Plantation system moves from Brazil to Barbados
As we have seen in our study of the connections between the Caribbean and the South, the plantation system which was to eventually dominate the South, shape its culture and make it much wealthier than the North in the Colonial and Antebellum periods had its roots in the eastern Atlantic, northern Brazil and the Caribbean (especially in the Lesser Antilles). We traced the spread of sugarcane production from its ancient roots in southern Asia, to India, to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, where it was cultivated on various islands as well as the Iberian peninsula. From there, we followed the more or less westward march of sugarcane production as well as the plantation system and African slave labour that it was based upon from the Portuguese island of Madeira and the Spanish Canary Islands down to the Gulf of Guinea in the 1400s. We have also seen how the Dutch and Sephardic Jews took that system from northern Brazil to the Lesser Antilles in the mid 1600s. Herein we are going to take a closer look at the way in which the Dutch introduction of sugar, the plantation system and African slavery on the British island of Barbados completely changed that society and provided an economic and social model for South Carolina, the Lower South and much of Dixie. The information below is largely taken from the second half of University of Chicago professor Stephan Palmié‘s article ‘Toward Sugar and Slavery’ in the book The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its People (edited by Palmié and Francisco Scarano) except where noted otherwise.
EARLY YEARS OF THE COLONY OF BARBADOS
Barbados was colonised by the English in 1627. By the 1630s the population there was growing rapidly. In those early days it was similar to the English colony of Virginia. The island was uninhabited and therefore indentured labour was used, as in Virginia, and tobacco was grown. In fact, the Barbadians attempted to copy the Virginians in this but tobacco failed as a crop on Barbados and throughout the 1630s the island was less prosperous and successful than Virginia. Things began to change in 1637 when the Dutch brought sugarcane and slaves to Barbados.
DUTCH MAKE MAJOR INTERNATIONAL MOVES
In the 1620s the Netherlands had the highest living standards in Europe. The Dutch also had a large fleet and after a time of engaging in piracy (as did the English and French) against the Spanish, they focused their efforts on conquering outright the most valuable European colonies.
The Portuguese controlled the sugar trade at that time. Not only did they have Madeira (the first sugar colony in the Atlantic, founded in the 1420s), they also controlled the Gulf of Guinea and had sugar colonies there (established in the 1470s). In 1500 the Portuguese colonised Brazil, which grew into the largest and most populous of all their colonies. As well, they had a system of feitorias (fortified trading posts) along the western coast of Africa. In 1575 they had also established colonial control over Angola (which remained a Portuguese colony until 1975) on the southwest African coast and used it as a major source of slave labour. This gave Portugal control over both sides of the Atlantic, a source of slaves and the richest sugar colonies in the world.
In 1630 the Dutch conquered northern Brazil from Portugal and managed to maintain control of the region for 24 years. In 1641, after an earlier failed attempt, the Netherlands also managed to capture Angola (which they held until 1648). Though they were able to maintain control of these Portuguese possessions for only a short time the Dutch established connections between the colonies and Amsterdam, as Palmié describes:
[The Dutch] turned Amsterdam – which already was the center of finance and banking in northern Europe – into one of the major international European markets for sugar. In contrast to the Portuguese, the Dutch apparently had no strong interest in monopolizing sugar production. In their view, profit lay in offering credit and taking over commercial shipping and distribution.
PERNAMBUCO, SUGAR AND THE DUTCH
Professor Palmié notes that by 1526 Brazil was successfully exporting sugar to Europe and by the early 1600s it was the world’s leading producer of sugar, having surpassed Madeira, the Canaries, the sugar islands of the Gulf of Guinea and the sugar-producing Spanish Caribbean colonies. The Portuguese planters in Brazil had plenty of slave labour from their African colonies, which gave them a huge advantage over the Spanish (who had no African colonies) and other European colonial powers (who relied on a limited indentured, settler and native labour force). When the Dutch conquered northern Brazil in 1630 it was already successful. The Dutch brought major finance to the region, which enabled the building of more sugar mills. The area of Pernambuco was particularly profitable as it was the centre of the sugar industry in northern Brazil.
THE ROLE OF SEPHARDIC JEWS
Jews, especially Sephardic exiles from Iberia who had settled in the Netherlands, played a major role in our story. As (New England-educated) University of Alabama-Huntsville professor and author Dr Philip Boucher notes in his essay ‘The French and Dutch Caribbean, 1600-1800′ (included as chapter 14 in Palmié and Scarano’s book), in the nearby Dutch colonies of Curaçao and Suriname Sephardic Jews actually outnumbered ethnic Dutch. As noted in a Reuters article carried by Israeli newspaper Haaretz on 12 November 2007:
Sephardic Jews built the two-story Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue before 1641 – most likely in 1636 – when they enjoyed religious freedom under the Dutch, who ruled part of the northeast region from 1630 to 1654 to control sugar production.
The Mikve Israel Congregation in Curacao, a Dutch Antilles island in the Carribean, was considered by some to have been the first congregation in the Americas. But it was founded only in 1651, also by Sephardic Jews from Holland.
…Historical records in Brazil and Amsterdam show Jews helped build the sugar industry, roads, bridges, and a basic sewage system in the northeast. Many also made money by trading slaves.
At its height in 1645, the Jewish community in Recife counted 1,630 members, the same number as in the thriving Jewish community of Amsterdam, according to Dutch historian Franz Leonard Schalkwijk.
DUTCH BRING SUGARCANE AND SLAVERY TO BARBADOS
In 1637 the Dutch took sugarcane from their recently-acquired colony in northern Brazil to the tiny English colony of Barbados on the outer edges of the Lesser Antilles. Palmié writes:
[T]he crucial role of Dutch merchants in providing financial banking with which British settlers built the first sugar mills on that island is beyond dispute. Dutch planters and sugar masters also taught the British Barbadians what they came to call the “method of Pernambuco” – which included not only the know-how of planting, milling, and processing cane, but also the rudiments of a legal code regulating slavery. …[I]t may be safe to say that within little more than the decade between 1640 and 1650, the Dutch helped to transform Barbados from a slaveholding society with a large yeoman population engaged in fairly diversified economic pursuits into a slave society solidly based on sugar monoculture.
By 1670, the year in which Barbadians colonised South Carolina, the island was the richest and most populous English colony in the Americas and by 1680 this small island was worth more than all those other English colonies combined. From the time of the Dutch introduction of sugarcane and African slaves several other changes had been developing as well. The size of farms began to rapidly grow as large planters bought out smaller farmers. The number of African slaves exploded from about 6,000 in the mid-1640s to 46,000 by 1680. Before 1700, 60,000 more African slaves were imported. Meanwhile, poor Whites and White farmers who worked small or medium sized farms had begun leaving. Not only was the island generally unhealthy for Europeans, it was also becoming a monocultural society dominated by large sugar plantations. In such an environment poorer Whites didn’t have much of place or chance for economic success. The White population of the island which stood at 30,000 in the 1640s was reduced to less than 20,000 by 1680 with only 3,000 being landowners. This consolidation continued and is one of the primary inspirations for Barbadian efforts to colonise Carolina in 1670. By the late 1600s, sugar (and sugar-based products such as molasses and rum) accounted for 95% of Barbados’ exports, according to Palmié.
One of the side effects of the development towards a sugar monoculture on the small island was a growing dependency on outside sources for food. The English North American colonies provided most of these imports, strengthening ties between the South and Caribbean. Meanwhile, all the manufactured products Barbadians needed or wanted were imported from England. The colony represented a near-perfect example of the Mercantilist model which the English of that time sought to replicate elsewhere.
LOOKING AHEAD TO CAROLINA AND THE LOWER SOUTH
As we can see, the 1640s was the pivotal decade for the development of the plantation system on Barbados. This development had major demographic and cultural effects, resulting in a much larger African slave population and a dwindling White (free, indentured and slave) population. Barbados was too small and geographically homogeneous to support both the booming sugar plantations and a White settler population large enough to feed everyone in the colony. Therefore, it became dependent on outside sources of food. When the Barbadian system was transplanted to Jamaica (a much larger island) the English attempted to develop both cultures there, doing what they could to encourage European settlers to raise cattle and crops for food while also encouraging the growth of sugar plantations. Ultimately though, it was Carolina and the Lower South, which was large enough and sufficiently geographically-diverse to support both a large White settler population that could feed the people and a plantation society which could provide the wealth to make the entire project feasible.