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Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Caribbean Islands


Evolution around the middle of the seventeenth century of a sugar plantation society based on slave labor was an important watershed in Caribbean history. Introduced by the Dutch when they were expelled from Brazil in 1640, the sugar plantation system arrived at an opportune time for the fledgling non-Spanish colonists with their precarious economies. The English yeoman farming economy based mainly on cultivation of tobacco was facing a severe crisis. Caribbean tobacco could compete neither in quality nor in quantity with that produced in the mid-Atlantic colonies. Because tobacco farming had been basis of the economy, its end threatened the economic viability of the islands. As a result, the colonies were losing population to the mainland. Economic salvation came from what has been called in historical literature the Caribbean "sugar revolutions," a series of interrelated changes that altered the entire agriculture, demography, society, and culture of the Caribbean, thereby transforming the political and economic importance of the region.

In terms of agriculture, the islands changed from small farms producing cash crops of tobacco and cotton with the labor of a few servants and slaves--often indistinguishable--to large plantations requiring vast expanses of land and enormous capital outlays to create sugarcane fields and factories. Sugar, which had become increasingly popular on the European market throughout the seventeenth century, provided an efficacious balance between bulk and value--a relationship of great importance in the days of relatively small sailing ships and distant sea voyages. Hence, the conversion to sugar transformed the landholding pattern of the islands.

The case of Barbados illustrates the point. In 1640 this island of 430 square kilometers had about 10,000 settlers, predominantly white; 764 of them owned 4 or more hectares of land, and virtually every white was a landholder. By 1680, when the sugar revolution was underway, the wealthiest 175 planters owned 54 percent of the land and an equal proportion of the servants and slaves. More important, Barbados had a population of about 38,000 African slaves and more than 2,000 English servants who owned no land. Fortunes, however, depended on access to land and slaves. Thomas Rous, who arrived in Barbados in 1638, had a farm of 24 hectares in 1645. By 1680 the Rous family owned 3 sugar works, 266 hectares of land, and 310 slaves and were counted among the great planters of the island.

Data as of November 1987