Slavery in the British and French Caribbean
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In the Caribbean, Great Britain colonised the islands of St. Kitts and Barbados in 1623 and 1627 respectively, and later, Jamaica in 1655. These and other Caribbean colonies became the center of wealth and the focus of the slave trade for the growing British Empire.
In France the slaving interest was based in Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and Le Havre during the years 1763 to 1792. The men involved defended their business against the abolition movement of 1789. The 'négriers' were merchants who specialized in funding and directing cargoes of black captives to the Caribbean colonies, which had high death rates and needed a continuous fresh supply. The négriers intermarried with each other's families; most were Protestants. Their derogatory and patronizing approach toward blacks immunized them from moral criticism. They strongly opposed to the application of the Declaration of Rights of Man to blacks. While they ridiculed the slaves as dirty and savage, they often took a black mistress. The French government paid a bounty on each captive sold to the colonies, which made the business profitable and patriotic.
Creole women in the French Caribbean
This section is entirely based on Jacqueline Couti's book Dangerous Creole Liaisons, Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses from 1806 to 1897. Creole women were an essential part of the history of the slavery period in the French Caribbean and especially on Martinique Island as well as in France. Creole women always have been a source of exoticism and adventure for people in the mainland, in the French imaginary, their sensuality represented this exoticism related to Martinique and French Caribbean islands in general as they looked different and were believed to have different sexual practices as white French women at the time (due to their African and Native origins). As Creole women were slaves, the masters would turn to them to fulfill their sexual desires and leave behind white French women. The ideal woman at the time was a white pure mother explaining the reason why so many slave owners turned to Creole women, hence abandoning their duties as fathers according to the French beliefs and traditions. Authors like Traversay argue that the fault is in fact on Creole women as they are the one supposedly luring men into failing white, respectable, French women. With the end of the 18th century comes a troubled time for France in general. As the monarchy is collapsing, the new government aims to change the image of France as an equal and right country with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the first document allowing every man basic rights and paving the way for future human rights’ declarations. With this new era of human rights, the government still intends to keep a refined and traditionalist image of the country. During the revolution, white women were the representation of this newly acquired liberty with the examples of Liberty Leading the People and Marianne. A problem, therefore, occurred when both liberty and the image of women were problematic in the French Caribbean, slavery and Creole women were simply not a good representation of free, pure and motherly France according to the ones in charge. Authors (like Levilloux and Maynard) now glorify this new image of France, appealing to the new democratic public, considering the new world and more importantly the French Caribbean and Creole women as a representation of the colonialist past of the French monarchy : lavish, sensual, erotic and exotic, values that can no longer be considered acceptable by the new regime. Interracial marriages and relations were therefore forbidden as they tried to change the image of the country, as much as the French Caribbean was considered morally lost, they still had to take control and avoid métis children and freed slaves to take over the islands. The different revolutions were also traumatic for the Creole people, as they supported the return of monarchy with the Bourbon dynasty since the 1814 Restauration, the July Revolution was felt like a final blast on them. Around this time came the modern idea of racism with the skin color at the center of questioning. Black skin was then considered unpure and almost disease-like in order to differentiate the ‘true’ colons and French citizens from Natives and former slaves and Creole people. The hierarchy of race began in this late 18th century period with whiteness at the top of the scheme. In this scenario, black women are at the origin of white men's lust and are considered once again, the source of the loss of the white culture in the Caribbean. Creole women and their bodies, in particular, are seen as representing the ‘abject mix’ (Dangerous Créole Liaisons, 67) between African bodies and white bodies. But the masters, unwilling to change their habits, find new excuses to explain their behavior. Incest, therefore, became the black sheep. By scaring people into believing all Creole and Africans could be related, white Europeans on the island made sure that mixing of races was still a better option than incest. Creole women were stuck in this ‘in between’ where whatever they did, they would be seen as erotic temptresses (if they slept with white people, they were driving good men away from potential good wives or their own wives and France would resent them but if they didn't, they would be accused of incest and perverted practices and local white men would resent them).
The Lesser Antilles islands of Barbados, St. Kitts, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia and Dominica were the first important slave societies of the Caribbean, switching to slavery by the end of the 17th century as their economies converted from tobacco to sugar production. By the middle of the 18th century, British Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) had become the largest 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. The decrease averaged about 3 percent per year in Jamaica and 4 percent a year in the smaller islands. The diary of slaveowner Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica details violence against slaves, and constitutes important historical documentation of the conditions for Caribbean slaves.
For centuries slavery made sugarcane production economical. The low level of technology made production difficult and labor-intensive. At the same time, the demand for sugar was rising, particularly in Great Britain. The French colony of Saint-Domingue quickly began to out-produce all of the British islands combined. Though sugar was driven by slavery, rising costs for the British made it easier for the British abolitionists to be heard.
The slavery system that developed in the Lesser Antilles was an outgrowth of the demand for sugar and other crops. The Spanish loosened its foothold in the Caribbean during the first half of the 17th century, which allowed the British to settle several islands and to ultimately seize Jamaica in 1655. To protect these investments, the British would later place a contingent of the Royal Navy in Port Royal.
In 1640 the English began sugar production with the help of the Dutch. This started the Anglo-American plantation societies which would later be led by Jamaica after it was fully developed. At its peak production between 1740 and 1807 Jamaica received 33% of the total slaves that were imported in order to keep up its production. Other crops besides sugar were also cultivated on the plantations. Tobacco, coffee, and livestock were all produced as well using slave labor. Sugar, however, stands out most prominently due to its exorbitant popularity during the time period and the dangers of its production, which claimed the lives of many.
England had multiple sugar islands in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, Barbados, Nevis, and Antigua, which provided a steady flow of sugar for sale; slave labor produced the sugar. An important result of Britain's victory in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714) was enlarging its role in the slave trade. Of special importance was the successful secret negotiation with France to obtain a 30-year monopoly on the Spanish slave trade, called the Asiento. Queen Anne of Great Britain also allowed her North American colonies like Virginia to make laws that promoted black slavery. Anne had secretly negotiated with France to get its approval regarding the asiento. She boasted to Parliament of her success in taking the asiento away from France and London celebrated her economic coup. Most of the slave trade involved sales to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, and to Mexico, as well as sales to British colonies in the Caribbean and in North America. Historian Vinita Ricks says the agreement allotted Queen Anne "22.5% (and King Philip V, of Spain 28%) of all profits collected for her personal fortune." Ricks concludes that the Queen's "connection to slave trade revenue meant that she was no longer a neutral observer. She had a vested interest in what happened on slave ships."
The slaves incoming to the Anglo-American colonies were at high risk both mentally and physically. The Middle Passage alone accounted for roughly 10% of all deaths. Some experts believe that one out of every three slaves died before ever reaching their African port of departure. It should be mentioned that the majority of Anglo-American slaves came from Western Central Africa. These factors and others caused many slaves on arrival to feel alienated, fragile, and that death was right around the corner. The conditions suffered by slaves during the voyages were hostile. The slaves were placed in close quarters, fed barely enough to sustain them, and oftentimes they fell victim to diseases contracted prior to the voyage. The slaves would not see sunlight during this period and were prone to both weight loss and scurvy.
The living and working conditions in the Lesser Antilles were very harsh for the slaves that were brought in to work the plantations. The average life of a slave after "adjusting" to the climate and environmental conditions of Jamaica was expected to be less than two decades. This was due to their limited familiarly and immune defense against the diseases and illnesses present in Jamaica. Disease decimated incoming slave populations. Attempts were made to help curtail the problem, but ultimately were fruitless.
To help protect their investments, most planters would not immediately give the hardest tasks to the newest slaves. Slave owners would also set up a walled area away from the veteran slaves in order to stymie the spread of disease. These areas would contain 100–200 slaves at any time. Later, after new slaves had been bought, they would be placed into the care of older and more experienced slaves who were already accustomed to the plantation in hopes of increasing their chances for survival. Examples of tasks assigned to new slaves include planting and constructing buildings. Though newer slaves typically formed supportive relationships with veteran slaves taking, these relationships were not always positive, and abuse did occur.
Sugar production in the Lesser Antilles was a very grisly business. On Jamaica from 1829 to 1832 the average mortality rate for slaves on sugar plantations was 35.1 deaths per 1000 enslaved. The most dangerous part of the sugar plantation was the cane planting. Cane planting during this era consisted of clearing land, digging the holes for the plants, and more. Overseers used the whip in an attempt to both motivate and punish slaves. The slaves themselves were also working and living with barely adequate nourishment and in times of hard work would often be starved. This contributed to low birth rates and the high mortality rates for the slaves. Some experts believe that the average infant mortality at plantations to be 50% or even higher. This extremely high rate of infant mortality meant that the slave population that existed in the Lesser Antilles was not self-sustaining, thus requiring a constant importation of new slaves. Living and working conditions on non-sugar plantations was considered to be better, however, only marginally.
Slavery was first abolished by the French Republic in 1794, but Napoleon revoked that decree in 1802. In 1815, the Republic[clarification needed] abolished the slave trade but the decree did not come into effect until 1826. France re-abolished slavery in her colonies in 1848 with a general and unconditional emancipation.
William Wilberforce's Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution finally was abolished, but on a gradual basis. Since slave owners in the various colonies (not only the Caribbean) were losing their unpaid labourers, the government set aside £20 million for compensation but it did not offer the former slaves reparations.
The colony of Trinidad was left with a shortage of labour. This shortage became worse after the abolition of slavery in 1833. To deal with this problem, Trinidad imported indentured servants from the 1810s until 1917. Initially Chinese, free West Africans, and Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported, but they were soon supplanted by Indians who started arriving from 1845. Indentured Indians would prove to be an adequate alternative for the plantations that formerly relied upon slave labour. In addition, numerous former slaves migrated from the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad to work.
Whitehall in Britain announced in 1833 that the gradual abolition would end by 1840; by then, and slaves in its territories would be totally freed. In the meantime, the government told slaves they had to remain on their plantations and would have the status of "apprentices" for the next six years. On 1 August 1834 in Trinidad, an unarmed group of mainly elderly Negroes being addressed by the Governor at Government House about the new apprenticeship 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 apprenticeship was passed and de facto freedom was achieved. This made Trinidad the first British colony with slaves to completely abolish slavery. The successful resistance of the implementation of the full six-year term of the Apprenticeship system and Abolition of Slavery in Trinidad was marked by ex-slaves and free coloureds joining in celebrations thru the streets in what became known as their annual Canboulay celebrations. This event in Trinidad influenced full emancipation in the other British colonies which was legally granted two years ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838.
After Great Britain abolished slavery, it began to pressure other nations to do the same. France finally abolished slavery in 1848. By then Saint-Domingue had already won its independence and formed the independent Republic of Haiti. French-controlled islands were then limited to a few smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles.
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- Slavery in Haiti
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