Barbados: Indentured Servants to African Slavery

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Sketch of a flag taken from rebels against slavery in Barbados, after the uprising known as Bussa's Rebellion (1816). The flag appears to stress the rebels' loyalty to Britain and to the Crown while conveying their earnest desire for liberty. British forces on Barbados suppressed the revolt and hundreds of the rebels were killed.

The first plantation-based society in the Caribbean, Barbados set the example for slave-based monoculture by moving from indentured servants to slave labor.

Plantation societies require a cheap labor source to be profitable. On Barbados, the sugar plantations were large, up to 200 acres, and initially labor was performed by indentured servants. As Barbados quickly became “the white graveyard”, however, African slaves were brought in to perform the grueling work on the sugar plantations.

Sugar Plantation Culture in Barbados

Both St. Kitts and Barbados saw a large influx of settlers in the mid-17th century. Before long Barbados became the largest sugar producer in the Caribbean and by the early 18th century was competition for Brazil in the world sugar market. By mimicking successful Dutch technology used in South America, Barbados was the first Caribbean island to become a plantation society and soon developed a perfect example of monoculture on the island.

Indentured Servants on Barbados Sugarcane Plantations

Initially, indentured servants worked the sugarcane plantations of Barbados. While not technically slaves, the indentured servants had very few rights during their terms of indenture. The sugar plantation owners paid their passages to Barbados and expected the servants to work off their debts within three to five years. A common practice in the 17th century, indentured servitude was viewed as a type of apprenticeship where a poor able-bodied person could work and learn under the support of a sponsor for a specified term.

Although harsh working conditions were expected for indentured servants, workers on the sugar plantations of Barbados found particularly brutal conditions. Working the cane plantations involved heavy physical labor and very few indentured servants chose to remain as paid laborers once their period of indenture expired. Some did not even live that long, dying before their service ended. With its harsh reputation, finding volunteers for indenture in Barbados became near impossible.

African Slaves Replace Indentured Servants

The shortage and expense of white labor in Barbados had sugar plantation owners once again following the Dutch example. Between 1643 and 1684, the black population in Barbados grew from 6000 to 46,502 while the white population decreased from 37,200 to 23,624. This demonstrates quite effectively the concentration of land ownership into fewer white hands and the growth of the African slave population to support it.

In comparison to indentured servants, slaves represented a higher initial investment for planters, but over the long-term were more than worth it. Enslaved Africans were purchased for life-long service and any children born to them also became slaves. The standard of living for slaves was expected to be less than that of indentured white servants and so slaves could be fed and clothed at less of an expense. In short, enslaved Africans could be exploited to a degree that white indentured servants could not, increasing the profits of sugarcane planters.

Although short-lived, indentured servitude in Barbados had its own unique story before the shift to slavery. Barbados, as the first plantation-based society in the Caribbean, set the example in shifting from indentured servants to slaves. This example was followed in the Lesser Antilles and throughout North America.

Sources:

  1. Elliott, J.H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830. New Haven, 2006.
  2. Rogozinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present. New York, 1999.
  3. Watson, Dr. Karl. BBC Online: “Slavery and Economy in Barbados”.