Slavery in the Caribbean

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Europeans came into contact with the Caribbean after Columbus's momentous journeys in 1492, 1496 and 1498. The desire for expansion and trade led to the settlement of the colonies. The indigenous peoples, according to our sources mostly peaceful Tainos and warlike Caribs, proved to be unsuitable for slave labour in the newly formed plantations, and they were quickly and brutally decimated. The descendants of this once thriving community can now only be found in Guiana and Trinidad.

The slave trade which had already begun on the West Coast of Africa provided the needed labour, and a period from 1496 (Columbus's second voyage) to 1838 saw Africans flogged and tortured in an effort to assimilate them into the plantation economy. Slave labour supplied the most coveted and important items in Atlantic and European commerce: the sugar, coffee, cotton and cacao of the Caribbean; the tobacco, rice and indigo of North America; the gold and sugar of Portuguese and Spanish South America. These commodities comprised about a third of the value of European commerce, a figure inflated by regulations that obliged colonial products to be brought to the metropolis prior to their re-export to other destinations. Atlantic navigation and European settlement of the New World made the Americas Europe's most convenient and practical source of tropical and sub-tropical produce. The rate of growth of Atlantic trade in the eighteenth century had outstripped all other branches of European commerce and created fabulous fortunes.

An estimate of the slave population in the British Caribbean in Robin Blackburn's study, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848, puts the slave numbers at 428,000 out of a population of 500,000, so the number of slaves vastly exceeded the number of white owners and overseers. Absentee plantation owners added to the unrest. Rebellion was common, with the forms including self mutilation, suicide and infanticide as well as escape and maroonage (whereby the...
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