Why Were Slaves Taken to the West Indies?
Negro slaves were taken to the West Indies because the original population had almost become extinct. While Christopher Columbus explored all parts of the West Indies, his successors colonized only those islands which were peopled by the Ciboney and Arawak Indians.
They avoided the Caribbean Islands of the Lesser Antilles because they had no gold and the Caribbean Indians were fierce and difficult to subdue. As the Spaniards conquered each island, they rounded up its Indians and put them to work in mines or on plantations.
Many were worked to death, some starved, others died from diseases introduced from Europe and still others were killed when they tried to rebel. By 1550, the Ciboney were extinct and only a few Arawak remained.
In the 16th Century, the Spaniards introduced Negro slaves to replace the dwindling supply of labour. They did not bring in many, for their mines were exhausted, and they owned cattle ranches which did not require much labour.
The main shipments of Negro slaves came in the 18th Century, when sugar plantations were developed by the French in Haiti and the Lesser Antilles. As of 1778, the French were importing approximately 13,000 Africans for enslavement to the French West Indies.
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.
For centuries slavery made sugarcane production possible. 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’ sugar combined. Though sugar was driven by slavery, rising costs for the British made it easier for the British abolitionists to be heard.
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. The cane planting part of sugar production during this era consisted of clearing land, digging the holes for the plants, and more. The slaves were forced to work under the punishment of pain usually.
Overseers were used to motivate and punish the slaves by using the whip or other methods of flogging. 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 birth rate mortality at plantations to be roughly 50% and above.
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 the other non sugar plantations was considered to be better for slaves however it was considered a marginally better existence only.
After the French Revolution, the slaves in Haiti revolted and set up an independent Negro republic. The French went to neighboring British and Spanish islands, established new plantations and imported more slaves.
When slavery was abolished in the first half of the 19th Century the British imported Chinese and Indians from Asia who rapidly increased in numbers until, by the middle of the 20th Century, they comprised more than one third of the population of Trinidad.
Throughout the Antilles the Negroes and Asians have assumed more and more prominence, so that they now dominate the area except in countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico.