Slavery in the Caribbean

Enslaved Africans cutting cane in Antigua, published 1823. Image reference NW0054, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. Courtesy of authors Jerome S Handler and Michael L Tuite Jr.

Sugar and slavery

The introduction of sugar cultivation to St Kitts in the 1640s and its subsequent rapid growth led to the development of the plantation economy which depended on the labour of imported enslaved Africans. African slaves became increasingly sought after to work in the unpleasant conditions of heat and humidity.  European planters thought Africans would be more suited to the conditions than their own countrymen, as the climate resembled that the climate of their homeland in West Africa. Enslaved Africans were also much less expensive to maintain than indentured European servants or paid wage labourers. 

The main reason for importing enslaved Africans was economic. In 1650 an African slave could be bought for as little as £7 although the price rose so that by 1690 a slave cost £17-22, and a century later between £40 and £50. In comparison, in the 17th century a white indentured labourer or servant would cost a planter £10 for only a few years’ work but would cost the same in food, shelter and clothing. Consequently, after 1660 very few new white servants reached St Kitts or Nevis; the Black enslaved Africans had taken their place. ( Bridenaugh and Bridenaugh 1972, 266; Edwards 1793 II, 118)

As a consequence of these events, the size of the Black population in the Caribbean rose dramatically in the latter part of the 17th century. In the 1650s when sugar started to take over from tobacco as the main cash crop on Nevis, enslaved Africans formed only 20% of the population. By the census of 1678 the Black population had risen to 3849 against a white population of 3521. By the early 18th century when sugar production was fully established nearly 80% of the population was Black. The great increase in the Black population was feared by the white plantation owners and as a result treatment often became harsher as they felt a growing need to control a larger but discontented and potentially rebellious workforce. (Fog Olwig 1993, 34)

Enslaved Africans were often treated harshly. First they had to survive the appalling conditions on the voyage from West Africa, known as the Middle Passage. The death rate was high. One recent estimate is that 12% of all Africans transported on British ships between 1701 and 1807 died en route to the West Indies and North America; others put the figure as high as 25%. Nearly 350,000 Africans were transported to the Leeward Islands by 1810  (Curtin 1969, 268, table 77)  but many died on the voyage through disease or ill treatment; some were driven by despair to commit suicide by jumping into the sea.

Once they arrived in the Caribbean islands, the Africans were prepared for sale. They were washed and their skin was oiled. Finally they were sold to local buyers. Often parents were separated from children, and husbands from wives. 

The plantation relied almost solely on an imported enslaved workforce, and became an agricultural factory concentrating on one profitable crop for sale. Enslaved Africans were forced to engage in a variety of laborious activities, all of them back-breaking. The work in the fields was gruelling, with long hours spent in the hot sun, supervised by overseers who were quick to use the whip. Tasks ranged from clearing land, planting cane, and harvesting canes by hand, to manuring and weeding. The plantation relied on an imported enslaved workforce, rather than family labour, and became an agricultural factory concentrating on one profitable crop for sale.

Inside the plantation works, the conditions were often worse, especially the heat of the boiling house. Additionally, the hours were long, especially at harvest time. The death rate on the plantations was high, a result of overwork, poor nutrition and work conditions, brutality and disease. Many plantation owners preferred to import new slaves rather than providing the means and conditions for the survival of their existing slaves.  Until the Amelioration Act was passed in 1798, which forced planters to improve conditions for enslaved workers, many owners simply replaced the casualties by importing more slaves from West Africa.

(Bridenaugh and Bridenaugh 1972, 266; Edwards 1793 II, 118)