Life of a Slave in the Caribbean
The experience of Caribbean slavery is vital in understanding the contemporary social structure of the region. It was the introduction of an estimated four million Africans to the Caribbean which made these islands melting pots of culture and society. Since Africans had such a tremendous impact on the region, it is important that we recognize the nature of slavery and how it transformed their lives. Although most agree that the institution was dehumanizing, the social relations of slavery help to explain the development of the Caribbean’s identity.
In order to understand slavery it is imperative to recognize that it’s introduction to the Caribbean was driven by colonizers need for economic expansion and development. The growth of the sugar industry throughout the region during the seventeenth century was intimately connected with the enslavement of Africans. The slaves were the means for extracting agricultural resources which could then be sold at a profit in Europe. The leaders in colonization during this period were the French, Dutch, English, and Spanish and initially slaves were simply an input for their final product. Thus slaves were not seen as human but part of a larger machine that was being profited by colonizers.
As slavery developed an complex social hierarchy emerged on plantations. At the bottom of the social order, but at the backbone of the plantation economy, were the field slaves. The field slaves were divided into "gangs" depending on the strength of their bodies. For example, "the first gang on any estate comprised the most able-bodied males and females, with subsequent gangs organized according to a descending order of physical strength and ability" (Knight 130). The more prestigious division of slaves were the domestic servants. The domestic servants probably enjoyed more leisure time than their field counterparts. As a result of the distinctions among field and domestic slaves a social hierarchy developed on the majority of plantations.
As sugar and other agriculture became more important to the economies of the Caribbean islands the colonies evolved from settlement colonies to exploitation colonies. The consequences of the exploitation colonies was that Africans outnumbered the European ruling class. As a result, for upper-class whites, "race rather than class and nationality became a consoling, fraternal bond" ( Knight 150). Because race became so important to the colonizers, by the eighteenth century, skin color became a socially defining factor on plantations. Ultimately color became the ticket to social mobility and this created divisions among slaves on the plantation.
The majority of the plantations throughout the Caribbean were similar in structure because all the colonizers wanted to maximize profits. Still there were lots of distinctions amongst the islands. In Puerto Rico for example, the Spanish established strict slave codes which gave slaves more rights than in...