CARIBBEAN / Abolition of Slavery in the Caribbean
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The abolition of slavery was a slow, gradual and uneven process throughout the Caribbean. After more than three centuries under an inhumane labor system in which millions of Africans from many places died in the fields and cities of the Caribbean, the process of abolition was the subject of serious and deep thought for the sectors tied to the plantation economy, the government and, above all, for the slaves themselves. Britain led the abolitionist process that the other powers would follow, whether through pressure from the economic and political winds of the period or through the forces exercised by the Caribbean colonies. Whatever the situation, the 19th century Caribbean gradually saw the disappearance of an economic and social system that determined the structure of the colonies. Numerous economic, political, social and cultural factors combined in the Caribbean and led to the end of this terrible social structure. This essay examines more closely the process of abolition in the British colonies, because of their importance and repercussions for the rest of the Caribbean. It also considers the case of Cuba and Puerto Rico, the last two bastions of the Spanish empire in the Americas.

The end of the slave trade

The intense campaigns in the British Parliament in the last quarter of the 18th century, the civil awareness campaigns and the creation of the British Abolitionist Society demonstrated the central role that the Quakers played in the British abolitionist movement. Although the first petitions to abolish the slave trade, presented to the British Parliament in 1783 and 1787, were not successful, the abolitionists were undaunted and redoubled their efforts through the influential figure of William Wilberforce. Finally, in 1791, the House of Commons voted in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery. Despite these laudable efforts, the eruption of the Haitian Revolution and Britain’s involvement in it redirected Britain’s interests in the Caribbean. The Haitian Revolution was the perfect opportunity to displace France from its colonies and capture the sugar market in Europe.

Although the Haitian Revolution interrupted the process of abolishing the slave trade, it did not break the determination of the British abolitionists. It did, however, influence new arguments in their campaigns in the early 19th century. The abolitionists argued that if the importation of slaves into the new territories was allowed, those territories would compete with the old sugar colonies. In 1806, Parliament reacted to these arguments and decided to abolish the slave trade in its colonies beginning January 1, 1807. The Parliament acted on economic reasons. However, Britain urged the other colonial powers to match its actions. For example, despite its reluctance, the Spanish government signed a treaty in 1817 in which it committed to stopping the import of slaves to its territories at precisely the time when sugar production in Puerto Rico and Cuba was spiraling upward. Two years before, France had been forced to sign a similar treaty under the same conditions and obligations that were imposed on Portugal and Spain. Others, such as the Danish Virgin Islands and the Dutch territories fell under the British stipulations when they were captured by the British in 1807. These treaties, however, had little effect on the importation of slaves to the French and Spanish territories, where a more or less constant flow of new African slaves continued until the middle of the 19th century.

The abolition of slavery

The prohibition of the slave trade was just the beginning of a turbulent struggle for the absolute freedom for slaves. The stagnation in sugar production that the British, French, Danish and Dutch colonies were experiencing added to the economic weakness and the justifications for the slave system. The high costs of production, along with the technological backwardness of the plantations made the once profitable business ineffective in the context of imperial and international trade. In Jamaica, for example, sugar production declined from 1821 to 1832, in contrast to the period from 1799 to 1820. The French colonies showed similar patterns of stagnation, maintaining constant levels of sugar production during the early decades of the 19th century. The exceptions were Cuba and Puerto Rico, which experienced a surge in sugar production after the resounding collapse in sugar production in Haiti after 1804. Similarly, trade balances between the colonies and the colonizing countries were strongly affected. Imports to the British colonies dropped by 25% from 1821 to 1831. French exports to its colonies declined by 30% from 1841 to 1848. The latter year was when France abolished slavery in its territories. Along with the gradual dismantling of the sugar economy, as it had been known during the two previous centuries, the political influence and importance of colonial interests in the British Parliament also declined significantly.

The decline in sugar production and the stagnation of trade between the colonizing country and its possessions forced the representatives of the planters in the colonies to align themselves with the abolitionist proposals of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, just created in 1832. First, the organization lobbied to improve the living and working conditions of the slaves through creation of laws and reforms. Some of the measures included the following:

· It was demanded that slave owners maintain a registry of those punished.
· Mechanisms were established to allow the slaves to buy their freedom through a system similar to the one that was established in the Spanish colonies.
· Slaves were allowed to present testimony in local courts.
· Whipping field slaves was prohibited.
· Slaves were allowed to own property.
· Breakup of families was to be avoided.
· Slaves were given one day a week to rest.

While these measures were passed with the goal of easing the hardship and cruelty of the slaves’ lives, and were a response to both a humanitarian ideology and the economic backdrop, they were not welcome in the colonies. The colonial legislatures strongly blocked implementation of the measures and the slaves continued to survive in the same impoverished conditions.

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