Essays in this section:
Overview Essay on Trade and International Relations
The Illegal Slave Trade to Cuba after Emancipation
The Effects of Indentured Servitude on the British West Indies During the Post Emancipation

Throughout the history of the British West Indies, no other era was so fraught with change as post-emancipation decades.  Within a period of a few years, the entire economic and social system of these colonies was turned upside down.  More importantly, this turmoil seems to have been self-imposed, at least on the part of Great Britain.  Britain was fighting a costly battle against the illegal slave trade and failing miserably.  Also, after Chinese Doctor, Georgetownemancipation, the planters refused to meet the working conditions demanded by the former slaves.  This led to a mass abandonment of field labor, which caused plantation production throughout the colonies to plummet.  In response, Britain began an unnecessarily costly system of importing indentured servants.  By diverting money towards fighting the slave trade and importing indentured servants rather than appeasing the former slaves, Britain greatly hindered the economic development of the colonies, removing the planters’ incentive for change and adjustment.

The slave trade continued after emancipation for one reason, its sheer profitability.  The traders could lose the majority of their human contraband and still remain profitable.  If one in four vessels made a successful voyage to the West Indies then the dealer was repaid for his expenses. [1]   In individual terms, this means that the dealer only had to transport 350 slaves successfully in order to cover the loss of 2475. [2]   Given this immense profitability, it is no wonder that the trade continued so prodigiously after emancipation.  The select committee on the slave trade in the British House of Commons estimated that in the years following abolition, 82,000 slaves left the coasts of Africa each year with the vast majority of them landing successfully in the Caribbean. [3]      

In fact, the lucrative nature of the slave trade made it impossible to suppress.  As Lord John Russell stated in a letter to the Lord of the Treasury, “The whole British navy would not be sufficient to stop illegal slave trade because of the profit they derive.”  He goes on to say that “From 1845 on the strength and efficiency of the British Preventive Squadron has been raised to the highest point ever and supported by France and the United States, but still only [saved] four percent of slaves carried off Africa in those years.” [4]     Besides the overwhelming failure of these attempts to end the slave trade, the preventive measures had an extraordinary cost.  Lord Russell estimated that the annual cost of suppression was at least 650,000 pounds and possibly as high as 1,000,000 pounds.  The latter amount was supposedly equal to one fifth of all revenue from the British income tax at the time. [5]   Given that emancipation of slavery itself was estimated to have cost Britain 20,000,000 pounds, the huge cost of suppression was a terrible burden on the British economy. [6]   Besides the costs, the futility of this exercise was realized by the British government itself; one official states, “England took fifty years to mediate and resolve on an act of justice to Africa.  Yet we expect other nations, implicated like ourselves, to come at once to the conclusions we had formed after such fierce and ling struggles between selfishness and humanity.” [7]    Still-growing Cuba, in particular, demanded more slaves in order to keep its sugar economy running.  Faced with such economic and moral impetuses working against them, the British government had little hope of dismantling the slave trade no matter what efforts were taken.

The irony of Britain’s attempt to suppress the importation of slaves to the other colonies is that the British colonies themselves sought an outside source of labor in order to keep their plantation system alive.  Certain islands such as Trinidad could never under slavery or freedom produce a sufficient Creole labor force to cultivate the land. [8]   Similarly, at the time of emancipation Jamaica had a population of 350,000 while it could support 4,000,000. [9]   The years after emancipation saw an exodus of former slaves from field labor to sustenance farming.  As one planter states, “The idea that the Negro would become a grateful and cheerful free laborer on the soil which had been watered by his tears in slavery, proved fallacious.” [10]   The planters’ claim that this migration was a “natural consequence” of emancipation was partially correct, however, they failed to see that it was in a large part due to their treatment of the former slaves. [11]    Although they were free, the planters expected the Creoles to work in much the same way as they did under slavery and resorted to the same punishments if they did not do so.  In fact, the special magistrates of Antigua claimed that, “they [had] more trouble with petty overseers and managers than with the entire black population.” [12]   Given the low wages the Creoles received and the harsh treatment of the overseers, it is no wonder that ex-slaves abandoned field labor.

The lack of labor and the Creoles’ desire for economic independence nearly destroyed the plantation economy.  Planters could not find enough laborers to the work the land and consequently had to cut production.  This resulted in a loss of profit that forced them to sell sections of land at inexpensive prices to the Creoles who would then farm for sustenance rather than profit.  In this way, the planters were continually diminishing the available labor force as well as the amount of land that could be put into production. [13]   Britain’s Caribbean colonies could not sustain themselves under these conditions.  The only hope apparent to the British was the importation of laborers.  However, as one contemporary author noted, “Importing slaves from other colonies [would] only drain their [i.e. that of the formerly slaveowning colonies] capital.” [14]   While in islands such as Trinidad there were several hundred voluntary immigrants from Africa, the task of East Indian Immigrants, British Guyanapersuading a sufficient amount of Africans to freely leave their homeland with the same people who carried off their brothers in chains must have seemed a bit daunting. [15]   In addition, the importation of  Africans, whether voluntarily or not, would have seemed too similar to the trade that Britain was fighting so hard to suppress.  Therefore, the only suitable solution seemed to be importation from a source other than Africa.  The British conveniently found this source in their Indian empire.  By bringing indentured servants from their own possessions, the British were able to justify this relocation as “merely moving British subjects from one portion of the empire to another.” [16]   Besides strengthening the labor force, the British hoped that the importation of servants would strengthen trade, and would also help to stop the slave trade.      

While the system of importing indentured servants would eventually prove profitable, the initial expense was an additional burden on Britain’s economy.  The first Asian immigrants arrived in the Caribbean in 1846 with what is described as an “enormous cost” in bringing them over.  16,000 immigrants from British India, known as “Coolies,” were originally brought to Trinidad Collie Girl, British Guyanafrom Madras and Calcutta. [17]   The colonies paid the passage for the Coolies through a duty on rum, plus a special cost to the employer of about 25 pounds per hogshead of sugar. [18]   Sewell states, “The chief feature in Trinidad immigration is its entire management [under] the responsibility, not merely of the colony, but of the government and people of Great Britain.  Private speculation has no directing voice in the scheme.” [19]    The extent of the government’s control in this matter was obviously meant to assure that this new system would not come to resemble the illegal slave trade.  The government allowed no more than 360 Coolies to be carried on what the author refers to as a “first class ship.”  While it is doubtful that any indentured servants have ever been carried on first class ships, the average death rate of three quarters to one percent during these voyages seems to attest to at least some care was taken of both the ships and their passengers. [20]  

Britain’s attempts to contrast the conditions of indentured servitude with those of slavery were also evident in the treatment of the Coolies.  Under indenture the Coolie had to work nine hours a day except for Sundays, holidays, and when sick.  Additionally, the government assigned a superintendent to serve as “protector” for the Coolies.  He made sure that they were not separated from their families and could end their indenture if their masters mistreated them.[21]  What is ironic about the treatment of the Coolie is that the colonists were unwilling to extend the same benefits to the Creoles already living there.  The planters themselves admitted that they preferred the work of the Creole to that of the Coolie, yet they were unwilling to give them the benefits they demanded because of their own pride.[22]  Before immigration had begun, the planters raised the question of whether it was better and cheaper to accept the terms of the Creole than to suffer “the heavy outlay which a forced system of immigration imperatively required.” [23]    Despite the cost, the planters overwhelmingly chose the latter.  In 1852 on the island of Trinidad there were 80 applications made to the office responsible for Coolie immigration for an “aggregate” of 2,000 Coolies, averaging about 25 for each estate applying.  By 1857 the corresponding demand rose to 7,000 from 179 properties, averaging about 40 to each applicant.  This was accompanied by a voluntary offer on the part of the employers to double the fees payable to government on each contract.[24]  Therefore, the British were willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to import and care for indentured servants rather than to treat former slaves with simple justice.  .  

The planters’ claim about the good treatment of the Coolies was questionable.  They stated that the Coolie could buy himself out of indenture after three years by paying 1.20 pounds for every month left in his term.  Sewell noted that on average only five percent did so and claims that this is “proof of how well they are treated.” [25]  However, he failed to note that by purchasing the rest of his indenture, the Coolie would have to forfeit over half of his wages for the three years he had worked.   Thus the Coolie was either bound to his ten-year term or forced to work three years for virtually nothing. 

In some ways this new system of importation eventually proved to be mutually beneficial to some of the British West Indies and British India as well.  The Coolies were given free passage back to India after the period of their indenture was up most of them returned with large quantities of money.  The average ship returning to India was estimated to carry between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds on board.[26]  For the Caribbean colonies, the benefits of Coolie immigration resulted not only in improved trade with British India but with other nations as well.  On the island of Trinidad exports for the year 1842, before the introduction of a foreign labor force, were 20,506 hogsheads of sugar.  By 1858 exports had risen to 37,000 hogsheads.  Similarly, before emancipation the highest exportation of cacao was 3,200,000 lbs while by 1860 this number had reached 5,200,000 lbs.[27] 

While these increases in production are significant, it is important to note that they were only achieved nearly twenty years after emancipation and after nearly fifteen years of Coolie importation.  These numbers could have been achieved far earlier if the planters had met the conditions of the Creoles rather than devoting unnecessary amounts of money to the importation and care of the Coolies.  The costs of indentured servitude,  along with those of the futile battle against the illegal slave trade would have easily satisfied the Creoles demands and left a tremendous surplus.  Additionally by meeting the Creoles’ demands the plantations would have returned to profitability much sooner and therefore would have produced more revenue and trade.  Therefore, the inability of British to submit to the will of their former slaves set back the colonial economy by a number of years.  




[1] Barrette, The Speeches of Mr. Barrette and of Mr. Burge at a General Meeting of Planters, Merchants, and Others Interested in the West-India Colonies; Assembled at the Thatched-House Tavern on the 18th of May, 1833, (London, 1833,) 8.

[2] Barrette, 8.

[3] Barrette, 10.

[4] Barrette, 7-8.

[5] Barrette, 12.

[6] Barrette, 14.

[7] Barrette, 4.

[8] W.M.G. Sewell, The Ordeal of Free Labour in the British West Indies, (London, 1863), 129-130.

[9] Sewell, 129-130.

[10] Barrette, 14.

[11]  Sewell, 153.

[12]  James Thome and Horace Kimbal, Emancipation in the West Indies: A Six-Months’ Tour of Antigua, Barbados, and Jamaica in the Year 1837, (New York, 1838) 65.

[13] Sewell, 153.

[14] William H. Burnley, Observations on the Present Conditions of the Island of Trinidad and the Actual State of the Experiment of Negro Emancipation, (London, 1842), 52.

[15] Sewell, 118-119.

[16] Sewell, 122.

[17] Sewell, 126.

[18] Sewell, 123.

[19] Sewell, 121.

[20] Sewell, 124.

[21]  Sewell, 121-122.

[22]  Burnley, 54.

[23]  Sewell, 153.

[24] Sewell, 137.

[25]  Sewell, 125-126.

[26] Sewell, 125.

[27] Sewell, 139.















Barrette. The Speeches of Mr. Barrette and of Mr. Burge at a General Meeting of                              Planters, Merchants, and Others Interested in the West-India Colonies; Assembled    at the Thatched-House Tavern on the 18th of May, 1833.  London: A.J. Valpy,                   1833.  Pgs 4-14.

Burnley, William Hardin.  Observations on the Present Conditions of the Island of                 Trinidad and the Actual State of the Experiment of Negro Emancipation.                                 London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1842.  Pg 52-54.

Sewell, W.M.G.  The Ordeal of Free Labor in the British West Indies.  New York:                                Harper and Brothers, 1861.  Pgs 118-153.


Thome, James J. and  Kimbal, Horace.  Emancipation in the West Indies.  A Six

Months Tour of Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica in the Year 1837.  New York:  American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838. Pg 65.