Europeans came into contact with the Caribbean after Columbus’s momentous journeys in 1492, 1496 and 1498. The desire for expansion and trade led to the settlement of the colonies. The indigenous peoples, according to our sources mostly peaceful Tainos and warlike Caribs, proved to be unsuitable for slave labour in the newly formed plantations, and they were quickly and brutally decimated. The descendants of this once thriving community can now only be found in Guiana and Trinidad.
The slave trade which had already begun on the West Coast of Africa provided the needed labour, and a period from 1496 (Columbus’s second voyage) to 1838 saw Africans flogged and tortured in an effort to assimilate them into the plantation economy. Slave labour supplied the most coveted and important items in Atlantic and European commerce: the sugar, coffee, cotton and cacao of the Caribbean; the tobacco, rice and indigo of North America; the gold and sugar of Portuguese and Spanish South America.
These commodities comprised about a third of the value of European commerce, a figure inflated by regulations that obliged colonial products to be brought to the metropolis prior to their re-export to other destinations. Atlantic navigation and European settlement of the New World made the Americas Europe’s most convenient and practical source of tropical and sub-tropical produce. The rate of growth of Atlantic trade in the eighteenth century had outstripped all other branches of European commerce and created fabulous fortunes.
An estimate of the slave population in the British Caribbean in Robin Blackburn’s study, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848, puts the slave numbers at 428,000 out of a population of 500,000, so the number of slaves vastly exceeded the number of white owners and overseers. Absentee plantation owners added to the unrest. Rebellion was common, with the forms including self mutilation, suicide and infanticide as well as escape and maroonage (whereby the slaves escaped into the hills and wooded interiors of the islands and set up potentially threatening communities of their own.
See references in Wide Sargasso Sea). Jamaica holds the record for slave revolts, with serious uprisings in 1655, 1673, 1760 and continued disquiet after that. The documentation of revolts in Trinidad is less complete, but we know of at least one serious plot in 1805. Guiana was actually governed by a slave named Cuffy for a year after the revolt in 1763, and Barbados also had numerous plots, including six between 1649 and 1701. Even after Emancipation in 1838, the unequal system continued.
The first indication of this came with the awarding of some twenty million pounds to the planters by way of compensation, with nothing being awarded to the former slaves. The system tried to force them to continue the arduous work on the plantations by introducing high taxes on small holdings, high rates for licences or small traders, and contracts to shackle the labourers to the large plantations. The problems associated with the uneasy post-Emancipation time form the backdrop for Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.
The shortage of available labour led to the introduction of indentured labour from another of Britain’s colonies, India, in 1844. These labourers worsened conditions for the former slaves by undermining attempts to achieve improved conditions through strikes. By 1917, when immigration came to a halt some 145,000 Indians had come to Trinidad, and 238,000 to Guiana. The importation of Indians affected Jamaica, but not Barbados, as well, with 39,000 immigrants. Writers such as V. S.
Naipaul, the highly reputed Trinidadian novelist, have their roots in the importation of Indian indentured labourers to replace the slaves. Slavery is a recurring theme in the literature of the Caribbean. Many writers feel the need to attempt a vocalisation of all that was denied under the brutal system. Writers such as Derek Walcott in Omeros, and George Lamming in In the Castle of my Skin talk about the difficulty of moving forward from the feelings of injustice inspired by the slave system and the lack of improvement of life after slavery.
The Caribbean moved from a place of glory in the British Empire, with Barbados nicknamed “Little England,” to its present position of instability and reliance on tourism for the survival of the economy. Some writers, including Jamaica Kincaid, see tourism as an extension of the system of slavery, with the “natives” there for the tourist’s amusement and comfort. Any study of the literature of this region must bear in mind the violent heritage of the place, and the fact that the indigenous population were almost totally destroyed and the present population were brought there entirely against their will.