Like their counterparts in America, slaves in the Caribbean worked on plantations to
produce cash crops that the owners could sell for a profit. While American plantation owners
planted cotton and tobacco, those in the Caribbean cultivated sugar. As a matter of fact, slaves in
both places endured brutal conditions, non-existent medical care, physical punishment and racial
abuse. What is more, they also suffered reduced family and cultural ties as the owners split them
up to minimize cohesiveness. In Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Croix, Saint Dominique, Cuba,
Barbados, and Guyana, African slaves worked from dawn to sundown. They tended the cane that
produced sugar and served it as a sweetener for pastries in Europe. It was also a source of foreign
exchange. Slavery in the Caribbean differed from the one in America in that slaves eventually
mounted successful rebellions that allowed them to establish sovereign nations in places like
Haiti. This meant that they could practice self-government rather than be beholden to the crown.
Specifically, in the Caribbean Slaves threw the shackles of oppression due to high populations.
Virtually, enslaved people in America endured racial prejudice and subjugation longer than those
in the Caribbean and Latin America.
When Europeans first settled in the Caribbean region, they found that growing cane in the
hot and humid conditions led to fast exhaustion. Since they were used to the Northern
hemisphere’s cold temperatures, they could not cope with the local climate. Therefore, they had
no option but to import slaves from Africa. In the beginning, only several hundred African
captives came to the Caribbean. For this reason, the first plantations produced just enough sugar
for consumption in England. The increasing popularity of sugar in Europe led to an incremented
demand for slaves 1 . Slave traders satisfied this demand by diverting fully laden slave ships away
from America. Records from the period show that in 1680, 60 slaves and 600 white men lived in
1 Bergad, Laird. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. California:
Pallsiade Press, 2010, p. 1-9
Barbados. By the turn of the 19th century, the trend reversed and slaves formed 75% of the
For the European plantation owners, numerous slaves translated into increased labor and
high acreage under sugar. Since many slaves died during the arduous journey from Africa’s
western coast to the Caribbean, the owners decided to bring female slaves. However, they
segregated the first group of women from the men until they realized that they could cut
transportation and purchase cost by breeding slaves at home. The enslaved began to increase in
number due to the small size of the islands. The increment was also possible because the owners
wanted to have home grown slaves. The early abolition of slavery by the British only led
plantation owners to depend on their captives to produce children and labor. However, the small
island masses also posed problems because the plantation owners could not disperse related
families adequately. Slaves suffered brutal corporal punishment, summary executions, poor
living conditions, and inadequate diets like their American counterparts. However, the familiar
climate led to lower mortality rates.
Less than 150 years after first setting foot in the Caribbean, slaves outnumbered their
captors 2 . This led to slave rebellions in places like Haiti under Toussaint Louverture, Saint John
by the Akan tribe from Ghana and Jamaica in the Baptist war. The slave rebellion in Haiti started
in 1791 when slaves launched surprise attacks, burnt plantations and killed thousands of whites.
The rebellion eventually led to Black self-rule and Toussaint’s crowning as the governor of Saint
Dominique and Haiti. In America, the white settlers outnumbered Blacks even in the antebellum
South. Moreover, the large expansion of the American territory and white population by
immigrants from major European countries meant that African slaves could neither organize
2 Beckles, Hilary. Caribbean Slave Society and Economy: Chicago: Springer, 2010, p. 7-11
themselves nor mount an effective rebellion. Hostile Indian tribes and the harsh cold climate
further reduced chances of organized resistance.
Plantation owners in America also learned from the mistakes that the European settlers
made in the Caribbean and Latin America 3 . Rather than use white foremen to oversee Black
slaves, the plantation owners gave “trusted” African slaves the mandate to oversee their fellow
slaves. However, they still beat, tortured and violated them at will. Unlike European settlers in
the Caribbean, white owners slept with their female slaves. This led to further broken bonds and
minimal will to mount an effective resistance. There was only one slave rebellion in America’s
history, although it failed despondently.
The 1831 Nat Turner rebellion failed when White militias managed to corner the small
band of fugitive slaves 4 . One can say that slaves in America differed from slaves in the
Caribbean because they lacked the numerical advantage to mobilize resistance. In Latin America,
the situation mirrored the one in the Caribbean. Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela imported
African slaves to work in the cane plantations. The increased profitability of the sugar trade
resulted in further slave importation. This profitability came from Europe's desire to use sugar as
a necessity rather than as a luxury. These slaves also suffered brutality and sub-human working
conditions. They had an advantage in that unlike the white immigrants in America and the
Caribbean, the Hispanics readily interbred with Africans. This interbreeding occurred between
Hispanic men and African women. In some cases, American slave owners bore children with
African females. However, the products of these illicit liaisons ended up as domestic servants or
“house Negroes” 5 . In Latin America, the mixed race offspring gained freedom and even took
3 Meltzer, Milton. Slavery: A World History Paperback. New York: Wiley Press, 2012, 23-36
4 Walvin, James. Atlas of Slavery. New York: Anchor, 2011, 9-14
slaves. However, this did not occur on a widespread basis. These cases were only common where
slave owners were too poor to get wives from the local community. Aristocrats married women
with European heritages to maintain a “pure” blood line. Brutal treatment of African slaves in
Latin America decreased as new rulers made steps to give slaves some freedom 6 . In Bolivia and
Brazil, revolutionaries inducted slaves into their armies to fight Spanish invaders. After their
military service, they could not subjugate them for fear of provoking a rebellion. The rulers
released these slaves into farming areas where most grew crops and traded with the locals. The
pain of racist attitudes did not happen overnight. By analyzing the situation, one can deduce that
the White ruling class in Latin America decided that they were safe in the long run and offered
freedoms to slaves. Brutality towards the slaves could cause a rebellion that would be
economically damaging 7 .
Slave codes in America provided an effective and fool proof method of subjugating
African slaves. These codes dealt with what slaves received as “compensation”. This way, they
could congregate the punishment for transgressions and interactions between them and their
masters’ wives or children. In America, the early slave owners, especially in places like Virginia,
were quick to implement these codes. Any guilty individual received punishment by public
floggings, executions, mutilation, and even lynching. The British plantation settlers in the
Caribbean also used a slave code. The difference between their code and that of America was
5 Walvin, James. Atlas of Slavery. New York: Anchor, 2011, p. 9-14
6 Nowara, Christopher. Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World. New
York: Springer, 2009, 12-19
7 Galeano, Eduardo. Open veins of Latin America. New York: SUNY Press, 2012, p.23-29
that the latter delved into finer detail. From the time America gained independence, the founding
fathers instituted “legal” and “constitutional” measures to ensure that African slaves and their
descendants remained subjugated. These laws said that Africans constituted only three-fifths of
the general population of the enslaved 8 . The laws also prevented Africans from learning to read
and write because slave owners feared that literate slaves would incite others to riot. They also
feared that literate slaves would write literature that would alert the world with regard to
inhuman treatment they bore. The slave codes gave white men complete authority over their
Black slaves, even if they managed to gain their freedom.
In the Caribbean, the slave codes also consisted of written laws. The most basic code
defined slaves as “chattel” or “property”. Although not as extensive as the American code, the
slave code in the Caribbean differed in that it provided some protection for slaves. The code
decreed that masters would provide slaves with one clothing item a year. However, it made no
provisions for housing or diet and denied slaves the same rights as English citizens. This slave
code bore a similarity to the American slave code as it limited emancipation 9 . Children born to
slaves automatically became slaves themselves. The Caribbean slave codes differed mostly
because masters could not inflict “unwarranted” physical punishment on slaves. Furthermore,
masters also used a special lash to administer punishment. They produced it from the naval cat o'
nine tails, and owners could only use it after gaining authorization from a resident magistrate or
the governor. In America, anyone of any age could brutally abuse a slave and get away with it.
8 Bentley, Jerry & Ziegler, Herbert. Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History Volume 2. California:
Spartan Press, 2010, p. 3-10
9 Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: Lansdale Publishers, 2009, 11-17
Militias and ordinary white members of society frequently attacked slaves for the
flimsiest reasons. They then sought and received protection from the law. Common excuses
given included alleged rape attempts against white women, theft and belligerent attitudes. The
American codes even denied African slaves the right to own any livestock or permanent houses
on the plantation. In contrast, the slave codes enacted by the British and Dutch allowed slaves to
keep some livestock and carry out some ancient African ceremonies. Slaves could not consume
any product associated with sugar such as rum, whisky or pastries. In Latin America, slave codes
hardly existed, although owners brutally subjugated their slaves. The plantation owners instead
resorted to divide and conquer tactics to keep the enslaved in check. In places like Brazil, Peru
and Colombia, the owners divided slaves into African born slaves, locally born slaves,
Quilombos, Mulattos and Native Indians. They then pitted these slaves against each other.
Mulattos or slaves with mixed African and European heritage received much better treatment
than original slaves from Africa. Locally born slaves also held higher ranks than imported slaves.
The masters used Native Indians who stubbornly showed resistance as scapegoats and objects of
everyone’s hate. As slave populations increased, the phenomenon of slavery took another
dimension. Slaves worked not only in the fields, but also in gold, silver, and tin mines. This gave
them greater freedom than those in farm settings. New unwritten slave codes sought to placate
the new breed of slaves by offering temporary inducements in exchange for cooperation. Those
who adhered to these codes received preferential treatment, while those who resisted were
subjected to economic marginalization and brutality. One can say that the slave codes in the
Caribbean were less widespread or restrictive than the countries discussed herein. They sought to
placate and control the slaves with violence as a last result.
Beckles, Hilary. Caribbean Slave Society and Economy, 7-11. Chicago: Springer, 2010.
Bentley, Jerry & Ziegler, Herbert. Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History Volume 2, 3-
10. California: Spartan Press, 2010.
Bergad, Laird. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, 1-9.
California: Pallsiade Press, 2010.
Galeano, Eduardo. Open veins of Latin America, 23-29. New York: SUNY Press, 2012.
Meltzer, Milton. Slavery: A World History Paperback, 23-36. New York: Wiley Press, 2012.
Morgan, Edmund. American Slavery, American Freedom, 11-17. New York: Lansdale
Nowara, Christopher. Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World,
12-19. New York: Springer, 2009.
Walvin, James. Atlas of Slavery, 9-14. New York: Anchor, 2011.