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The Early Economy and White Servants in Barbados (1634 – 1649)

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Much is heard of the sugar industry in Barbados; however, less is discussed of the first settlers who made Barbados the success that it is today. Much is owed to these brave few who created the platform for the Barbados that we know today.

Despite the initial years of turmoil, where the ownership of Barbados was fought over by Sir William Courteen and the Earl of Carlisle, Barbados prospered through growing tobacco that could then be sold to both ships passing by, such as Dutch trading ships, and back to England.

Labour was required to work the tobacco, and so Barbados was advertised as a place to work to English labourers.

Barbados was seen as an attractive destination for poor white English men and women who had little prospects in England. The arrangement was that the labourer would sign a lease to work as a servant for a planter in Barbados for five to ten years.

These English servants would sign this period of their lives over to the English planters in Barbados in return for three things:

1. Their journey costs were paid from England to Barbados.

2. They would be kept, fed and watered by the Barbados plantation owners for the duration of their lease.

3. On expiration of their lease, they would be given either a parcel of land or a lump sum of money.

 

As a poor Englishman, this must have sounded like a fair deal and their one chance to own a slice of land to develop themselves.

Labourers were also taken from convicted criminals. Some crimes, such as theft, were punished by hanging. However, criminals were given the choice to either be hanged, or to work in a colony by accepting a lease as described above. Given the choices, it is clear to see why there was an intake of indentured servants who were convicted criminals.

As a voluntary system, it worked well to attract labourers to the island and initially the indentured servant system was fair and reasonable.

However, as the demands of the Barbadian planters grew, the voluntary system could no longer provide enough labourers to meet demand. So England decided on two further methods to meet the demands of its burgeoning colonies:

1. Kidnapping. This became a lucrative business whereby men, women and children would all be kidnapped. Those that had been made unconscious before being put on the ship would wake up to find themselves halfway across oceans to a colony with no option but to accept their fate.

2. Using Prisoners of War. Oliver Cromwell is attributed as the first person to punish his opponents by sending them to work in the colonies. He started this practice with the Irish Rebellion in 1649, and this form of punishment continued with the Penruddock uprising in 1655, the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, and even up until the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745.

 

Barbadian planters were forced to look after an ever-increasing workforce and so their profit margins started to get squeezed. With demands increasing to make more money, from the English merchants who were funding their enterprises, it was inevitable that the conditions of the indentured white servants would deteriorate.

However, the conditions started to descend to despicable levels. The indentured slaves were, essentially, just another type of chattel, or property, of the plantation owner – and they started to be treated as such.

Indentured servants were regularly whipped for pleasure, tied to horses, bought and sold to other plantation owners as simple property and forced to sleep in squalid conditions that were described as worse than pig sties.

Torture and violence against them escalated. Whilst the laws were set to protect them as citizens of England, any person found complaining of their condition would be beaten and whipped for causing a scene and trying to stir up trouble.

Unable to leave the island, with no money and no possessions, the white indentured servants were forced into a life akin to slavery. It is no surprise then that two uprisings were planned by the servants. The first, as early as 1634, and the second in 1645. Unfortunately for the servants, both plots were crushed and the ringleaders of each put to death.

Legend has it, that one of the most infamous white indentured servants that came to Barbados, who did succeed in escaping from the island, was Henry Morgan. This notorious pirate who made his name as a fierce buccaneer, also reportedly carried the nickname “Barbadosed“. If he did indeed come through the indentured system of Barbados, there is little wonder that he would have developed a ruthless manner and a cunning that enabled him to escape.

Despite all the hardship and suffering, many indentured servants survived and succeeded in completing their lease. The plantation owners, with no other options, kept the terms of the lease and gave parcels of land to the now released servants. These servants would then set themselves up as farmers and in turn contribute to the flourishing economy of Barbados.

The initial economy of Barbados succeeded, despite the brutal conditions, due to the resilience of the white indentured slaves and their desire to own their own piece of land in Barbados.

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