As discussed in recent articles, the shared plantation-based civilisation of the South and Caribbean was split apart by the American Revolutionary War. We have seen how British troops were eagerly welcomed by British colonists in the Caribbean but protested by mainland colonists. We’ve also seen how the Stamp Act was violently protested in the mainland colonies but largely accepted in the British West Indies even though it placed a far greater burden on the Caribbean.
Herein we are going to take a look at the disastrous consequences of the American Revolution in the British Caribbean. Professor Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy notes on page 160 of his book An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean, ‘The British West Indies stood to gain nothing from the American Revolutionary War.’ Indeed, the sugar monopoly which British Caribbean colonists enjoyed in Great Britain would have been lost. The mainland source of food and other supplies (including wood, which is in short supply on many small Caribbean island and vitally import to the sugar-making process) would have been lost in the event of a British blockade. The British troops which protected colonists from slave rebellions would have been lost. A host of economic and social consequences, too destructive to risk, compelled British West Indians to remain loyal to Britain. Many Caribbean colonists wanted reform, but most feared the breakup of the Empire.
When war broke out on the mainland between rebels and British troops, Caribbean colonists feared the worst. Unfortunately for them, their fears came true. The mainland colonists went on to declare their independence in 1776 while starvation gripped the previously prosperous British Caribbean. O’Shaughnessy writes:
The “fatal consequences” predicted by the merchants and planters at the outbreak of the war were “in a great measure experienced” during the course of the war. West Indians had feared severe shortages of food and supplies following the loss of imports from North America. …Barbados also suffered acute shortages in the early years of the American [Revolutionary] War. In 1776, the poorest whites gathered in flocks to find food and to pick “the most wretched of all fruits of the earth, to eat for their subsistence.” A simultaneous smallpox epidemic killed hundreds of blacks and some whites. The inhabitants were “starving – many families not having the common necessaries of life.”
…The subsistence crisis was greatest in Antigua, where shortages were compounded by a prolonged drought. Between the summer of 1779 and the autumn of 1780, one-tenth of the slaves on the Parham estate of the Tudway family died (primarily from dysentery). The remaining slaves were too frail to process the sugar crop. …One-fifth of the 38,000 slaves died between 1778 and 1781.
The dramatic rise in the cost of supplies as well the usual wartime inflation resorted to by central governments resulted in much lower plantation profits. In the nearby French islands of the Caribbean prices were one-fourth what they were on British islands. Efforts by the British government to cover the cost of the American Revolution included import duties which further hurt the Caribbean. Sugar production fell. Debt became a major problem for many planters. In some cases, land was even abandoned. All in all, the American Revolution was an unmitigated disaster for much of the British Caribbean.