Sugar & Slavery in the Caribbean
Brought to the New World
from the Canary Islands,
sugar was first grown in Brazil.
Sugar plantations were responsible for changing the environment and complexion of the Caribbean. Sugar cane and the enormous wealth it generated are what made the islands worth fighting for.
To attain maximum profit, sugar cane required the islands be stripped of all native vegetation--literally to be scalped--except in the highlands where the cane wouldn't grow well.
The islands were deforested so dramatically to grow sugar cane, it's said that Dominica--rugged and mountainous and inhospitable to farming--is the only island Columbus would still recognize.
To prosper, the plantations needed cheap labor, lots of it. The Spanish, relying on the Indians for slaves, imported relatively few Africans. It's recorded that even the smallest sugar plantation needed as many as 250 slaves.
The slaves imported from Africa were often taken as prisoners of war or in night raids by other black Africans who then sold them.
Slaves endured a cruel, 6- to 12-week ocean voyage to the West Indies that left an average of 12 percent of the "cargo" dead. Slaves were chained and forced to stand in the holds like telephone poles, without enough space to sit.
Some died of disease; others preferred to jump overboard and drown in their chains.
On arrival, the blacks were fattened and oiled and taken to the auction block.
Ironically, it was an imported European concept--the right of the free individual as enunciated in 1792's French Revolution--that led to the abolition of slavery and the downfall of the plantation system. As word of this radical idea from France spread, slave uprisings became more frequent.
In 1804, a full-scale rebellion in Haiti led that country to declare its independence. In 1833, the British outlawed slavery in all of its colonies.
In 1834, the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti ) declared its independence.
In 1848, the French colonies and the Danish West Indies banned slavery. In 1886, slavery ended in Spanish-owned Cuba.
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