Africans on Caribbean Plantations

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Africans on Caribbean Plantations
By Joyce Toney  Ph.D.

Very often we forget either, deliberately or unwittingly, the road that our ancestors have trod and the many travails that they have overcome since they were introduced to the European world of work here in the Western Hemisphere. We need to remember the contributions that African people in the Americas made to the economies of the European countries that dominated these continents from 1492 until recent times.

This article focuses on the contributions of Africans to the plantation economy of the Caribbean. For the most part the peoples of Western Africa, where most of our ancestors originated, lived in settled agricultural societies. The picture of the wild African, popularly depicted in the old Tarzan films and others of that ilk, was a myth which helped to justify the harsh treatment of Black people all over the world. Some African peoples were ruled by kings who oversaw large kingdoms including Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu and others. Others came from small democratic type societies where most of the people played a role in the governance of the people. The Ibo people are one such example of a decentralized society.

Although many Africans in the Diaspora sing the praises of their royal forebears, there is no reason to believe that people in kingdoms lived superior lives to those who lived in smaller political entities. The Western Africans lived comfortable lives punctuated by the usual environmental and ecological problems that one would expect in the 6th century through the 19th century.

Actually, it was because of their settled domestic situations that Africans made good targets for slavery and the slave trade. The very similarity of their material existence to the Europeans of that period made it possible for them to function in the plantation economy of the Americas. If they were wild people living in jungles they would not have made good workers. They were plucked from their lands not only for their brawn, but for their skills as well. Peter Wood has shown us in Black Majority (1974) that without the skills of the folks brought from the Senegambia region, South Carolina would not have developed as a rice producing society. English men from Barbados took enslaved West Africans already living in Barbados and developed Charleston as a rice producing society. Such historical information also serves to remind us of the similarity of our people and the ties that bind all of us here in the African Diaspora.

Columbus’ accidental voyage to the Americas introduced Europeans to the wonderful continents of the Americas and the Caribbean islands between them.

The Caribbean was the region where Columbus and his successors first staked a claim for the bounties that the hemisphere had to offer. The island of Hispaniola, today the Dominican Republic and Haiti, was the location of the first Spanish settlement in the Americas. The Spanish for whom Columbus sailed had no intentions of working hard in these parts. Their intention was to look for wealth, preferably gold, and as a show of gratitude to their God, to convert as many native people as they could. An inevitable conflict arose between the desire to make Christians of the natives and the need to have workers to toil in the gold mines. In making the decision the material needs far surpassed any spiritual mission, and the Arawaks and Caribs rapidly disappeared as a people. Today, only a few of them remain in Dominica and St. Vincent. Their blood flows through the veins of many Caribbean people today, but their horrible extinction brought on by brutality and disease contracted from the Spanish, is a grim reminder of the fact that no group is guaranteed a future,

Bartolome de Las Casas claimed that there were 300,000 Taino Arawaks in Hispaniola when the’ Spaniards arrived in 1492. In the first official count in 1508 there were 60,000. In 1512 the number had declined to 20,000, and in 1548 only 500. According to Francis Drake, there were no Indians on the island in 1586 when he attacked it (The Story of the Jamaican People by Philiup Sherlock and Hazel Bennet, Marcus Wiener Publishers, 1998). The reality of those Native Americans, mistakenly called Indians by Columbus, can be compared to an invasion of our world by alien forces who would bring disease and destruction which will kill all of us. Bear in mind that these events occurred in the middle of the last millennium. They did not take place in ancient times.

By the early 17th century Spain had lost its tight grip on the Americas. Other European powers replaced them in some areas of the hemisphere. This was particularly true in the Caribbean where the English, French and Dutch gained control of the smaller islands, Jamaica and the Western part of Hispaniola (Haiti). These are the Europeans who are most associated with the rise of slavery and the sugar plantation system in the Caribbean. By the time they occupied the Caribbean there was no prospect of using the native people as any sustained form or labor.

The demise of the Arawaks and Caribs led to the introduction of indentured European labor in the Caribbean and the mainland. The presence of these poor Europeans remind us that the conquerors did not deliberately set out to enslave Africans and others from purely racial animosity. This was a quest for wealth at any cost. The European indentured servants were exploited and oppressed as they worked in the tobacco plantations and other sectors in the Caribbean. Yet, these people had some decided advantages that the Africans who replaced them did not have. They were white, they spoke the language, they were Christian and they tended to share citizenship with their masters. All of these factors prevented their legal enslavement even if their actual lifestyle was hardly any better than slavery.

With the improvement of the economy in Europe, and the growing sophistication of the indentured servants, the wealthy plantation owners recognized the problems facing them with a continuation of the white indenture system. More emphasis was put on African labor. Africans had come to the Americas with the earliest European explorers, but their numbers remained relatively small until the 17th century. Their numbers increased dramatically when planters in the Caribbean switched from tobacco to sugar cane cultivation.

The small European farmers lost their land, indentured servitude was phased out and Africans were brought from that continent, enslaved and put to work on the plantations. The Caribbean received about almost half of the 12 million enslaved Africans brought to the Americas. As a contrast the British North America (the United States after 1776) received six percent. Those were the times when "king sugar" ruled the world. The white sugar barons had money and power and they used both to buy influence in Europe and in America

No Wall Street mogul today can ever dream of having the power that the "West Indian" carried in England, France and other so-called mother countries.

The wealth that they achieved was at the expense of the Africans who came here to work on the plantations. More than a third of them died in their trip to the coast, and in the notorious middle passage That trip across the Atlantic surpasses most horror stories of the past. Unfortunately, African leaders were corrupted by the system and they played a major role in enabling this holocaust. The period of the slave trade was accompanied by major wars in Africa.

 From the time that the first Portuguese began to trade with Africans in the 15th century, the ordinary African was subject to kidnapping, enslavement and sale in Europe. As the sugar economy grew, accompanied by the demand for workers, the system became more sophisticated.

African leaders sold their prisoners of war to Europeans. Much of the sale was in exchange for guns, which arguably they all needed to protect their own people from the horrors of the time. We cannot truthfully say that the Africans sold their "own people." Although some people could he enslaved for violating the laws of their society, most of the people sold were strangers and enemies The Africans at that time did not see themselves as one people.

This sense of unity among Black people would develop later when people perceived that they were "all in the same boat," so to speak. Europeans too, did not see themselves as one people. The numerous wars of the period testify to the divisions between them. Yet, they seemed to possess a level of racial solidarity that Africans had not achieved. We must also consider that the African continent is over three times the size of Europe.

Africans who worked on the American plantations became the backbone of the system. These enslaved people worked in all types of jobs. Old people and children, men and women did jobs that included preparing the fields, growing and harvesting the crop and working in the factories that produced the sugar and its by-products such as rum and molasses. While Africans toiled in the Caribbean and the American South on plantations, other enslaved in the North helped to produce the food that was eaten on the plantations. For example, those whose masters were involved in the fishing industry would help to produce cod fish which, found in New England waters, became a staple in the West Indian slave diet. Almost all aspects of the world economy were tied into the plantation economy and the Africans worked to produce that wealth.

The Haitian Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first evidence that slavery as a formal economic system was on its way out We do not give enough credit to the Haitians who pulled off an unprecedented feat They were the first people in modern times to defeat a slave owning class, and declare independence as a free people (The people of Haiti are still paying for this act of defiance). After their revolution, various slave revolts across the Caribbean and the efforts of Europeans opposed to slavery were visible signs that the slaves and some well meaning Europeans were determined to bring down the system. The Sam Sharpe slave revolt of 1831 in Jamaica is considered to be the final blow that brought down the system.

Yet in his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Eric Williams argues that slavery came to an end mainly because of economic reasons. The West Indian sugar baron had begun to face economic hardship brought on by competition from other countries producing cane sugar, and from beet sugar produced in Europe. Even more important, Williams also shows that by the time of emancipation the plantation economy was losing its sting and the industrial revolution was well under way in Europe. He shows convincingly that much of the wealth that went into the industrial revolution was produced by the slave trade. Williams’ thesis has been criticized and modified but it has weathered the storms of debate over the past 50 years.

Because of his work we see the global economic dimensions of the slave trade and slavery. This was not simply a question of some African people being ill-treated on some plantations. The enslavement of our people is an integral part of the history and economy of the Americas and the world.

When slavery ended, the planters in the Caribbean expected life to continue as usual. The Africans would remain on the plantations. They would be called free, but they would work for wages that would create life styles only slightly better than slavery. The Africans left the plantations in such large numbers because of the oppressive low wages, and because they could not trust former slave owners to protect their rights.

They were particularly vulnerable if they stayed in plantation housing provided by their former masters. They could be evicted on the slightest whim. The planters reacted to the critical times by bringing in labor from China, Portuguese from Madeira, Africans from Sierra Leone, and Europeans. However, it was only after they began to import Indians from India as the new indentured labor, that a substantial gap was filled by newcomers. Only the Indians remained on the plantations for any length of time They would become the new group to be exploited as they worked to enrich the planters.

Meanwhile, many Africans continued to work for meager wages on and off the plantations. The end of slavery saw the migration of Caribbean people to places such as Trinidad and Guiana where the pay was somewhat better. At the beginning of the twentieth century large numbers of them migrated to Panama to work on the canal under the French first, and then under the Americans.

Here too, labor would play a pivotal role in the creation of one of the marvels of technology in the last century. English speaking Caribbean people continued their migratory patterns to Central America, Cuba, and the United States. In the United States, New York in particular, they joined African Americans in creating the glorious period known as the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1920s. It was also at that time that Marcus Carvey’s NIA would help inject Black people with a new consciousness and a sense of self worth.

Thus the odyssey continues. Work was the signal motive for the enslavement of Africans in America. As our ancestors came to grips with their situations they fought to create better lives for their children. In spite of tremendous odds some of these descendants have moved from the plantations and now occupy political and economic positions formerly denied to their race.

Yet, too many of our people continue to live a plantation type of existence.

The latest constraint to progress comes in a denial of a quality education for young Black people. Unless we educate our children and continue to remind them of the struggles of the past, we will have a Black society divided along class lines. Some will remain in the plantations and those who escape will forget that they once shared common ancestors and were once "in the same boat." 

Dr. Joyce Toney is chair of the Department of Black and Puerto 
Rican Studies at Hunter College.

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