The plantation system of the British West Indies

With the Incorporating Union of 1707, Scotland gained access to the already established English Empire in the Americas. Although relative latecomers to the New World, England had established control over a diverse land mass that was known as the British Empire by 1708. In North America, colonies were established in Virginia, Newfoundland and New England. Further south, the British West Indies were created in successive eras of colonial expansion. In the first phase from the 1600s, the islands of Barbados and Jamaica were settled as well as St Kitts, Nevis and Antigua. After the Seven Years War (1756-63), Great Britain gained control of Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent and Tobago, whilst Trinidad, St Lucia and Demerara were added after victories in the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars (1793-1815). The third phase colonies of Berbice and Essequibo merged with Demerara to become British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1831.

The integrated plantation was the economic foundation of the first British Empire. The system was established and refined on Barbados, which became the richest colony in the West Indies after colonisation in 1625. At first, the exportation of indentured servants – primarily vagrants, criminals and political and religious exiles from Scotland, England and Ireland – provided the tobacco and cotton plantations with a labour force. However, the planters eventually developed a sugar monoculture based on the expropriation of labour from enslaved peoples imported from Africa. Although slavery had been practiced since c.1636, chattel slavery, an English concept, was given its first legal code in Barbados in 1661. Black slaves were classified as the property of the white master and were listed in plantation inventories next to cattle. In the longer term, the Barbados Act of 1661 introduced a new dimension of exploitation across the world; Jamaica and Antigua, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland all adopted similar slave codes. Thus, a forced system of labour based on class and eventually race maintained the flow of commodities from the New World to the metropolis.

The plantation system in the British West Indies depended on the existence of a black majority population who were exploited and managed by a smaller, white ruling class. For example, Jamaica was essentially a rural society with most of the population resident along the coast. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the white population was around 20,000-25,000, whilst the enslaved population was 354,000. Both enslaved and free workers mainly worked on sugar and coffee plantations known as estates or adjoining cattle pens that provided livestock for the plantation economy. The white population of the British West Indies consisted of proprietors, a supervisory class, professionals and skilled tradesmen.

In the early stages of the English West Indies, it was common for proprietors to be resident on their estates. But many others returned to live in luxury as wealthy absentees, based on the proceeds of slavery. In Jamaica in 1775, for example, one-third of the landholders were absentees. In smaller islands, it could be higher. Of the 100 estates in Tobago in 1808, around half were owned by absentee proprietors. Absenteeism was sometimes viewed as a curse and meant the British West Indies did not develop into settler colonies as in North America.

Terms for the supervisory class varied island to island although in general, attorneys, bookkeepers and overseers managed plantations and estates. Newcomers to Jamaica usually started employment as bookkeepers, although they had little to do with accounts instead supervising the enslaved who worked in the sugar cane fields from dawn until midnight or in the factories boiling sugar. Bookkeepers superintended gangs of enslaved people with the use of black drivers, trusted slaves who sometimes administered punishment. The bookkeepers themselves were subordinate to overseers (known as ‘managers’ in the Windward and Leeward Islands), and had responsibility for superintending several gangs of enslaved people. Attorneys were above overseers in the hierarchy, with responsibility for managing several estates at once and directly answerable to the proprietor whether they were resident or absentees. The attorney was a position of some importance in colonial society.

There were also a professional class of white people on the island – doctors, lawyers, administrators, clerks – who offered specific services in the plantation economy. Similarly, a skilled class of tradesmen – masons, bricklayers, blacksmiths and carpenters – serviced the plantation infrastructure, usually depending on skilled enslaved labour in gangs to build houses, windmills or sugar boiling houses.

The prospect of work attracted many fortune seeking Scots to the British West Indies in search of fortune. Known as sojourners, young men – sometimes brothers, cousins and nephews of merchants –  travelled in the hope of accumulating rapid fortunes and the aim of returning home to buy landed property. For example, there was large scale Scottish migration to the West Indies during the period 1750-1800, especially from Glasgow and her outlying ports. Around 17,000 young Scotsmen are estimated to have travelled in this period to the region particularly to Grenada, Jamaica, St Vincent and Trinidad although Jamaica was the principal destination. Some took up professional positions in the plantation economy, whilst others became planters, if they had the appropriate finance. Others worked their way up the plantation economy and upward social mobility was based on capital derived from working on plantations and, if they became successful, slave-ownership. Bookkeepers, overseers and tradesmen strived to accumulate capital t o purchase enslaved people, who could be hired out as ‘jobbing slaves’ to work on other estates. Successful overseers sometimes became attorneys which attracted higher rates of pay.

The dream for many was to purchase a plantation and then return home as an absentee. There are several examples of Scots who accumulated large fortunes. In Antigua, major sugar plantations were owned by the Dunbar, Harvey, Grant, Young, Douglas and Maxwell families. There was also a Scottish contingent in Nevis and St Kitts and adventurers such as Colonel William McDowall and Major James Milliken became owners of large sugar plantations and resident slaves. With wealth and status secured, they returned to live in sprawling landed estates in the west of Scotland. Sometimes fortune were reported in the national press. Dr James Black spent a career in Jamaica, no doubt tending to enslaved people and passing them fit for work on sugar estates, and was worth over £18,000 when he died in Glasgow in 1835. Thus, a career in the plantation economy could lead to riches for the white population, based on the expropriation of labour and wealth from enslaved people.


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