The Atlantic System and Africa, 1550–1800
I0. Plantations in the West Indies
A0. Colonization Before 1650
10. Spanish settlers introduced sugar-cane cultivation into the West Indies shortly
after 1500 but did not do much else toward the further development of the
islands. After 1600 the French and English developed colonies based on tobacco
20. Tobacco consumption became popular in England in the early 1600s. Tobacco
production in the West Indies was stimulated by two new developments: the
formation of chartered companies and the availability of cheap labor in the form
of European indentured servants.
30. In the mid-1600s competition from milder Virginia tobacco and the expulsion of
experienced Dutch sugar producers from Brazil combined to bring the West
Indian economies from tobacco to sugar production.
40. The Portuguese had introduced sugar-cane cultivation to Brazil, and the Dutch
West India Company, chartered to bring the Dutch wars against Spain to the
New World, had taken control of 1,000 miles of sugar-producing Brazilian coast.
Over a fifteen-year period the Dutch improved the efficiency of the Brazilian
sugar industry and brought slaves from Elmina and Luanda (also seized from
Portugal) to Brazil and the West Indies.
50. When Portugal reconquered Brazil in 1654, the Dutch sugar planters brought the
Brazilian system to the French and English Caribbean Islands.
B0. Sugar and Slaves
10. Between 1640 and the 1680s colonies like Guadeloupe, Martinique, and
particularly Barbados made the transition from a tobacco economy to a sugar
economy. In the process of doing so, their demand for labor caused a sharp and
significant increase in the volume of the Atlantic slave trade.
20. The shift from European indentured servants to enslaved African labor was
caused by a number of factors, including a decline in the numbers of Europeans
willing to indenture themselves to the West Indies, the fact that the life
expectancy of a slave after landing was longer than the term of the typical
contract of indenture, and a rise in sugar prices that made planters more able to
invest in slaves.
II0. Plantation Life in the Eighteenth Century
A0. Technology and Environment
10. Sugar plantations both grew sugar cane and processed the cane into sugar
crystals, molasses, and rum. The technology for growing and harvesting cane
was simple, but the machinery required for processing (rollers, copper kettles,
and so on) was more complicated and expensive. The expenses of sugar
production led planters to seek economies of scale by running large plantations.
20. Sugar production damaged the environment by causing soil exhaustion and
deforestation. Repeated cultivation of sugar cane exhausted the soil of the
plantations and led the planters to open new fields, thus accelerating the
deforestation that had begun under the Spanish. 30. European colonization led to the introduction of European and African plants
and animals that crowded out indigenous species. Colonization also pushed the
Arawak and then the Carib people to extinction.
B0. Slaves’ Lives
10. West Indian society consisted of a wealthy land-owning plantocracy, their many
slaves, and a few people in between.
20. A plantation had to extract as much labor as possible from its slaves in order to
turn a profit. Slaves were organized into “gangs” for fieldwork, while those male
slaves not doing fieldwork were engaged in specialized tasks.
30. Slaves were rewarded for good work and punished harshly for failure to meet
their production quotas or for any form of resistance. On Sundays, slaves
cultivated their own food crops and did other chores; they had very little rest and
relaxation, no education, and little time or opportunity for family life.
40. Disease, harsh working conditions, and dangerous mill machinery all contributed
to the short life expectancy of slaves in the Caribbean. The high mortality rate
added to the volume of the Atlantic slave trade and meant that the majority of
slaves on West Indian plantations were born in Africa.
50. Slaves frequently ran away and occasionally staged violent rebellions such as
that led by a slave named Tacky in Jamaica in 1760. European planters sought to
prevent rebellions by curtailing African cultural traditions, religions, and
C0. Free Whites and Free Blacks
10. In Saint Domingue there were three groups of free people: the wealthy “great
whites,” the less-well-off “little whites,” and the free blacks. In the British
colonies, where sugar almost completely dominated the economy, there were
very few free small landholders, white or black.
20. Only a very wealthy man could afford the capital to invest in the land,
machinery, and slaves needed to establish a sugar plantation. West Indian
planters were very wealthy and translated their wealth into political power,
controlling the colonial assemblies and even gaining a number of seats in the
30. Slave owners who fathered children by female slaves often gave both mother and
child their freedom; over time, this practice (manumission) produced a
significant free black population. Another source of free black population was
runaway slaves, known in the Caribbean as maroons.
III0. Creating the Atlantic Economy
A0. Capitalism and Mercantilism
10. The system of royal monopoly control of colonies and their trade as practiced by
Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries proved to be
inefficient and expensive. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the two
new institutions of capitalism and mercantilism established the framework within
which government-protected private enterprise participated in the Atlantic
20. The mechanisms of early capitalism included banks, joint-stock companies,
stock exchanges, and insurance.
30. Mercantilism was a number of state policies that promoted private investment in
overseas trade and accumulation of capital in the form of precious metals. The
instruments of mercantilism included chartered companies, such as the Dutch
West India Company and the French Royal African Company, and the use of
military force to pursue commercial dominance. 40. The French and English eliminated Dutch competition from the Americas by
defeating the Dutch in a series of wars between 1652 and 1678. The French and
the English then revoked the monopoly privileges of their chartered companies,
but continued to use high tariffs to prevent foreigners from