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Barbados - Sugar and Slaves

As the sugar industry developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates, which replaced the small holdings of the early British settlers. Some of the displaced farmers relocated to British colonies in North America. As the plantation economy developed, the land became consolidated in the hands of a decreasing number of white families, leading, between 1650 and 1680, to the emigration of some 30,000 landless Barbadians, who left the island for other Caribbean islands or North America.

To work the plantations, slaves were brought from Africa. With the growth of the sugarcane industry, there was need for more labor. Slaves were supplied by Dutch Merchants who sourced them from West Africa. The slaves were forcibly taken from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon. Many slaves did not survive the journey from Africa, but many thousands still reached their destination, and today the population of Barbados is predominately of African descent.

In 1645 the black population was estimated at 5,680; by 1667 it was over 40,000. As the slave trade continued, Barbados became the most densely populated island in the Caribbean [a position that it still held in the late 1980s]. By the end of the 18th century, Barbados had 745 plantations worked by more than 80,000 African and African-descended slaves. Harsh working conditions led to slave revolts in 1702 and 1816.

Persons from England, Scotland and Ireland, for the sake of a certain bounty and a free passage to the colony, sold their servitude for four years or more. The fate of these unfortunate beings appears in many instances to have been worse (according to the contemporary historians) than that of the slaves. They were worked to excess, badly fed and cruelly treated. This cruelty proceeded from their being engaged for a stated period only, which made the planters spare the slaves rather than these poor creatures.

The majority of the whites consisted of a class sui generis: too proud to earn their livelihood by manual labour, they were too poor to carry on the cultivation of the staple articles on their own account; they became squadders upon the land, which might otherwise have been used for the production of sugar.

During the eighteenth century, Barbados languished. The price of sugar fell sharply as abundant supplies were produced more cheaply in other islands. European wars and the American Revolution interfered with trade, and the British embargo on shipment of American goods to British colonies during the American Revolution also hurt Barbados severely. In the early months of the embargo, food and supplies fell so low that residents of Barbados would have faced starvation had not George III ordered special food shipments in 1778. Barbados also suffered several other calamities. Hurricanes devastated the island in 1780 and 1831. The 1780 hurricane killed over 4,000 people and destroyed most of the island's buildings and livestock; the 1831 hurricane ruined many buildings, including seven of the eleven churches on the island. In addition, a cholera epidemic killed over 20,000 people in 1854.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Barbados resisted change. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 183334. The slave trade ceased a few years before the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire in 1834. Although free blacks were granted the vote in 1831 and slavery was commuted to an apprentice system in 1834, with emancipation following four years later, the ex-slaves stayed on the island and life remained essentially the same. As historian Ronald Tree has put it, the hurricane of 1831 was "followed by a hundred years of sleepy impoverishment, during which time the island was a source of constant annoyance to the Colonial Office."

Barbados successfully resisted British efforts in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to abolish its House of Assembly and install crown colony government. The British had found local assemblies to be intractable and cumbersome to manage from London. Under the system called crown colony government, which was installed in all of the Commonwealth Caribbean islands except Barbados, the British replaced these argumentative assemblies with a unicameral legislature, the majority of whose members were appointed by the governor, and in which the king theoretically represented the lower classes. As a result of multiple petitions, Barbados managed to retain its local House of Assembly, which functioned in addition to the governor's Legislative Council. Barbados was also successful in securing the repeal of the British sugar tax.

So long as the market prices of sugars were remunerative, and the favoring circumstances unchanged, this system of high and speculative agriculture appeared ta proceed prosperously. Wages were high, trade brisk, a great activity prevailed. But when prices fell, as they did in a remarkable manner on the admission of slave grown sugar into the English market, all this apparent prosperity was at an end; disaster followed on disaster, insolvencies, scarcity of the circulating medium, suspension of credit, reduction of wages, suspension of cash payments, with threatened scarcity even of the necessaries of life. The whole, such as was witnessed in 184748, was a concatenation of events as distressing as instructive, and affording a lesson which should, though it is doubtful that it will, be long remembered. Since then the tendency has been to return to the old plan; and what is remarkable, and very creditable to the energies of the planters, whilst more provisions have been grown, the culture of the cane has also increased.

It was in the country region of Barbados, more than the town and city, that homes, in every sense of the word, were homes, albeit tropical ones - the bulwarks of the white race and its religion. From Farley Hall, the Governor's residence, to the home of the planter of moderate income, there was a harmony in architecture as well as in hospitable sentiment, that suggested the "mother country." The churches and chapels of ease, the cemeteries, the parks and gardens, all carried out the suggestion of English influence in the higher aims of life.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2017 17:46:37 ZULU