Caribbean Slavery

Slaves were people captured in war, used to settle a debt, or made slaves as a means of punishment. The Spaniards in the Caribbean had little need for African slaves in the early 1500s for various reasons. The Treaty of Tordesillas, which was a line of demarcation drawn north to south, west of the Azores and Cape Verde’s, stipulated that the areas west of the line belonged to the Spaniards and the east to the Portuguese. As a result of the treaty Africa was on Portugal’s side of the line, so in order for Spaniards to obtain African slaves they had to go through the Portuguese.

During the period of the early 1500s the Treaty of Tordesillas resulted in the Portuguese being the first nation that the Spaniards granted an asiento. This was granted in 1515. These special licenses, asientos, only allowed a specific number of slaves into a diverse number of countries and limited the need for African slaves.

The cost to ship slaves from West Africa to Portugal and Spain and then to the Americas proved prohibitive. There was easier access to Taino labour and it was unnecessary to spend extra money on importing slaves.

Tainos were used to find and mine the gold because they were familiar with the surroundings and there were enough Tainos to mine the little gold the Spaniards had found. Indentured servants or white servants also contributed to the need for only a small number of African slaves in the 1500s. Indentured servants (contracted workers; poor people from Europe) started to migrate to the Caribbean from Europe, as the Caribbean were advertised as having prospects of a new life and jobs.

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Their contracts usually lasted four to five years. The islands that were found in the Caribbean needed to be developed in order to make them suitable for living.

The Spaniards offered property as an incentive to attract people who would develop the islands and settle there. This was how indentured servants were coaxed into migrating. Eventually however, the Amerindians and white servants were no longer a sufficient labour force. B. The Amerindians were not used to the working conditions and thus died. Also, Old World diseases such as measles, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, chicken pox, yellow fever, whooping cough, smallpox, influenza and gonorrhea affected them while some died from depression.

Indentured servants were unskilled in cultivation and unwilling to work. They were unaccustomed to the conditions of the Caribbean and succumbed to various New World diseases such as syphilis and yellow fever. Africans worked harder, survived the conditions of the Caribbean better (similar conditions existed in Africa), knew how to plant tropical plants, and were more resistant to Old World diseases. They were also less costly than indentured servants and there was a more constant supply of African slaves than indentured servants.

The trade winds which blew from east to west made coming to the Caribbean from Africa very easy. That is in comparison to traveling from Europe to the Caribbean which was difficult as the trade winds worked against sailing ships. Also ships had a longer distance to cover when they sailed to the Caribbean from Europe. African slaves were their master’s property. Masters could do whatever they pleased with the African slaves as they paid for them and they were their property. Offspring produced by said slaves was also their master’s property.

This added to the reliability of African slaves as there would always be another generation to enslave. Indentured servants could easily escape as they had the same appearances, knew the culture and language and therefore could easily blend into the crowd and disappear with the influx of people coming and leaving the Caribbean islands. Africans could not do this because of their colour and it would be difficult for them to escape. This added to the appeal of using African slaves.

Plantation owners became greedy and no longer wanted to give or offer their sugar lands so as to attract indentured servants to come to the Caribbean. The plantation owners saw the Africans as a commodity therefore did not have to give any incentive to attract them because they were their property and enslaved to them. For these reasons the Africans were seen as a perfect source of labour. Increased work resulted in increased productivity, which increased the wealth of the Spaniards. C. By the 1600s and 1700s African slaves became more popular in the Caribbean.

Amerindians had died out by the 1500’s due to diseases, overwork and ill-treatment. Indentured servants had lost fervour in coming to the Caribbean as it was costly to travel and the chances of surviving the tropical conditions were slim. Some ran away, breaking their contract, to become Buccaneers. The decline in the number of available indentured servants and Tainos, and the growth of the colonies increased the need for labour. Sugar had become very popular and was in demand on the European market. The wealth that sugar brought was recognized and more land as cultivated for sugar production. The sugar revolution had begun and the Dutch saw an opportunity to sell slaves in the Caribbean as there was a rise in labour needs. The Dutch were granted an asiento in 1667, by this time Dutch trading in African slaves became very popular. Additionally, slaves were severely abused and thus many died. The rapid demise of slaves from the harsh conditions resulted in a constant need and this also added to the “great extension of African slavery in the rest of the Caribbean in the 1600s and 1700s”.

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Caribbean Slavery. (2018, Oct 16). Retrieved from

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