Imagine that there is an island with two groups of people. The minority group exploits the much larger majority. The majority are the slaves of the minority. If any of the majority objects to their exploitation they will probably be burnt alive. Lesser offenders, minor rebels, may merely be hung or castrated. The minority may do what they wish to the majority. There are no legal constraints. A housemaid may be tortured to death for breaking some china. Many of the minority become incredibly rich. The majority are treated like animals. They are there to work on plantations.
The island is Bermuda, a British colony in the Caribbean. It is the first of the British sugar islands. The time is any time between the mid 17th century and the mid 19th century. The majority, the slaves, had been brought from Africa to grow sugar. The minority, the white British, have gone to Bermuda to get rich.
In the early days the plantations were worked by indentured servants. A half million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean. Some were sent because they were criminals or rebels, but the majority went voluntarily. They hoped to make their fortunes. In return for four to seven years labour their passage and keep would be provided by the plantation owners. Then they would be free. Some were mistreated but there were constraints on what could be done. Indentured servants could complain to a local magistrate about mistreatment. However, between a third and a half of indentured servants died before they were freed and the islands became known as death traps.
So much money was made by the Bermuda sugar planters that other islands, including Jamaica, were planted with sugar and slaves were brought from Africa.
Died like flies
People died like flies. The death rate on the islands was incredibly high. In Kingston, Jamaica, in some years in the 1740s and 1750s, 20 per cent of the population died each year. The death rate was equal to London’s during the Black Death, but it went on year after year. When Thomas Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica in 1750 he was told that only 14 out of 136 who had arrived on a ship 16 months earlier were still alive.
Strangely enough, the death rate for the minority was higher than for the majority. The sugar planters died faster than their slaves because they had less immunity to yellow fever. They also drank beyond excess. They dressed for cool London, not the Caribbean. Hurricanes and frequent wars with the French further increased mortality rates.
Why did the British go to the sugar islands when death rates were so high? The answer was money. They could, if they lived, make far more money than they could make back home, or in Britain’s poorer northern colonies. The sugar islands were the wild frontier of the British Empire. People lived hard [and worked others harder] and hoped to survive enough to go home rich and buy an estate to live like the aristocracy.
I had seen references to the horrors of slavery but I did not fully understand what these were until I read The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker, Hutchinson 2011. Life on a plantation would have been hard even if it had been run by saints. When they were run by the cruelly indifferent, psychopaths or outright sadists they must have been hideous places to live and work.
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park Sir Thomas Bertram owns the Mansfield Park estate and a sugar plantation in Antigua. The genteel refined life of the Mansfield Park ladies is maintained by money from a hell hole in the Caribbean. The Antigua plantation is hardly mentioned by Austen. Perhaps she imagined sugar plantations were rather like English farms, tilled by happy black yeomen.
The slaves were freed in the 1830s. It would have been nice if they had been compensated for their sufferings, but it was the planters that got the compensation. They had the votes in Parliament and received huge payments from the British Government for the loss of their slaves. The slaves got little. They were left on over populated islands and were further impoverished when other sources of sugar became available and prices collapsed. They became just one more group moved around the world for private profit and then abandoned when no longer needed.
When the slaves were freed many left the plantations and the owners turned again to indentured labour. The majority came from India. Indeed, From 1846 to 1932, an estimated 28 million Indians left India as indentured labourers. Eventually, they were also abandoned when no longer needed.
Sugar or Yankees?
The sugar islands were immensely valuable to Britain; far more valuable than the relatively poor North American colonies. England caused discontent in its northern colonies by applying tariffs which benefited the sugar planters but penalised Americans. When another war with the French came and Britain had the choice of defending the West Indies or North America, they choose to defend the former, they were worth much more. North America had no valuable crop comparable to sugar. Probably, the British Government thought, the place would never amount to much.
Why was sugar so valuable? The answer is tea. The British developed a taste for tea and, unlike the Chinese, they like to drink it hot and sweet. Hence the demand for sugar. Tea has an unsavoury history. The British fought the opium wars against China so that they could continue selling opium to the Chinese and use the profits from the drug trade to buy tea. To supply the British with a hot drink slaves were mistreated and killed in the sugar islands and ordinary Chinese were turned into drug addicts.