From Brazil to the Lesser Antilles... all the way to Dixie
In our continuing study of the origins of Southern culture and identity we have recently highlighted the significant impact of the English-Barbadian settlers of colonial Carolina (spreading out from the Lowcountry region) on the development of the economy, demographics, politics and ideals of the Lower South, in particular. Herein, we are going to take a closer look at the origins of the plantation system, which the Barbadians adopted and refined in the Caribbean and then brought to the North American mainland. The lengthy text The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its People, edited by Stephan Palmie and Francisco Scarano, provides a wealth of detailed information on exactly how the economy and society on the small island of Barbados (just 21 miles long and 14 miles wide) was transformed into the first true plantation system and what resulted from this transformation. Unless otherwise noted, the information below is taken from the Palmie and Scarano book.
In the last two decades of the 1500s there were several attempts by the Spanish and French to colonise what is now Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. The first successful English-Southern colony was Virginia, established at Jamestown in 1607. This colony had a lengthy head-start on the next oldest successful Southern colony, that of Carolina, established at Charleston in 1670. However, as we saw in a recent SNN article, by the mid-1700s Carolina was a far wealthier. Indeed, the per capita wealth of the Charleston District was four times that of the Chesapeake region and six times that of those who lived in Philadelphia and New York City. It was the Barbadian model, though in a less extreme form and combined with a larger White settler population, which enabled Carolina to rapidly become a wealthy society. As Professor Jack Greene noted in his article ‘Colonial South Carolina and the Caribbean Connection’ (originally published in 1987 and then republished in South Carolina and Barbados Connections: Selections from the South Carolina Historical Magazine:
During the last half of the seventeenth century, the culture first articulated in Barbados slowly spread to the nearby Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean and, after its capture from the Spaniards in 1655, to the large island of Jamaica in the central Caribbean. After 1750, a variant strain of that culture, developed – within the English world, in the Leeward Island colonies of St. Kitts, Antigua, Nevis, and Montserrat – found a congenial setting in the new British West Indian colonies of the Virgin Islands, Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica, and Tobago.
…Established in 1670 with some small settlements near the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, South Carolina and the Lower South culture that developed out of those small beginnings and gradually spread north to the Cape Fear region of North Carolina and south into Georgia and East and West Florida, was as much the offspring of Barbados as was Jamaica or the other English Caribbean colonies.
…For much of its colonial existence, South Carolina exhibited socio-economic and cultural patterns that, in many important respects, corresponded more closely to those in the Caribbean colonies than those in the mainland colonies to the north.
THE EARLY YEARS: SPANISH DOMINATION & MIXED LABOUR
Spain was the early dominant European colonial power in the Caribbean. Later, many of the islands that Spain had controlled were gained by new-comers: the Dutch, English and French. However, in those early years, a mixed-labour system prevailed in the Spanish Caribbean. This system employed native workers, European colonists and indentured servants as well as a limited number of African slaves. At that time the cost of African slaves was high and even in Brazil they were relatively few in number.
In the 1630s and 40s the English and French entered the region and established successful colonies on Barbados, Nevis, Antigua, Martinique, Guadalupe and St Kitts. Later they added Jamaica and Saint-Dominique (Haiti). Early on, both powers employed mostly indentured European servants to work the small farms which were built on the colonies. Typically, the servants worked for a period of between five and ten years and were given their freedom and ten acres of land upon the completion of their contract. This arrangement was soon changed to a cash payment rather than land as the colonies became more successful and the value of land rose. White slavery was also practised and these workers were taken from where-ever they could be acquired, including the mother countries and other colonial powers. In addition to European servants and slaves, a small number of native and African slaves were employed. Essentially, the English and French copied the Spanish model in those early years. Cotton, indigo, hardwoods, tobacco, coffee and sugarcane were produced in these colonies. The last item mentioned here, sugar, would soon become dominant in the region.
SUGAR & THE TRANSITION TO AFRICAN SLAVE LABOUR
The ‘sugar revolution’ of the mid seventeenth century changed everything. Indeed, the introduction of sugarcane in the Caribbean has been called the most important event of the seventeenth century. It came from Brazil, which originally had a system much like the Spanish, French and English that employed colonial settlers, indentured servants, free mulattoes, native slaves and a small number of African slaves. In 1580, the Palmie and Scarano book notes that less than ten percent of the labour force was African slaves. Only twenty years later that percentage had quadrupled and by the 1640s a full ninety percent of the workers were Black slaves. White and mulatto workers were pushed aside and soon the industry was entirely dependent upon African labour. For several decades the Brazilian planters dominated the world sugar market and made great fortunes.
In the 1620s the Dutch were at war with the Spanish, who were united with Portugal under the same monarchy (from 1580 to 1640). That temporary Iberian Union turned out to have a lasting impact on the economic and demographic development of the Caribbean civilisation. The Dutch gained control over the northern half of Brazil and ruled the area from 1630 until 1654, setting up their capital at Recife (which they called Mauritsstad). It was the Dutch and Brazilian Jews who took the sugarcane plantation system from Brazil to the Caribbean. Hilary Beckles, in the Palmie and Scarano book, refers to research by Robert Louis Stein which supports this assertion:
Robert Louis Stein argues that the introduction of commercial sugarcane planting to the French West Indies was the “most significant single event” to occur during the 17th century. It was linked, he says, to the arrival of Dutch and Jewish settlers from Brazil, who were the driving force behind “sugar and slavery” there, as well as to the development of the regional market in enslaved Africans.
…Dutch commercial capacity was the catalyst. The Dutch provided capital, sugar-making technologies, and access to the African slave market and offered training in large-scale slave management. The effect was immediate: “Within a few years,” notes Stein, “the economies and societies of the French Islands were changed beyond recognition.
African slaves were brought in great numbers to the English and French islands, quickly and radically altering the racial demographics. “On Guadeloupe, for example, the enslaved African population rose from 3,000 in 1656 to 80,000 in 1700, while the French population, which included more than 40 percent [indentured servants], remained at about 12,000 during the same period.” In Barbados and other colonies the White population decreased while the African slave population exploded. The French Caribbean islands adopted the same model, though they did so a bit more slowly.
Barbados emerged… as the first English Caribbean headquarters of the Atlantic slave-based sugar plantation complex. In so doing, it attained a reputation as the “richest little spot in the New World.” The Lesser Antilles replaced the Spanish Greater Antilles as the primary site of colonial enrichment. “Sugar and African enslavement” became a Caribbean brand that set the Lesser Antilles apart from the rest of colonial North America.
John Thomas, Jr, in another article originally from 1930 that been republished in South Carolina and Barbados Connections: Selections from the South Carolina Historical Magazine, notes that the development of Barbados coincided with the English Civil War and that many Englishmen took refuge on the little island, leading initially to a population boom of both races. The fertile soil of Barbados was ideal for sugarcane and other conditions came together such that:
in 1650, only 26 years after the settlement of the island, it was computed that there were 20,000 white men in Barbados, half of them able to bear arms. In 1670, Barbados could boast of 50,000 white and upwards of 100,000 black inhabitnats, whose labors, it is said, gave employment to 60,000 tons of shipping.
As the Brazilian-Barbadian model was spread throughout the Lesser Antilles, small farms and rural White and indigenous populations generally gave way to industrial-scale agriculture on large plantations with great numbers of African slave workers. Tobacco and cotton were largely phased out, replaced with sugar, although in different parts of the Caribbean at different times a variety of crops were used.
THE PLANTATION SYSTEM & THE MAINLAND
Returning to where we started, it is important to note that Carolina was first colonised in 1670, after sugar and slavery had thoroughly transformed Barbados. As Thomas J Little notes in an essay included in South Carolina and Barbados Connections: Selections from the South Carolina Historical Magazine:
About one-half of the whites who emigrated to [South Carolina] between 1670 and 1690 came from the Barbados. The majority of these whites were from the small-planter and freeman classes…. However… a significant number of whites from the big-and middling-planter classes immigrated to the colony….
These Barbadians had a strong preference for African slave labor and introduced the institution of slavery into South Carolina. Most of the slaves who came into the colony during the initial phase of settlement also came from the West Indies, especially from Barbados. In fact, Barbados was South Carolina’s chief source of black labor during the seventeenth century.
The initial demographic, cultural and economic model of settlement in South Carolina, which was spread throughout the Lower South, was then significantly different than that of the earlier-established Chesapeake Bay region. As well, the Virginia colony was started prior to the sugar revolution, while Carolina was settled just as that revolution was peaking and seeking room to expand. Eventually, of course, the plantation system was adopted in much of Virginia as well. Indeed, it spread all the way across the northern Gulf Coast to eastern Texas.
As we will discuss in a future article, it was the vast expanse of the mainland, the Appalachians (unsuitable as they were for a plantation economy) and a large backcountry White population which ultimately led to the northern-most reaches of the Caribbean civilisation – the South – going in a different direction than the islands, successfully rebelling against the European mother country and joining with a non-plantation and largely homogeneously White society (New England and the Northern States) in a political union.
Also see: How sugarcane got to the Caribbean