Sugar and Slavery
From the mid-17th Century, the plantation-based economies of the British Caribbean were a major driver of Britain’s economy. The production of sugar, rum, coffee and indigo depended, however, on the exploitation of an enslaved workforce.
Over 12 million people were forcibly uprooted from Africa and transported to work on British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. A further four to six million died during their capture or from the rigours of the Atlantic crossing. By the end of the 18th Century, one million enslaved Africans on British plantations were each providing 3,000 hours of unpaid labour every year. At this time the population of England was seven million people.
Torn from their families and stripped of their languages and customs, enslaved Africans created new identities and survival strategies in the face of the routine torture and degradation of plantation life.
The experience of slavery forced Black people to be strong and resourceful. It also made them keenly aware of the value of freedom and willing to fight for it when the opportunity arose. Rebellions and armed resistance were frequent and the West Indian colonies witnessed major uprisings every 20 years.
Despite the economic benefits of slavery in the colonies, Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery itself in 1833. Thereafter, she led the fight to suppress the traffic in human lives.
Seeing beyond the horrors of slavery and the injustices of the colonial system that replaced it, many Black Caribbean people considered Britain the ‘mother country’ and strongly identified with her culture and institutions. Perhaps Britain’s most positive legacy was establishing good schools in the islands which helped create high levels of literacy and numeracy. These schools would produce the first Black volunteers for Britain’s flying services.