death rate was because many slaves were over worked. Slaves had to use axes to cut down trees and burn brush to clear land for sugar plantations. They also had to crush sugar canes and remove liquid from them. After that they had to boil and clarify the liquid until it crystallised into sugar. Slaves also had poor living conditions and consequently they contracted many diseases.

Caribbean slavery gave the masters a complete freedom over the control of his slave. The low birth rates and high death rates caused the Caribbean island population to decrease. Slaves worked from sun up until sun down, with little medical care. Caribbean slaves often worked on cane estates suffering hardship in harsh conditions and supervised under demanding masters. The sugar industry caused the need for complete control the master needed over the slaves in order to meet demands and control the harvest. The Caribbean islands used a factory-like system to mass produce sugar production.

The factors mentioned above were perhaps the main cause of low birth rates among Caribbean slaves, as life was extremely hard in every aspect of their survival. But there is another possible reason for the low birth rate among slaves in the Caribbean. It is possible that females simply didn't want to bring new life into their existing world. Author Jan Rogozinski briefly mentions this in his book, "A Brief History of the Caribbean." He states that "Perhaps slave mothers simply did not see much point in raising children solely to provide labourers for their masters" (p. 142). This had been another form of slave rebellion against their masters. Slaves sang songs insulting their white masters and, in some cases, they would simply pretend to be ignorant or stupid (thus conforming to their master's preconceptions) to avoid punishment and further work. These factors may suggest that an unwillingness to bear children was a further act of resistance.

With the abolition of the Slave trade in 1807, the new British colony of Trinidad was left with a severe shortage of labour. This was exacerbated by the abolition of slavery in 1833. To deal with this problem Trinidad imported indentured servants from the 1830s until 1917. Initially Chinese, free West Africans, and Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported, but they were soon supplanted by Indians. In addition, large numbers of ex-slaves migrated from the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad.

The first announcement from Whitehall in England that slaves would be totally freed by 1840 was made in 1833. In the meantime, slaves on plantations were expected to remain were they were and work as "apprentices" for the next six years.

Trinidad was to demonstrate the successful use of non-violent protest and passive resistance almost a hundred years before Mahatma Gandhi's campaign in India. On 1st of August 1834, a unarmed group of mainly elderly negroes being addressed by the Governor at Government House about the new laws, began chanting: "Pas de six ans. Point de six ans" ("Not six years. No six years"), drowning out the voice of the Governor. Peaceful protests continued until a resolution to abolish apprentiship was passed and de facto freedom was achieved. Full emancipation for all was finally legally granted ahead of schedule on 1st August, 1838, making Trinidad the first British colony with slaves to completely abolish slavery.


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