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The Caribbean is a vastly diverse area representing the effects of colonialism, slavery, and the combination of many cultures.
Since the arrival of Europeans the Caribbean islands have been going through constant change. The loss of native peoples and the introduction of the plantation system had immediate and permanent reprocussions on the islands. The Plantation system set up a society which consisted of a large, captive lower class and a powerful, wealthy upper class. As the plantation systems became successful labor was needed in order to progress. Slavery became the answer to the problem. Slavery played an important role in the how the economy changed the islands because there was a shift on the main economic ingredient, Sugar.

Section 2 of Caribbean Slave Society and Economy shows how the economy shifted during this expansion. Before sugar became the main export in 1643, tobacco, sugar, indigo and ginger were the main exports in the English and French Antilles. Tobacco and cotton became important in "pre-sugar era because it was easy to cultivate and did not need as much labor as the sugar plantations. Robert Carlylebatie in the essay "Why sugar? Economic Cycles and the Changing of Staples on the English and French Antilles, 1624-54" writes, "the mastery of the art of making sugar required time, skill and money. It is no wonder, then, that colonists waited until tobacco values reached very near their long-run levels before seriously committing themselves to learning how to produce muscovado, the common brown sugar later exported from the islands" (44). As sugar became difficult to cultivate with little labor more labor were needed. The sugar production lead to the core of the importation of African slaves.

Both the Mintz the author of the article "The Caribbean as a Socio-Cultural Area" and Benitez-Rojo author of the article "From the plantation to the Plantation" contribute to the discussion on how the plantations and slavery have made the Caribbean what it is today, diverse and complicated.

One big difference between the articles is that Mintz includes the plantations as part of one of the nine major factors which falls under capitalism of the Caribbean but Benitez-Rojo writes, "I think that one must agree with Mintz that the plantation seems indispensable to studying the societies of the area. In my opinion, nonetheless, the plantation could turn out to be an even more useful parameter; it could serve as a telescope for obswerving the changes and the continuities of the Caribbean galaxy through the lenses of multifold disciplines…" (38). Benitez-Rojo includes the history of the plantations and how the history affected the culture of the islands. For example, one of the subtitles is Hispaniola: the first plantations where he explains how the first plantations were started up, he writes, "Those who, for one reason or another, decided not to leave the colony began to think up enterprises that would allow them to subsist there… someone remembered the sugarcane that Columbus had brought to the island, and he began to get molasses and brown sugar using rudimentary machines" (40). As slavery was introduced to the system a creole culture emerge and the Africanization of culture.

An issue which was brought up due to Slavery is the issue of identity especially for those who are affected by the system. Michelle Cliff in her novel Abeng and her article "If I could write this in fire" uses her homeland of Jamaica to help point out or disagree with some of the important issue of the Caribbean. Cliff's use of personal struggle to better understand her identity and use of Jamaica's history help to better understand Jamaica as part of the Caribbean. All three scholars write on how the plantation system created social, political, race, "Africanization" and a creole culture. As sugar became a great demand in Europe, the new colonies became the source for such demand. "Between 1501... and 1886... the Caribbean islands depended almost exclusively on slavery as a source of plantation labor" (Mintz, 25). Mintz writes, "But because this system possessed an inner dynamic, in those Caribbean islands where it flourished, it also led to the creation of social and political relationships, of a distinctive and very rigid sort... This design involved the perpetuation of societies sharply divided at the outset into two segments, one large and unfree, the other small and free, with a monopoly of power in the hand of the latter" (26-7). The difference between race and political power is evident in Abeng. Cliff writes about one of the white plantation owners, "The definition of what a Savage was like was fixed by color, class, and religion, and over the years a carefully contrived mythology was constructed, which they used to protect their identities" (29). It is evident that your color and race gives you more power over another culture. She continues to describe how the plantation system helped create a social structure that kept blacks at the bottom. She writes, "All the forces which worked to keep these slaves now worked to keep them poor. And poor most of them remained" (28). In the article "If I could write this in fire" Cliff writes, "Many of us became light-skinned very fast. Traced ourselves through bastard lines to reach the duke of Devonshire" (362). Those who were mixed with white and some black and were light skinned were able to better off than those who were darker. In order to escape cruelty, those light skinned were able to pass of as white.

The divisions between the same race has allowed for those of the same heritage to have more power over others. Cliff writes, "To try and locate the vanishing point: where the lines of perspective converge and disappear. Lines of color and class. Line of history and social context. Lines of denial and rejection. When did we (the light-skinned middle-class Jamaicans) take over for them as oppressors? (359). Due to the economic structure, these light skinned middle class Jamaicans are allow to reject their own African heritage in order to better their lives. Mintz mentions how the plantation system created two division but Cliff mentions three. She writes, "The population of the island was primarily Black... with gradations of shading reaching into the top strata of the society, Africans were mixed with Sephardic Jews, Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese, East Indians- but the large working class, and class of poor people, was Black"(5). In Jamaica the middle class had the power after the plantation system collapsed after they freed all the slaves. There are many different versions on how and what specifically the plantation system created but it is clear that the system did create a division between class, race and religion.

During the 1620’s the British colony of Barbados began to export sugar to Britain and this was the first step in the transformation of the Caribbean. The rise in the European demand for sugar forced Barbados into becoming an exploitation colony. Parallel to the demand for sugar was the demand for a slave work force and the importation of African people fully changed the social structure of the Island. The development of the slave community on the British isles brought about the social concept of petit and gran marroonage. Marroonage, both petit and gran are forms of slave violation of local regulation and social order. Petit marronage is a less severe violation of social order while gran marroonage generally refers to the attempts to establish communities independent of the Europeans. The fact that marroonage began to appear on Anguilla, Barbados, and Jamaica reflects the great extent that the British attempted to establish a sugar industry. It seems clear that the advent of the British sugar industry changed the entire English nationalist perspective being that the island was predominately populated by people of African decent by the 1650’s. The larger scale of sugar production meant that large amounts of slaves needed to be imported to these islands. This eventually changed the social atmosphere developed by the creoles

The importation of slaves probably diluted the European nationalism which existed in British and French colonies. The Haitian revolution is a reflection of this separation of a French colony from it’s European colonial power. Similarly, the increase in the Cuban Sugar industry also increased the trade not only with Spain but with other European countries. The result of this was an increase in British, and Dutch influence on the island of Cuba. It was the demand for sugar which completely transformed the Caribbean and made this region of the world a diverse culture, class, and identity.

A third group emerged from the slavery system. Thosw who were mulattos were caught in the middle. The article "Marginality and Free Coloured Identity in Caribbean Slave Society" by Arnold A. Sio, discusses how the free people of color were caught in between the white class and the slaves. Due to this, their identity and political status are challenged. The introduction to the article says, "Consequently a group of free-colored people emerged, and was to be found in most Caribbean societies. In general, they cherished their legal freedom, the most highly valued commodity in slave society, but were rejected by white society on the basis of their colour- the common mark of servitude and inferiority" (150). Most free people of color are mulattos therefore they have both white and black blood.

While in the caste system the small minority of Europeans dominated the top part of the social pyramid and the selves dominated the bottom part, the free people of color overlap in between the Europeans and slaves. The article discusses the issues "that relate to the question of the identity of the free people of colour; culture and social organization, unity and group consciousness, and the style and goals of their political activity. Due to the fact that most free people of color emerged in union with slavery, their culture is greatly influenced by the African culture and traditions". Many free people of color did not interact much with the whites because of their skin color. Not only do free people of color have a difficult time in identifying themselves with either the slaves or with the whites but Sio writes that "they lacked a 'social organization' and that they were slow in developing a 'group consciousness'"(153). The free people of color were united as one because they were first confused on who they where and their position in society. It took them a long time to develop a separate identity. As their group grew in size and as organizations and associations were created they began to develop more a "group consciousness". One example is how they began to think that they were the native sons of their homeland and that the whites were aliens and foreigners to their homeland.

As the free people of color struggled for an identity and group consciousness, they also struggled for their rights. "Their political activity was aimed at gaining the rights and privileges of British citizens , which would resolve the political and legal contradictions confounding their position in the society" (155). They organized protest to gain rights and they separated themselves from the slaves in order to distinguished themselves to gain some power and control. Some free people of color even began to own slave as a way to wealth and ownership of slaves which they thought would give them more political rights. All through their struggles it was the free people of color which created the Afro-creole, Synthetic-creole and Euro-creole culture.

As the struggles for an identity of the free people of color became one of the important issues of the Caribbean slave society so did the issue of religion. The article "Myalism and the African Religious Tradition in Jamaica" by Monica Schuler, discussed the importance of the religion Myalism in the life of the slaves in Jamaica. "Myalism, a religious movement which originated in eighteenth-century Jamaica, is the first documented Jamaican religion cast in the 'classical' African mold..." (295). This religion allowed to form a strong national identity because it united all the different types of slaves. This strong bond allowed for rebellions and revolts especially in part from the Akan. "The Myal tradition formed the core of a strong and self confident counter -culture" (301).

It is evident from the readings that Slavery created a transformation in the Caribbean’s identity and history. New societies, culture, identities, divisions between race and more were created. A social and political hierarchy was created which gave power to the whites while the blacks received no respect. Due to the emergence of the marroonage, revolts shows the slaves are becoming stronger as one and are revolting against their masters. New cultures are emerging and struggles for identity and rights are beginning to form.




Beckles, Dr. Hillary, Verene Shepherd. Caribbean Slave Society and Economy. The New Press, New York. New York, N.Y. 1991.

Benitez-Rojo, Antonio: "The Repeating Island" Duke University Press

Cliff, Michelle: "Abeng" Plume Books

Knight, Franklin W. The Caribbean, The Genesis Of a Fragmented Nationalism. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y. 1990


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Updated: 07/06/99
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