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Interactive History Feature: 1628 Across the Continent

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Caribbean Islands

Drawing of slave
This image depicts the African slave trade that fuled the colonial economies of the Caribbean islands.
The West Indies stimulated prosperity on the North American mainland where farmers produced lumber, fish, livestock, and grain to supply the sugar plantations. With the production of sugar, the West Indies overtook the Chesapeake as the most valuable set of English colonies. Great labor demands fueled an immense slave trade, all serving as the great engine of the English empire.

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the West Indies was an especially ruthless and violent zone. Determined to plunder Spanish shipping, English, French, and Dutch pirates and smugglers established bases in the Lesser Antilles. The Indians there, the Caribs, were particularly fearsome, and in the early 1600s they destroyed two early English attempts at colonies. But in the 1620s and early 1630s, the English were successful founding colonies on the islands of St. Christopher (1624), Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Monsterrat (1632) and Antigua (1632).

During this time period the French and the Dutch lagged behind the English in West Indian colonization. The Dutch occupied a few small islands, St. Martin, St. Eustatius, Saba, and Curaçao. In the 1620s, the French shared St. Christopher -- now known as St. Kitts -- with the English, and in 1635 they begin a long period of settling (hampered by the Caribs) Guadeloupe and Martinique. In the 1650s, the French occupied the western coast of Hispaniola, calling their colony St. Domingue (now Haiti).

Sugar cane workers
Cuban workers harvest sugar cane onto an ox cart.
In the mid-17th century the West Indies attracted the largest numbers of English migrants, receiving over two-thirds of the English emigrants to the Americas. The great majority of these travelers came as indentured servants and settled in Barbados.

Barbados would become the most profitable of all the English colonies by the end of the 17th century, after it switched from tobacco production to its salvation crop of sugar in the 1640s. The Dutch made most of the profit though having financed the development of the sugar plantations and mills on Barbados. Yet the New England colonies on the mainland benefited. As the planters in Barbados devoted all their land and labor to raising cane, New England provided food, horses, cattle, and lumber.

African slaves provided the much-needed large labor force to perform the monotonous and dangerous work of the sugar plantations. After the 1650s the supply of white indentured servants began to dry up due to increased wages in England and less incentive to migrate to the West Indies. Additionally, lifelong slaves were a better long-term investment for their owners than having indentured servants for just four to seven years. By 1660, African slaves outnumbered colonists on Barbados. The Africans were also a convenient labor pool to exploit -- not only had they been removed from their homeland, they were easily discerned by their skin color should they try to escape.

In the next century, Jamaica produced more sugar than Barbados and replaced Barbados as the wealthiest English colony. By the end of the 17th century, the West Indian colonies featured a small, rich planter elite; a marginal population of poor whites; a great majority of black slaves; and a very small number of maroons (escaped slaves).

In 1628, a Dutch flotilla intercepted and captured the entire Spanish treasure fleet on its return from the Caribbean. This nearly bankrupted the Spanish crown, and enriched many Dutch investors.

-- Mica McCarthy



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