I originally needed to research the Caribbean islands as they formed an important background for the hero of my novel, CANE, which centered on slavery in the sugar cane industry of the 19th century. It was such a fascinating subject that I learned far more than I could ever use in my novel.
Though the slave history of the islands is well known, it transpired the Caribbean had been a hotbed of slavery long before the Europeans arrived; they only found more efficient ways to make it work.
There had been native tribes living on the islands since the dawn of time, the first peoples long ago lost to history. However, the Tainos (more commonly known as the Arawaks) had been living in the Caribbean islands for hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. It was a later arrival, the Caribs, who originally came from Venezuela, who began to pray on the Arawaks, making slaves of them. The Caribs systematically forced the Arawaks from many of the islands, killing many and enslaving the survivors. However, it took the arrival of the Spaniards to finally wipe out the Arawaks in the 16th century. It was then the turn of the Caribs to become slaves to the white man. Today, there are virtually no Caribbean Indians surviving, though certain Arawak features can be found among the indigenous races of South America.
The Spaniards originally needed slaves from the islands in their quest for gold and many were shipped to South America. By the time the value of cane sugar was realised late in the 17th century, the Caribbean Indian to use as slaves were virtually gone, so new sources were needed. It was a friar from Hispaniola named Bartoleme who suggested enslaving Africans. Many of these new slaves came from Africa’s Guinea coast, taken from their homes by slave-raiding parties, which were often endorsed by the local government.
So began the infamous Triangular Trade: European ships set sail for the Caribbean colonies, via Africa where they bartered arms and liquor with the African slave traders; the captured slaves were shipped to the islands and, in the final step, sugar and rum were sent from the islands back to Europe. The trade may have begun with the Spaniards, but soon other European races were quick to see the advantage and before long the Dutch, French and English were fighting over the rights to the islands – and the slaves. The trade was thought so valuable that England went to war with the Dutch twice over control of the islands – the two countries had originally banded together to oust the Spanish.
The trade was not only ongoing, it was increasing year by year. For those that survived the harrowing sea voyage, the average life expectancy of an imported slave was only seven years, but many never even survived that long, an average of ten percent dying within the first year.
On the plantations, owners demanded slaves sever every tie to their homelands and they kept slaves of the same culture apart. Harsh punishments were exercised for disobedience or acts of will, and it was not illegal to kill an African man in the British Colonies until the beginning of the 19th century. The occasional slave revolts were put down with vicious force; many slaves would rather die than return to their life of servitude.
Jamaica in particular saw many slave uprisings, and was home to more slave rebellions than all of the other British islands combined. Tacky’s rebellion in the summer of 1760 was the most significant of these. Tacky, who had been a chief at home in Africa, led a group of supporters and moved inland. They took over plantations and killed the white plantation owners. Their plan was to overthrow British rule and to establish an African kingdom in Jamaica. However, the British authorities sent in the militia and though some of the rebels returned to their plantations many fought on until Tacky himself was killed. The last of the rebels committed suicide rather than return to slavery.
The various islands/island groups were constantly fought over and changed hands, often repeatedly as the European nations strove for dominance of the islands.
It took many years before the disgraceful trade ended, as peoples’ sensibilities changed because of the efforts of anti-slavery movements. It was a slow process – the first country to abolish slavery was Denmark in 1792 and it was not until 1882 that the last slaves in the Caribbean were finally freed.