Completed Final Project!
Christopher Columbus unknowingly became the first European to travel to the Caribbean Islands in 1492, sparking a long period of slavery, racism, and discrimination in the region. Before slave-run plantations became the Caribbean’s first major source of income, Europeans tried, and ultimately failed, to settle the area. It was not until roughly 150 years after its “discovery” that slavery became prominent in the region. After the introduction of sugar plantations and industry to the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, the region became a very busy one, becoming active in world trade. Before the implementation of slavery, European indentured servants and free wage laborers carried the heavy workload of Caribbean sugar plantations. Plantations finally started using imported African slaves to work in the sugar fields in the 1640’s. (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk). The switch to slave labor saved plantation owners a substantial amount of money and these owners found “black Africans as better fitted for the tropical climate, more resistant to disease, and stronger than the Europeans.” (Higman, 123-124). The introduction of imported slaves to the Caribbean sugar plantations led to a tumultuous cycle of pain, suffering, and discrimination for African slaves, as well as an abundance of wealth for the white plantation owners. This horrific history has left the modern day Caribbean islands years behind the rest of the world, developmentally, economically, and politically. How does slavery’s illustrious history in the Caribbean affect the area today? What challenges do the modern day Caribbean islands face directly resulting from slavery?
Slavery and the slave trade were huge parts of the Caribbean’s early colonial history. Slave-powered sugar plantations made up the majority of the region’s revenue during this era. The majority of imported African slaves ended up in the Caribbean during this time. As a result of this, the majority of the population in the Caribbean Islands were non-white minorities after the abolishment of slavery. The region was left in ruins economically, socially, and politically. With the majority of the population being descendants of former slaves, the region was left hundreds of years behind the rest of the world in most aspects. Being enslaved prevented these people from becoming educated and building their countries so they fell behind the rest of the world who did have these opportunities that come with freedom. White Europeans justified slavery through beliefs that Africans were less than human, and biologically inferior. These centuries of inequality has left the modern day Caribbean region in shambles and the countries are rightfully calling for reparations. Slavery left a developmental gap of the better part of three centuries in Africa, and the Caribbean’s populations. The Caribbean Islands still struggle economically and socially today as a result from its slave-centric past.
Unbeknownst to many Americans, most of the slaves shipped overseas were sent to the Caribbean, not the U.S. This should give some insight to the vast degree to which slavery was utilized in the Caribbean. Geographically speaking, the United States of America has a much larger landmass than the Caribbean Islands, yet more slaves were imported to the Caribbean. The attached image shows a chart that portrays the magnitude of African slaves destined for the Caribbean between 1500 and 1870.
According to slavevoyages.org, a database of recorded slave voyages, a staggering 4,930,389 of 9,405,034 African slaves ended up in the Caribbean Islands over the course of the slave-trading era. Because of how long ago these transgressions happened, there is bound to be some discrepancy between different sources data. This source calculates the percentage of African slaves sent to the Caribbean as roughly 45 percent. Different sources show a different percent value, usually hovering around the 50 percent area. Though different sources have different numbers, they all agree that the Caribbean had the heaviest African slave traffic during this era, followed closely by Brazil. The pandemic of slavery was justified by its European founders, completely negating the consideration of slavery’s immorality.
White, British plantation owners justified slavery by endorsing the belief that people of color, specifically “…the African was sub-human. Thus African slavery was legitimized by already existing views of Africans as inferior…” (Ratansi,30). This idea of Africans, who were “black” being sub-human, rationalized the religious idea of “whiteness being linked to goodness and chastity…” (Law, 6). This insinuated that “blackness” was linked to badness or immorality. This theory stemmed from the belief that Europeans were biologically superior to people of colors. This theory was largely popular during the world’s slavery era, completely negating the moral aspect of slavery. These theories pointed to biological factors, like size and shape of the head having links to intelligence.”…Andrew Morton in his Crania Americana (1839) used measurements of the internal capacity of skulls to construct a hierarchy of those with the biggest brains, Caucasians at the top and Ethiopians (‘unmixed Negroes’ and ‘Africans’) at the bottom.(Law, 31). Because of these (false) biological and religious justifications, slavery was not seen as immoral at all. This was seen as a sort of natural selection gleaned from European ideas of white supremacy. Though these ideas were developed close to the end of the slavery era, they were a justification for the centuries of slavery and inequality. Though slavery is no longer socially accepted, some people still maintain some of these values, leaving racism and inequality to be large issues in the modern day Caribbean Islands.
Though slavery has long since been abolished in the Caribbean and the rest of the world, this tropical region is still facing the negative effects of the disease that was slavery. Both the Caribbean and Africa, as well as other regions, missed hundreds of years that could have been used advancing their societies economically, socially, educationally, technologically, and politically because of the atrocity that is slavery.
Western societies advanced by using the backs of slaves as stepping stools. This is apparent in the modern day world. Some of the poorest countries in the world lie in either Africa or the Caribbean. This image shows the scant room and belongings of a young Cuban child. This shows an accurate depiction of how many people live in the Caribbean today, still financially handicapped from the region’s history with slavery. Bloody slave revolts inspired by the French Revolution, left countries like Haiti in squalor. Even now, Haiti is the 20th poorest country in the world with a GDP per capita of $1,338, and is “the poorest nation outside of the African continent.”(Business Insider). The most telling part about this quote is that the 19 poorer countries in the world lie in Africa, the continent where the majority of slaves were stolen from. In addition to making these countries extremely poor, and consequently unstable, the citizens of these countries still face racism and discrimination. Racism is supposed to be a thing of the past, Fidel Castro even “officially abolished racial discrimination” when he came to power in Cuba in 1959. (Hinckley, 72). Unfortunately, these inequalities and ideas of white supremacy still resonate with many people in the world today.
Because of the crippling economic and discriminatory effects of slavery, Caribbean nations are calling for reparations from its early colonizers. Caribbean nations rightfully blame European powers for the poverty pandemic sweeping the nation. “In 2003, Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, called on France to repay the 1825 indemnity, which he blamed for his country’s poverty. The argument was historically sound: to pay France, Haiti had had to borrow money from French banks, entering a century-long cycle of debt.” (Dubois, A29). Haiti had won its freedom from France in 1804, but in 1825 agreed to pay France for diplomatic recognition. Having no money with which to pay, Haiti had to borrow money from France as the above quote illustrates. The demanded reparations are justified by the history of slavery, but the Caribbean has not received proper compensation. France sent aid to Haiti after the tragic earthquake of 2010 flattened the country, but in no way has France fully repaid Haiti for the harm it caused in the past. The rest of the Caribbean, as well as Africa, is still waiting for appropriate financial compensation from Europe. Since these poor nations do not have the military strength to force payments, they must continue to wait for reparations, hoping that they someday will come in full.
The Caribbean’s past as a plantation based, slave society has made the modern day quality of life very challenging for the inhabitants. Centuries of serving as Europe’s pedestal to greatness have taken their toll on the Caribbean, making it one of the poorest regions in the world. False biological and religious beliefs, as well as the idea of white supremacy, justified slavery of Africans to Europeans. The ideas of white supremacy led some Caribbean elites to reject the “African component of their culture.” (Black in Latin America). The people of this region still face both racial and economic discrimination, discrimination that originated with slavery. At the peak of African slave trade, over half of the slaves went to the Caribbean. Now the descendants of these slaves are trying to rebuild this tropical region, brick by brick, into a region of prosperity, which is no easy task. Caribbean countries’ quest for reparations from European countries is ongoing as the region tries to escape its slave-centric past.
- Black in Latin America. United States: PBS Distribution, 2011. Film.
- Dubois, Laurent. “Confronting the Legacies of Slavery.” The New York Times. October 28, 2013. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/29/opinion/international/confronting-the-legacies-of-slavery.html?pagewanted=all&module=Search&mabReward=relbias:w.
- “Here Are The 20 Poorest Nations In The World.” Business Insider. October 3, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2014. http://www.businessinsider.com/poorest-countries-in-the-world-2010-8/republic-of-haiti-1#20-republic-of-haiti-1.
- Higman, B. W. A Concise History of the Caribbean. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 123-124.
- Hinckley, David. “Latin America Still Bound By Slavery’s Past”, Daily News (New York), April 19, 2011, 72. http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/.
- Law, Ian. Racism and Ethnicity: Global Debates, Dilemmas, Directions. Harlow, England: Longman, 2010.
- “List of Voyages.” Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Accessed December 6, 2014. http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/database/search.faces.
- Rattansi, Ali. Racism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 30.
- “Slavery in the Caribbean.” Slavery in the Caribbean. Accessed December 6, 2014. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/archaeology/caribbean/.