Why Did Sugar and Slaves Become Linked in 17th Century Caribbean?

Topics: Caribbean, Slavery, Atlantic slave trade Pages: 9 (1482 words) Published: August 30, 2006
"The value of the Caribbean colonies to Europe came to be in their sugar

production."¹ After the European explorers realised that the Caribbean was not

naturally rich in gold and other precious metals; they were desperate to find other

ways in which they could use these islands to benefit themselves. After several failed

attempts to grow crops such as tobacco and cotton (on a large scale), the Europeans

realised that sugar had a greater potential to be sold in Europe than any other crop,

and in itself was a ‘goldmine' waiting to be uncovered.

The Portuguese had already successfully grown and produced sugar on

plantations in São Tomé and Madeira, but on a relatively small scale in comparison

to how great it would eventually become. They took these techniques with them

when they began to colonise the north east (Pernambuco) of Brazil. Although sugar

production increased, it still remained a very expensive product because the journey

from Brazil to Europe was very long and Brazilian sugar was taxed in a way that

West Indian sugar never was. Therefore the demand still remained low because only

the rich could afford to buy sugar. On these plantations in São Tomé and Brazil, a

slave workforce was employed. In São Tomé, the workforce was initially made up of

poor Europeans sent there to work. Unfortunately, they died out because they had

no resistance to tropical diseases such as malaria. Captured Africans were then

readily used because of their built up immunity to these diseases. When sugar

production first began in Brazil, the native Indian population was used as their work

force. However, due to a combination of disease, malnutrition and inability to do

such hard labour, the native population began to die out and new labour was

required. African slaves were once again imported from the West coast to Brazil.

They proved to be resilient workers and coped better with the hard labour.

The British soon realised that the Caribbean had a similar climate to that of Brazil

and sugar cane was well-suited to growth in those regions. It was easy for them to

acquire lands in the larger islands because the Spanish had lost interest in them and

not realised their potential; therefore little effort was spent defending them. To be a

profitable commodity, sugar had to be produced on a large scale and this meant that

production had to be a 24 hour procedure. Time was an important factor in sugar

production. The cane had to be harvested at certain times and then processed

immediately otherwise the quality of the juice extracted would decrease and the

sugar yield would be less. This 24 hour process meant that the sugar mills required

constant attendance. Poor white labourers were first employed because they could

easily be lured there with the promise of land, after they had fulfilled their work

contracts. Unfortunately, this proved to be a problem because most of the land was

already taken up as part of the sugar plantation and there was very little left to

reward the white indenturers with. At this time, British North America was

beginning to develop as a result of tobacco being grown there on a large scale and of

a better quality. The white indentured work force began to migrate there instead of

the Caribbean because the promise of land was more a reality. North America is a

large continent and there was more land available to give to them. The climate there

also suited them more because it was similar to that of Europe. Most importantly, the

mortality rate was significantly lower. The Dutch noted this need for a new work

force, and as African slaves were already being used in Brazil, they began to sell

them to the British and later the French. African slaves were the perfect work force.

They were strong, resistant to the tropical diseases and most...

References: Bowman, Prof. Joyce, Dept of History, Umass/Amhrerst, Africa and Europe (class notes)
Sugar and Slavery in the 19th century
The Mariners Museum Website, Captive Passage – Arrival: Life in the Americas
Transatlantic Slave Trade
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