Slavery, the Caribbean and English Liberties, 1620-40

Today’s blog is the first in a three-part series from History of Parliament director Dr Stephen Roberts about parliamentary involvement in the development of slavery in the Atlantic World in the seventeenth century…

During the 400th anniversary year of the voyage of the Mayflower, much attention has focused on English migration to the colonies of New England. By 1640, Massachusetts was the largest of the colonies, with an estimated English immigrant population of 12,000. As discussed in previous blogs about Mayflower, its passengers and well-wishers, a significant number of those who left England for the New World went in the name of religious freedom, but many did not. Even under the auspices of the ruling godly elite in the puritan colonies lived many who did not necessarily share the high ideals of the founding fathers. This was more emphatically the case in other American colonies, in the Chesapeake and the settlements by Europeans on the islands of the Caribbean.

The time of Mayflower’s voyage corresponded with the start of a rapid expansion of settlement in the Caribbean, where the possibility of increased wealth and status, rather than religious liberty, provided the main motive for the typical proprietor/settler. Between 1624 and 1632, St Christopher (St Kitts), Barbados, Nevis, Monserrat and Antigua were settled by the English. The typical arrangement governing settlement was a grant by the king to a trading company, and the grant defined the parameters of settlement. Wherever they settled, the English were quick to assert their rights and liberties against the mother country, and saw themselves as English abroad, whatever their motives for emigration.

Robert Rich, 2nd earl of Warwick.
Daniel Mijtens, ca. 1632

One colony, part of this rapid expansion of settlement in the Caribbean, was unusual, in that its proprietors shared the lofty ideals of the New England founders. Founded in 1629, Providence Island (Providencia, between Costa Rica and Jamaica), was the prospective colony promoted by the most determined puritan opponents of Charles I (the earl of Warwick, Lord Brooke, Lord Saye and Sele, Oliver St John, John Pym). It was intended to be a godly commonwealth, but the settlers needed to trade.

In the Caribbean, the native Carib peoples with whom they came into contact were subject to episodic violence by the English and French, but in some new colonies, including Providence Island, they were recognised as a trading people, with whom the English needed to do business. However, they were treated very differently from European trading partners. Providence Island settlers were forbidden from enslaving them, and instead they became the objects of Christian missionary endeavour.

Robert Greville, Lord Brooke. Via Wikimedia Commons

But yet another ethic applied in the case of black Africans. More slaves from West Africa were brought to this island than to any other English colony before 1640. Qualms by some of the investors and colonists over the legitimacy of slavery had been overborne by the perceived need to acquire more labour than emigration from England could provide. When the Spanish overran the island in 1641, and ended English rule there, they took 350 English people captive and 381 slaves.

Back in England, the opening of the Parliament in November 1640 provided the new arena for conflict between the king and the puritan opposition, compared to which the failure of Providence Island was of no consequence, and the jarring discord of black slavery in a colony founded to safeguard and promote English liberties was simply not perceived or articulated at Westminster.

The Caribbean colonies were intended as engines of trade, and in terms of the labour market, Barbados was the most significant, by far. Large-scale white labour there rested on the principle of indentured servitude, which will be discussed in a future blog in this series. But neither the scale of white immigrant labour nor the principles on which it rested were sufficient to service the new boom industry of sugar production, which took over from tobacco and cotton cultivation in the West Indies from the 1640s.

Sugar production was highly profitable, supplying an insatiable European market: by the mid-1650s sugar accounted for nearly half the cargoes imported into Bristol, England’s second largest port, and all of it came from the Caribbean. The scale of it and the processes involved in it (crushing and boiling the crop in continuous, 24-7 shift operations, not to mention back-breaking cultivation, and all in searing, humid heat) meant that cheap and expendable labour was required (European workers would not withstand the conditions), and West Africa provided the answer.

The forced importation of slave labour grew in parallel with the scale of sugar production. The addition to English overseas territories in 1655 of Jamaica, a bigger land mass than the combined size of all the Caribbean colonies mentioned so far in this blog, added to the sugar producing capacity of this region of the Americas and introduced a fresh stimulus to the slave trade.

Slaves were regarded as the moveable property (chattels) of their white owners. The practice of chattel slavery in English colonies barely impinged on the consciousness of MPs in Parliament. As Paul Lay has recently reminded us, the extent and scale of chattel slavery in the Caribbean expanded when the champions of English liberties came to power, but the scale of it increased dramatically after the return of monarchical government in 1660.

In Barbados there were 6,000 slaves in 1645, but 42,000 in 1698; in Jamaica, 1,500 in 1656 and more than 41,000 at the end of the century. As the slave trade developed, the code governing the ownership of slaves by the white planters tightened. After the introduction of the Slave Codes of 1661 onwards, slaves could be designated not as mere chattels, but as real estate, by which they were regarded as an unalienable part of the estates from which they were forbidden to leave.

The distinction between offering native American peoples the opportunities presented by European notions of education and conversion to Christianity, exemplified in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (1649) were never extended to those who in the Slave Codes were called ‘heathenish’ and ‘brutish’. As this process advanced, there was still no significant discussion in Parliament, where Members were preoccupied with the rights and liberties of the English, not with extending them to others. In the next blog, these ideas of liberties, and their opposites, will be discussed.  


Further reading

H. McD. Beckles, The First Black Slave Society: ‘Britain’s barbarity time’ in Barbados, 1636-1876 (2016)

H. McD. Beckles, ‘The Caribbean and Britain’, chapter in Nicholas Canny (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Origins of Empire (1998)

Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661 (2004)

Karen Kupperman, Providence  island, 1630-1641: the Other Puritan Colony (1993)

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