The History of Jamaican Slavery

The History of Jamaican Slavery

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Jamaica’s history is full of social unrest. The island was originally inhabited by the Arawaks. The Arawaks were a peaceful, pleasant race. In his History of the British West Indies, Sir Alan Burns says, "all accounts credit them with being generous-minded, affectionate and good-humoured" (37). Once Jamaica was "discovered" by Spain in 1494, however, the Arawaks, who had inhabited the island for centuries, quickly died off due to the harsh treatment of the Spaniards. Spain never really developed the land, however, and thus when British forces invaded in 1655, Spain chose not to focus much energy on defending the island.

The British found Jamaica to be much more profitable than the Spanish had. It eventually became one of the most lucrative colonies in the British empire due to its dominance in sugar exports: from the mid 1700’s until the close of the slave trade in Jamaica in the 1830’s, Jamaica accounted for 42 percent of sugar imported into Britain (Burnard and Morgan 3). Unfortunately, these benefits for the British empire came at a significant cost to the hundreds of thousands of Africans who became unwillingly caught up in the trade triangle between England, Africa and the Caribbean. In their essay "The Dynamics of the Slave Market and Slave Purchasing Patterns in Jamaica, 1655-1788," Trevor Burnard and Kenneth Morgan say: "Jamaica had the largest demand for slaves of any British colony in the Americas" (2). By the end of the eighteenth century there were more than 300, 000 slaves in Jamaica; and the fact that the slaves outnumbered the plantation owners was unsettling for many of the wealthy, white inhabitants of the island. The political system basically consisted of a governor who represented the Crown and the Assembly of Planters, who both were against the slaves.

Adding to the unrest of the island was the existence of the Maroons. When the British invaded the island they demanded that the Spaniards surrender. In miscalculation, however, they gave them time to consider the offer. The Spaniards fled the island, but not before setting loose their cattle and freeing their slaves. These freed slaves then retreated to the mountains and developed their own threatening communities in the wild mountain interior of Jamaica (Hamshere 140). Often they terrorized the English by setting fire to homes and buildings or by murdering soldiers. The Maroons were not truly a vicious people, however they did feel the need to defend their freedom from the British by any means necessary.

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According to Cyril Hamshere, in his book The British in the Caribbean, the Maroons "caused little nuisance until the gradual development of the colony led to settlement of the interior" (140). According to present day Jamaican history the Maroons were a brave people defending their right to freedom. This modern view contrasts sharply with the views of the nineteenth century British who feared the Maroons, seeing them as undisciplined and dangerous (Burns 278).

These bold warriors were not limited to men only. The women often helped with the war strategies, creating concealed provision grounds. offers a closer look at one of Jamaica's female heroes:

Nanny of the Maroons stands out in history as the strongest female among Jamaica’s national heroes. She possessed that fierce fighting spirit generally associated with the courage of men. In fact, Nanny is described as a fearless Asante warrior who used militarist techniques to foul and beguile the English. Like the heroes of the Pre-Independence era, Nanny too met her untimely death at the instigation of the English sometime around 1734.

Even though Nanny would have been viewed in a drastically different manner by the British in the nineteenth century, this excerpt serves to show the difference between gender issues in Jamaica and gender issues in England. By taking into account these differences it is easier to understand the implications of a character such as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, who is from Jamaica and most likely representative of the Maroons.

Even with all this internal warfare and tension, Jamaica’s economic dominance lasted for quite some time. Eventually, however, it did begin to decline. In the introduction to their collection of essays, The Colonial Caribbean in Transition, Bridget Brereton and Kevin A. Yelvington explain that as the cost of production rose and the competition of beet sugar cut into their profits Jamaica’s economy began to decline (10). Also, with the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, the economy suffered. The established sugar industry in Jamaica was dependant upon massive amounts of slave labor. In addition, the initial Act did not truly solve the problem of slavery (Hamshere 147-49). For several years a system of apprenticeship was in place which kept slaves tied to the plantations. High taxes were imposed on small holdings, further discouraging former slaves from acquiring property. Also the Act itself only called for partial freedom. All slaves over the age of six were only considered free one quarter of the week. The government also agreed to pay slave-owners a dividend of 20 million pounds as "compensation for the loss of their human property"(147). Even after the Jamaica Act of 1839 which freed the rest of the slaves and ended apprenticeship, the ex-slaves faced quite a struggle. Many tried to settle as small farmers, but intense conflicts over land and poor economic conditions existed for over a hundred years. It wasn’t until around 1938 that the economy began to stabilize slightly with the establishment of other exports such as coffee and bananas.

Works Cited

Brereton, Bridget, and Kevin A. Yelvington. Introduction. The Colonial Caribbean in Transition: Essays on Postemancipation Social and Cultural History. Ed. Bridget Brereton and Kevin A.Yelvington. Barbados: PU of the West Indies, 1999. 1-25.
Burnard, Trevor and Kenneth Morgan. "The Dynamics of the Slave Market and Slave Purchasing Patterns in Jamaica, 1655-1788." The William and Mary Quarterly 58.1 (2001): 42 pars. 13 Feb. 2003.
Burns, Sir Alan. History of the British West Indies. London: Allen & Unwin, 1965.
Hamshere, Cyril. The British in the Caribbean. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972.

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