1637 – 1702 – From Tobacco to Sugar; From White Servants to Black Slaves

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Barbados started as an island with a tumultuous beginning, and a dependency on tobacco and white indentured servants. But this system was ultimately not sustainable.

The indentured system became a brutal regime of punishment. The only saving grace was that those servants who survived their five to ten year agreement were given a piece of land or money as way of payment.

Word spread back to England about the realities of life as a servant in the colonies, such as Barbados, and the original torrent of willing volunteers looking to sign up as an indentured servant dried up.

Furthermore, the staple cash crop of tobacco was losing its appeal. Other English colonies were starting to produce tobacco and it was commonly accepted that Virginian tobacco was superior to tobacco grown in Barbados.

The English government was also concerned that Barbados continued trade with Dutch sailors for foodstuffs could end up with reliance on the Dutch for survival; so the English government increased tax on Barbadian tobacco to higher levels than that from Virginia. Combined with the poorer quality, this was the death knell for Barbadian tobacco farming with imports of tobacco to London plummeting.

Ironically, it was a Dutchman that came to the rescue of the Barbados economy. Pieter Blower was the first man to bring sugar cane to Barbados in 1637. Initially, it was only grown on a small scale and used as feed, or to create rum.

However, with the weakening tobacco cash crop, in 1642 the Barbadian planters started to grow cane for use as sugar. The Dutch were keen to expand their trade routes. Seizing their opportunity, they provided Barbadian planters with cheap loans, insurance and inexpensive equipment. They also took them to Brazil to see how sugar cane should be grown for cultivation as sugar crop.

The Dutch also realised that the planters were short on labourers. The Dutch had recently taken over the West African slave routes from the Portuguese and were keen to find new places to send them.

Once more, seeing a further opportunity for increasing their revenue stream, they took advantage of a new revenue stream and so began the defining feature of the sugar revolution in Barbados and across the world – the introduction of the slave trade out of West Africa.

However, it is worth noting now that slavery in Africa was not the same as the slavery that emerged in the colonies of the Caribbean. Slaves in Africa were considered more as servants, to be cared for by a chief. The system was similar to the feudal system of medieval England. The slaves were treated with dignity and were still entitled to some rights and property.

It is probably not surprising then that so many black slaves were taken to travel across the Atlantic without putting up a fierce fight in Africa. In the same way that the initial white indentured servants voluntarily signed up for the journey, the slaves allowed themselves to be taken to the colonies.

Despite the brutal voyage, which many slaves did not survive, the black slaves arrived in tens of thousands. Within 30 years, the population of black slaves outnumbered their white masters by almost four to one, creating two major sociological changes.

Firstly, the Barbadian planters felt threatened by the huge population of slaves so they set about suppressing the Barbadian slaves brutally.

The dignity and respect the slaves had held in Africa was stripped away and replaced with a brutal, harsh and violent existence in an attempt to weaken them. This brutal treatment created deep resentment from the slaves towards the plantation owners.

Horrified by their conditions and how they were being treated, they quickly realised that they outnumbered their masters and in 1675 the first rebellion was planned.

The Ashanti tribe plotted to take control of the island and place a slave, named Cuffy, as King of Barbados. However, the rebellion was betrayed by a slave woman, resulting in seventeen of the ring-leaders being executed and their bodies were dragged through the streets as a warning to others. Further rebellions were attempted in 1696 and 1702 although again these were brutally suppressed.

The second sociological change was the emigration of the white population from Barbados to other islands in the Caribbean. Sugarcane is only profitable when grown in abundance over many acres with hundreds of slaves to manage it.

The failure of tobacco as a cash crop meant that the small landholders, who had earned their land at the end of their indenture servitude, were unable to make the transition to sugar cane.

So from 1650 to 1680 an exodus of white Barbadians was carried out through waves of white farmers and their indentured servants leaving the island to find their prosperity abroad. The white farmers sold their plots back to their original owners and masters, so that by 1682 the island was left in control of a handful of wealthy European plantation owners.

A census carried out in 1684 showed that there were almost 50,000 black slaves, 19,861 whites including only 2,381 white indentured slaves.

Barbados had shifted from an island that enjoyed a healthy system of government made up of representative members of the eleven parishes; to being controlled by a small number of European plantation owners who ran the parliament to protect themselves and suppress the black slaves through brutal repression.

This Barbadian new hierarchy used the House of Assembly to protect themselves against the black slaves and the Parliament in England.

The rules were changed so that the only people eligible to stand vote or hold a position of office had to be British subjects and Christians, owned a minimum of 10 acres or have a house with a taxable valuable of at least £10 per year. Not only did this prevent the black slaves from any form of representation, but it also prevented the poor white servants from even voting.

As the smaller farmers continued to leave, the rich aristocracy on the island took more and more control. The plantation aristocracy, or plantocracy was born and the sugar industry was in full force.

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