The Caribbean in the 1600s officially broke the age-old association of sugar with love. Europe’s fascination with sugar started with Columbus. All the way back in 1493 he was given sugar cane as a present – after a month of sexing the then-governor of the Canary Islands Beatriz de Bobadilla.
He then took his present to Hispaniola (now Dominican Republic & Haiti), then the Portuguese took it to Brazil, Dutch took it to Guyana, French to Martinique & English to Barbados. In other words, sugar cane was THE cash crop of the day! Very soon Barbados became the leading producer, mostly because the English cared only about it and having enough disposable people to cultivate it. All that shit about expanding the British Empire was kept to the mainland; island planters were there for business and nothing else! Any slaves hoping to own land at the end of their service were wasting their time, because the plantations were too big to allow any dege-dege farms to survive!
RULE OF COMMERCE: for every demand (read: craving) there is an equal rush to supply. Sugar was a drug, colonial planters were the pushers.
(On a slight tangent, sugar is still a drug.)
In the 1620s Capt. John Powell claimed Barbados for King James (cue face palm) and reported its existence to his boss Sir William Courteen, who then in 1627 set up a colony of about 80 people. He had a fair few difficulties finding a suitable cash crop; he tried cotton, tobacco, miscellaneous vegetables and then sugar cane. The sugar cane was used to make kill-devil (rum).
Powell had 40 Arawak men enslaved and put to work on the fields, but Courteen then lost his colony! How? By the King’s permission, the Earl of Carlisle now owned it!
Another enigmatic planter, maybe most of all in this chapter, was James Drax. He boasted to his memoirist Richard Ligon that he came with £300 and was absolutely not going home ’til he could afford a £10,000 estate! Needless to say he was very grandiose. BUT he was in competition against his half brother William and other farmers. Virginian sugar cane had higher quality leaves so Barbados switched to cotton & indigo as their cash crop. BUT then the competition grew worse; now he was up against more established colonies like St Christopher & Montserrat!
In 1629, the Earl’s soft-hearted governor Sir William Tufton decided the slaves were getting it too hard and tried to improve conditions for them. However the planters rebelled! To keep them all sweet (pardon the pun), they were each given an extra 10,000 acres! For that the Earl fired Tufton and hired Henry Hawley, then Tufton proved he had a pair after all and rebelled! And lost, and his supporters were tried and hanged for mutiny.
Under Hawley, farming became even more intensive. Slaves expected they’d be freed after the 7 years indenture, but in this system they were production units with monetary value so that basically didn’t happen. This was a very good time for Anglos to cash in on sugar. Why? Because they’d all heard that mainland Europe’s sugar had skyrocketed in price. Cha-ching! In 1640 St Christopher made the switch to sugar cane, with Barbados soon following and taking the lead in production, effectively making the island into little more than a giant penal colony. By 1642 the very first lot of convicts were imported to man the fields, and in 1644 the roller mills were so tough they could turn 50% of the cane’s weight into liquid! Rum production shot up too, so much so that a Connecticut General Court Order banned it!
Despite being a chain of islands, before the Monarchy Restoration the Caribbean was getting about thrice the number of new arrivals as mainland America. Half of them were Irish, unsurprisingly. In the years leading up to the America Revolution about half of all Scots, Irish & English were off to the Caribbean.
Through it all Drax became THE RICHEST planter in Barbados!
Tufton’s 10,000 acre payout His own sweat, blood & tears finally paid off! And he got the estate he told Ligon about…
Despite the grandeur & power of its appearance, Drax knew how to throw parties. He practically drowned his guests in beef (the most expensive meat at the time), Scotch collops, boiled chickens, shoulder of goat, kids stuffed with pudding (kids as in baby goats – I hope!), piglets, custards, creams, cheesecakes, puffs, fruit preserves, brandy, kill-devil*, sherry, wine, English spirits, Canary red sack, etc. Meanwhile the slaves, ‘white’ & ‘black’ alike, were left to suffice with mainly carb-based foods: potatoes, corn & plantain washed down with sugar spirit to stave off the all-too-common fever.
* Are you surprised?
Strangely, despite Ireland being stuffed with young underemployed men, the most desired slaves at the time were Scottish youths! England was quickly running low on men to supply Barbados’s labour demands so in 1652, government passed an act giving justices the warrant to ship beggars and vagrants off to the colonies. Due to political turmoil in the century, many Scottish & Irish religious dissenters were banished too (see Part 10).
According to the book White Cargo, most of what we know of this era came from Richard Ligon. He even wrote a book in 1647: A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. It’s important to know, though, he wasn’t merely a memoirist. He’d been chased out of London by a ‘barbarous riot’ who’d managed to take all his money – or so he claimed. In reality, he was a Royalist* who lost his money & property in the Civil War and wanted to try his luck in the Caribbean. In his book he gave step-by-step instructions on how to found a colony and exactly how much profit you can expect to make from it! (see White Cargo, pages 183-186)
* Note: any and all political prisoners from the Civil War were at risk of being enslaved. Social status, connections & rank made no difference. Royalist officers Marcellus Rivers & Oxenbridge Foyle were two such examples, even after they raised an ethical debate in Parliament! However, many Royalists fled to the Caribbean as refugees to escape Cromwell’s Parliamentarian revolution, which led to Barbados becoming much more pro-Royalist. However, the dogged pragmatism of planters & merchants meant politics back home changed fuck-all.
Until King Charles I was beheaded.
Then Barbados was declared property of Charlie the sequel so Parliament stopped all trade with Bajans! Not just that, all English colonies & even Dutch ships stopped trading too! Parliament even drew up an army to ensure the island wasn’t pushing any Royalist agendas, an army of ‘converted’ Bajans under the command of Sir George Ayscue. In January 1652 Barbados ‘surrendered’ to Parliament rule.
First prime minister of Trinidad & Tobago and accomplished Caribbean historian, Eric Williams wrote many books on the topic of slavery. However, Ligon would’ve differed with him on one point: the differentiation of slaves & servants. Ligon reckoned ‘white’ slaves were treated WORSE than ‘blacks’; because their enslavement was (meant to be) temporary slavers felt more justified in purging all their cruelty upon them. Their only food was potatoes for dinner and potatoes/ loblolly (a type of gruel or porridge)/ bonivist beans for lunch, they had to sleep in their work clothes, and they had no blankets for their hammocks. The Irish, scapegoated as perpetual enemies in faith, bared the worst of it.
In fact, treatment was so bad that in 1651 a law was passed that merchants were forbidden from shipping over anyone under 14 years old without written guardian approval. Of course no-one gave a shit. Soon after that, in Jamaica colonel William Brayne wrote to Cromwell recommending Africans be made the dominant labour force! Why? Because they were (now) lifelong servants, planters theoretically had to pay for them and keep them alive. In other words, he was arguing that ‘blacks’ were treated better so they should be a kind of buffer for planters’ cruelty! Cromwell agreed, and in the middle of the century tens of thousands of Africans were dumped in Barbados.
Anglo-Bajan planters’ main task was to enforce a code of conduct delineating the master-slave relationship – the Act for the Ordaining of Rights between Masters and Slaves 1661. It banned importation of children (if they were English), any youth over 18 were only to be held for a maximum of 5 years (7 years for under-18s!), and slaves were forbidden from trading. Of course there were punishments for “crimes”, usually in the form of extra service:
- Laying a hand on their master/ mistress = 1 year,
- Marrying without consent = 4 years,
- Stealing bread = 2 years,
- Trying to escape = 3 years,
- Becoming a father = 3 years,
- Going AWOL in or out of work hours = 1 year per 2 hours gone.
This code later evolved into the Slave Code 1688.
Needless to say many rebellions happened, some started by Irish, some by Africans & Irish together. One all-African plot was to take over the whole island – but that was foiled. Rebellions became so common in 1675 MARTIAL LAW was introduced in Jamaica.
Back in Barbados planters were so scared of rebellions, that in the mid-1600s they started switching to an all-African labour force because they were generally less rebellious. In the last decade of the century, Irish slaves were so distrusted that African militia groups were employed to crush rebellions – both ‘white’ & ‘black’. In 1684 the ratio of ‘blacks’ to ‘whites’ was 46,000:20,000. In 1834 (the year of abolition) it was 88,000:15,000.
Though the 1600s saw the rise and fall in the number of ‘white’ slaves, the next century saw a change of law that brought a massive increase of almost-free Irish labour!
Back to Part 11
On to Part 13