During the Atlantic slave trade the Caribbean was operated by various colonial powers: predominantly the British, French, Spanish and the Dutch. For this reason it is credible to contend that across the Caribbean islands there was some disparity between the societies that evolved during the slave trade. However, it is imperative to recognise that there were also a lot of similarities between them. The slave society as a whole was comprised of a community of slaves, masters, and the free, and the politics and relationships between them. This essay will explore several factors that created a unity in these societies and communities across the Caribbean, but will also prove to illustrate how the influence of different Colonial rulers produced variations throughout the area.
It is generally accepted that the social structure of the Caribbean slave societies had numerous features in common. A point emphasised by Diptee is that these societies were similarly organised, whether in 17th Century Barbados or 19th Century Cuba.1 Similarities across the region varied from having comparable ways in governing and supressing the slaves to a correlative hierarchy on the islands. Nonetheless Diptee also indicates that there were a lot of diversities evident, particularly within the demography in the societies and in the structure of labour.2 This is primarily because Colonial Officials from different European countries governed the islands, which meant that there was a varied overseas influence in the politics and policies within the societies.3 For example, in the English dominated islands, such as Barbados, societies were administrated with British philosophies and the influence of the English legal system. Similarly, in Spanish controlled areas across these places, their strategies would ‘represent an extension of Spanish society in terms of ranks and class.’4 This evidences key, fundamental differences in the settlements across the Caribbean. Nevertheless, despite the clear disparities, similarities were also able to emerge due to the proximity of the islands and societies, which allowed the cultures to influence and sway each other; they did not entirely evolve independently.5
A prominent area of consideration concerns the demographics of the Caribbean slave societies. When assessing the demographics in these areas during the 16th to 19th centuries, the composition of the population was very varied. Knight points out that on most islands, such as Barbados and Jamaica, the population was predominantly made up of black slaves, who outnumbered the white populace.6 This can be also seen in the British Leeward Islands, where there was a great majority of coloured slaves and a minority of whites.7 However, this population ratio certainly was not similar across the board, as in 1830 the black to white ratio in the Spanish colonies was roughly 1.2:1. In the British Colonies there was a much larger difference, with a 14.1:1 ratio, and similar findings in France, presenting a 10.7:1 ratio. This contrast in the number of coloured slaves displays another great difference between the various areas of the Caribbean, and one which would ultimately affect the structure of the society itself.8 Further figures which highlight the disparity in demographics come from Puerto Rico in the 18th century. In 1775 the white population was a massive 29,263 compared to only 7437 slaves, showing that slaves did not necessarily form the bulk of the population.9 It is also worth noting however, that as sugar production intensified across the islands – with the development of plantations – so did the number of black slaves. This happened universally across the Caribbean, regardless of the ratio of black to white and of the cultural tradition.10 Evidence of this can be found in even the smaller of the Caribbean islands. For example, in Antigua in 1724, black slaves accounted for 79.2% of the total