5 The Rise of Slavery

“Am I not a Man and a Brother?” by Allen Gathman, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.


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With booming industries of coffee, tobacco, other goods, and particularly sugar, a massive labor force was needed. Thus came the rise of slavery.

Despite innovation and developments being made in the New World many were uneasy. By the 18th century one could not visit the New World and not see, much less understand, that the luxuries produced came through the violently driven enslaved workforce. Ignorance was no longer possible and things were far from blissful.


Slavery on The Rise

“Slave trade from Africa to the Americas (8928374600)” by jbdodane, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Slavery and enslavement was already all kinds of hell for millions, however, the 1700s would see the deadly trade worsen. Slavery in the Caribbean had existed by this time for over 200 years; after Portugal first established the trade from Africa’s West Coast. From 1573 to 1640, about 78,453 slaves were taken from Angola and Upper Guinea; others from Lower Guinea as well. They would then be taken to Portuguese ports where some would stay in the city, sent to rural regions, or to their mines in Peru.

Yet, the trade would soon expand to include the English, French, and Dutch. By the 1600s, their interest had morphed into several forts or establishments lining the Western coast.

Slaving Companies

After selecting existing colonies, such as Curaçao, to act as rest stops along the way new and existing trading companies would join the once exclusively Portuguese trading routes. With the new companies would come new countries in addition to Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands. For example, 1666 would see the emergence of the Danish African Company (DAC). They would negotiate and take over Dutch forts and settlements in various areas near the Cape Coast in the Gulf of Guinea. The DAC would also lay claim to St. Thomas in 1672, St. John in 1718, and St. Croix; the former being purchased from France in 1733. Records indicate that the DAC made an estimated 450 trips a year.

These countries would be joined by Sweden shortly thereafter through the Swedish African Company (SAC) in 1649; funded by the Dutch. The SAC, however, would fail as they never took part in the sugar colony boom. They were eventually bought out of the trade by the Dutch.  Their forts  went to the Danish after a time.

Dangerous High Seas

The 18th century was good to the English as their ships transported about 400,000 slaves. Note that these are the numbers of those who actually reached their destinations. Many having died enroute, stolen by pirates, or smuggled and therefore unaccounted for.

Also taking place during this century was the War of the Spanish Succession; starting in 1701. A war which ended after the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This meant that Britain kept the war acquired territories of Gibraltar and the island of Minorca and was given a 30 year asiento. This contract  allowed for them to provide African slaves to Spanish America.

“The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano – caption: ‘Olaudah Equiano’” by British Library, No known copyright

Slaveries Roots

As was the norm, Europeans took every available opportunity to gain a profit. The profitability of slavery thus proved too much of a temptation to resist. However, they did not create the concept or trade; they simply tapped into an existing trade.  The trade of human beings in Africa, had existed long before European involvement and it also existed in the Mediterranean as well as the Islamic world.

In some of the African kingdoms, as opposed to land, the amount of slaves one had demonstrated your wealth. This would confuse Europeans as they could not understand that the land was public and therefore shareable by all. Slavery in Africa was quite different from what is known to have taken place in the US or Caribbean. Often prisoners of war, the enslaved would serve in the army, become an extension of the slavers family, or simply be forced to do what no one else wanted to do. The remainder of the enslaved would be sold in exchange for weapons or other goods.

African Slavery vs. European Slavery

It was this existing practice the Europeans would find upon arrival and take advantage of. In exchange for guns and goods the African soon began trading slaves with the Europeans. Believing the European practice of slavery was similar to their own, they would not understand the hell to which they sold their brothers into. Keeping to their coastal forts and posts the slaves would be captured inland and brought to them. These places would be manned by sea captains and their crews as well as administrators. The Europeans cleverly obscured their true intentions by not directly involving themselves in the trade. These fortresses, ports and ships would cage an enslaved population upon which endless tortures were inflicted.

Once on Land

For those who survived the middle passage, life did not get better. A few would be brought directly to the owner who had pre-purchased the slave and others would be forced to endure yet another voyage. Then there were those who were sold on slave markets and auctioned off like cows.  Those who endured a second voyage, were often transferred to Jamaica and Curaçao before being shipped to other countries in the Caribbean.

Whichever the situation, once these slaves arrived at their final destinations they would come into contact with many Africans from many different places. Others who spoke different languages and whom were treated different because of their ability to speak the masters language, skin color, and or Caribbean birth. Those of Caribbean birth were often given certain “privileged” jobs and tasks; for example acting as overseers. This mixing of the enslaved would birth new identities and traditions, than those had prior to the middle passage, which would flourish under the dark clouds of slavery.

“Viceroyalty of the New Spain 1800 (without Philippines)” by Giggette, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Treatment & Codes

The diversity of those enslaved would also continue into how they were treated. Based on the colony they were placed, the codes would direct their everyday lives. Although, there does exist the question as to whether or not these codes of conduct were actually adhered too. In the Spanish held territories, slaves were governed by a Seven-Part Code or Siete Partidas.  Under these codes a slave could leave slavery as it was something imposed as opposed to a natural state of being. A Spanish held slave could also negotiate the purchasing of his/her freedom; negotiating a price and a form of payment. They could also take or be taken to court and they understood to an extent that they had rights. Yet, this did not mean the level or cruelty was any different than that of other European held slaves.

French held slaves, lived life under the Code Noir issued in 1685. One particular point being no mixing between the French nationals and the enslaved population. While frowned upon, provisions were put in place for those who disobeyed the law. If the French man was single, he would be required to marry the slave and free her along with any of their children. Yet, this meant slaves would purposely seek out men as a way out of slavery. Other stipulations were:

  • Jews were expelled
  • Slaves were forced into Catholicism
  • Slaves were to be given Sunday off
  • Slaves from different masters could not get together
  • Slaves needed permission from their master before being able to sell their own produce
  • A slave who struck their master would be put to death
  • A slave master had to ensure the health of their slaves
  • A slave master was also well within their rights to chain and beat but not torture their slaves
  • For each child born from a mixed relationship meant a fine of 2,000lbs of Sugar had to be paid per child
French West Indies included:  Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada, Tobago & other islands as well as  French Guiana.

Plantation Management

“Image from page 15 of “The gospel of slavery : a primer of freedom” (1864)” by Internet Archive Book Images, No known copyright restrictions.

The management of the plantations, as with the codes of governance, differed depending on the colonial country.  The British, for example, ruled over their estates long-distance. These were often men and members of parliament and so left the running to overseers. While ensuring, of course, that the policies passed in parliament served their interests. Similarly, the French ensured a profitable estate was set up and then hightail it back home. For those who lived in the Caribbean, they would often send their children back home for an education. The Spanish, however, were often Caribbean born and therefore did not ruled long-distance. This also meant the colonial power was held locally, as opposed to far reaching power of the British and French; this was noticeable in Cuba.

“Branding slaves” by New York Public Library, released under Public Domain.

Religion and Resistance

Whether through British Protestantism or French and Spanish Catholicism, slaves found some sort of solace, yet, not so much that resistance movements were non-existent. There were day to day forms of resistance as well as full on revolts and attacks. Many would be swiftly put down or nipped in the bud due to a mole. Then there were runaways living in areas the colonials didn’t bother to chase them into; creating Maroon colonies. These slaves would live in the mountains, forest, and jungles with the aid of or within the remaining native communities. This was especially the case in colonies such as Honduras and Dominica. Planters and overseers would leave them be as they had never ventured into said places and feared the unknown. Yet, these runaways did not stay up in these communities, often venturing back to the plantations and pilfering what they saw fit. Colonial forces, the British for example, would fight back and cause clashes; the first bouts turning into the First Maroon War in the 1730s.

For those not killed in battle, capture would mean severe punishments but not to the point of destroying their viability as laborers. Although, a repeat offender often found themselves permanently unable to run. However, there were strict stipulations as to how this would be done.

  • Strike 1: Ears are cut off and a fleur de lys branded on a shoulder
  • Strike 2: Hamstrings are cut and a fleur de lys is branded on the other shoulder (within a month to prior infarction)
  • Strike 3: Death

The Violence of Slavery

There is a Dominican saying which states “no hay mal que dure 100 años, ni cuerpo que lo aguante.” Meaning, roughly translated, that there is no evil that can last 100 year nor a person who can take it. Violence was part and parcel of the slavery system because it was the only way to ensure and secure the forced labor of the enslaved. Yet, this did not mean, as we have seen, that the slaves sat back and simply took what was being done to them.

Whether by running away or taking part in a revolt, the slaves fought back. Europeans to counter this would violently put down revolts, track down and brand runaways, or simply ship in “fresh meat”. However, with every slave brought to these various islands the white:black ratio would tilt more towards black in terms of numbers. Perhaps it was fear or the little man syndrome but whites would resort to violence to retain control of the plantations and their slave society.


One way these planters retained control was by instituting and adhering to a strict hierarchy or class system. Spain, for example, remained true to their Old World mentality; that of the ‘purity’ of ones blood.  Yet, in the New World, the Spanish took on a different policy in which one could become legally white through royal order; gracias al sacar. This, of course, would apply to those who are half white and half black or native.

With the start of the 1800s came another mad dash to label and categorize all known things. This relentless need would bring up the question of: who were the Africans? Is their enslavement permitted? What was to be done for those of mixed relationships? Hence, the birth of race and stereotypes.


Understanding the the importance of trading between the West Indies and European countries, the 1700s would see both the colonies and their colonial fathers bound by money. The amount of white gold making it out of the Caribbean in this time was worth an estimated 2.1 million US dollars; the equivalent of 4.9 billion US dollars in today’s economy. These figures would then quadruple over a period of 70 years.

The societal norms would shift to include, accommodate, and expect slavery as a factor in producing the luxury goods and materials “needed”. The proverbial glass ceiling which had been unbreachable was now quite permeable for those with the funds. Said funds would also be used to fund and power the industrialization taking place in England. However, a cycle of sorts was created and it was one that engineered its own collapse.

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© 2020. This work is licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Licensed by Mahalia Méhu under a Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0 International License.


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The Caribbean Since Columbus Copyright © 2020 by Mahalia Mehu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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