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The Caribbean's History of Exploitation of Labour

“The history of the Caribbean is the history of exploitation of labour.” Discuss with reference to Encomienda, Slavery and Indentureship.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, exploitation is defined as being the action or condition of treating someone or a group of people unfairly in order to benefit from their work, also, labour refers to work that is done using bodily strength and effort. In a historical sense, the Caribbean can be defined as being a group of countries sharing the same background of forced labour through the institutions of colonization, indentureship and slavery in some form or another (Robottom and Clayton, 2001).

Understanding this, the historical Caribbean would be inclusive of the Bahamas and Guyana as well as some Central American countries.

As it speaks to colonization, there were three main Old World colonizers that set out for land to conquer and riches to claim; Spaniards, the British, and the French, each of whom utilized systems of exploitation in order to obtain what they had sought from the so called “New World”, which were mainly new lands for the Feudal Lords or Kings and/or Queens of their respective mother countries.

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In contemporary Caribbean society, the population is one of the most demographically diverse regions in the world, this is a result of the heavy colonization of the region that was initiated by Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Caribbean in search of a shorter route to India, thus the reason for calling the region the West Indies, which resulted in more European colonists coming to the Caribbean in search of the riches and produce of the region.

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The exploitation of labour has long been the very backbone or foundation on which the diasporic and historical Caribbean has been formed through the Old World colonists importing slaves and indentured labourers from various parts of the world like West Africa, India and China.

Firstly speaking with reference to the Spaniard Encomienda system which started formally in 1503; the term “Encomienda” was coined from the Spanish verb encomendar, which means to entrust. This therefore means that both parties had entrusted their resources to each other, as the main objectives of the Encomienda system that was seemingly to be to the benefit of the indigenous people was to spread the doctrines of the Christian faith, provide adequate housing facilities and food provision for the native people of the colonized islands (Yeager, 843). In exchange for these amenities, the natives would have to work for the Spaniards as slaves. The Encomienda system was considered to be the most damaging institutions that the Spanish colonist implemented in the New World.

The Encomienda system was also developed as a means of obtaining adequate and cheap labour. However it may be said that in being able to obtain this labour, the Spaniard Encomenderos were rewarded with land as well as the natives that accommodated that same land due to their endeavours on successful conquests. This was as early as 1499, and this took four years to become a formal rewarding system for the Spaniard Conquistadores.

The Queen of Spain, Queen Isabella, did not support the notion of enslaving humans to do work. Knowing this, the Spaniard Encomenderos did not let Queen Isabella know that they were forcing others to labour on their plantations, so they sent her tributes from the indians such as goods and metals. However, the abolition of the encomienda system was becoming imminent as of 1510 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had begun to regret allotting such power to Columbus, therefore they sent an agent to oversee the running of the system. Word had gotten to the King and Queen by means of this agent about the mistreatment of the natives of the region, thus leading to its abolition in 1542 and in effect its replacement by the crown governed Repartimiento system.

This Encomienda system had impacted the Spanish speaking Caribbean countries in both good and bad ways, whereas the demography of these islands are quite diverse due to the reception of the African slaves that mixed with the Amerindians, and later on the Spaniards that interbred with both African and Amerindian slaves which had slowly become deemed as the “Grey Area”; where whites and coloured people had copulated.

Slavery had first begun in the British-colonized Caribbean during the period of the arrival of the first African that came to the Caribbean in 1517 by the Spaniards. This was in response to the decline of the tobacco industry in the Caribbean due to the the new focus on the crop in Virginia. Therefore, without a main crop that provided subsistence and export income, the British had turned to sugar cane, a plantation crop that required a stronger, more efficient work force that was overall more in numbers. The native Amerindians were dying out rapidly due to the unfamiliar notion of being overworked by their slave masters.

They obtained their work force by means of stealing/tricking the African head tribesmen into trading his people for so called “riches”, which in fact were of no value to the Europeans, thus meaning that they robbed the tribesmen in what was seemingly a “fair trade”. These West-African slaves were brought to the Caribbean via ship across the Atlantic along a path known as the Middle Passage; a treacherous stretch of water where numerous West Africans lost their lives due to below standard living conditions, being killed by the Europeans and suicide by jumping overboard.

Slavery’s impact on the Caribbean correlates with George Beckford’s analysis of the region as being a Plantation Society, a social system encompassing an entire lifestyle of the population inhabiting the region, inclusive of social, socio-economic and demographic factors. In the context of contemporary Caribbean society, as it relates to the Plantation System, social mobility in both contexts somewhat differ but yet share a common trait that coincides with the factor of the demography of the population.

Social mobility is the ability of a person or a group of people to be able to advance within a social system of open stratification, meaning that it is a process by which one is able to advance in social class within their population. In the era of slavery, the social system was one of closed stratification, therefore, a slave was not able to advance within the social strata or framework due to what Amartya Sen sees as an “unfreedom”; these unfreedoms are prejudices, inclusive of race and class, that cannot be changed and in effect, the slaves social standing could not either.

However in the contemporary Caribbean society, a member of the society is able to move up in social class based on the wealth or property he acquires. Although this is dependent on the governmental framework, whether it be communist, in which case it would be closed stratification, or capitalist, social mobility is a key factor of the link between the era of slavery and the contemporary Caribbean, as it has evolved through the abolition of slavery in 1834 as well as the mixing of the demographic to create a third social strata apart from the black and whites, the mulattoes.

The British and French slavery system has impacted the Caribbean society both in good and bad ways, as previously discussed, the evolution of social mobility may be deemed as good, while one of the shortcomings of the slavery system is that the slaves were being abused by their slave masters and were being treated as animals. This can be somewhat translated into contemporary Caribbean society as being a form of not only capital punishment in educational institutions, mostly primary, but also of abuse within the home. Although the numbers for these cases are not in the majority, the cases are still present in the Caribbean. The slavery system was abolished in 1834 finally fully abolished in 1838, by which time Indentureship had begun.

Indentureship had begun from 1838 and was designed as a means of obtaining a work force to work on the plantations for low pay, especially since slavery was abolished. A strong and dependable workforce was in high demand at the point of it’s institution, as although some emancipated African slaves had stayed back, the number wasn’t enough to sustain the plantation.

The first set of indentured labourers to have arrived to the Caribbean were the Chinese labourers. They had arrived in two main waves, where the first waves was intended to be the replacement work force to work on the sugar cane plantations during the post Emancipation period. They mostly went to British Guiana, Trinidad and Cuba. The second wave, however, consisted of mostly relatives of the members of the first wave that went to British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad. The former slave owners had decided to use Chinese labourers due to them being “free civilized people”, thus that would set an example for the newly freed Africans in order to alleviate the chances of a rebellion against them.

However, this venture was did not reap any substantial dividends as the mortality rate on the plantations were increasing as well as abandonment. The first wave of Chinese were not used to that level of physical labour and slowly died out, while the second wave of Chinese were free voluntary migrants that came due to the discontent of the labourers who had wanted to carry their families to the Caribbean with them. This therefore means that the most modern Caribbean Chinese are descendants of the second wave of Chinese immigrants.

After the British had seen that the Chinese labourers were not as dependable and not as cheap, the sought a new workforce from India, so the British had sent agents to Calcutta to convince the Indians to come to the Caribbean and work on the sugar plantations. when the first Indian arrived in the Caribbean in 1838, they were forced to live under harsh conditions as the Europeans had the same mentality of slavery, so when the Indians tried to flee the plantation, they were chased, caught, brought back to the plantation and punished.By 1841, India had banned immigration to Guyana due to the news of the labourers being treated like slaves. However by 1845 the immigration of Indians would continue through Portugal, where the Portuguese workers who were coming to the Caribbean, knowing that they would be branded as slaves, had carried approximately 5000 Indians along with them.

The Indentureship system had impacted the contemporary Caribbean lifestyle in the sense of the demographic factor, as well as business wise. Demographically speaking, both Indians and Chinese that came to the Caribbean have influenced the racial diversity of the region, where during the era of Indentureship, more Indians had gone to Guyana and Trinidad, in contemporary Caribbean society, this same racial ratio is still present as approximately over 50% of Guyana’s population are of Indian descent. Along with the demographic factor comes cultural diversity, which encompasses a lifestyle unique to their homeland. In terms of style of business, this trait or practice was adopted from the Chinese indentured labourers who had left the plantation in order to establish shops and other income oriented businesses. In contemporary Caribbean society, Chinese citizens are usually thought to be in some sort of business management.

The Caribbean does indeed have the history of the exploitation of labour as its own, and due to the Old World’s conquests of the New World’s land and riches, this provided a reason to find interest in the West Indies. The abundance of unclaimed land, availability of resources and an available workforce in the Amerindians was motivation enough to exploit not only the resources of the region, but also to exploit the labour of not only the Native people, but also the African slaves and East Indian indentured labourers. However, this history of exploitation is the very basis on which the contemporary Caribbean has been formed as with the slaves and indentured labourers that came, so did their cultures and practices. This therefore contributes to the diverse nature of the Caribbean society.

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The Caribbean's History of Exploitation of Labour. (2016, Aug 06). Retrieved from

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