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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 12: Slavery •


An engraving of slaves in a sugar plantation

Slaves processing tar in Peru in the 1780s.

Martinez Companon y Bujanda, Trujillo de Peru (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispanica, 1978-1994; facsimile reproduction of manuscripts in the Biblioteca del Palacio Real de Madrid), vol. 2, plate E112.

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr. .

The Big Disappointment. The economic consequences of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, 1833–1888

Pieter C. Emmer, University of Leiden

In principle, the ending of the terrible and inefficient system of slavery should have produced progress, optimism, and gratefulness on all fronts. To many, however, the end of slavery in the Caribbean was a big disappointment. On average, the ex-slaves did not become yeomen farmers nor did they improve their income and status as free plantation workers as many had hoped. The abolitionists in Europe and North America, who had fought so gallantly to get slavery abolished, were dismayed. The pessimistic predictions of their adversaries about a dramatic decline in plantation output had proved all too real. (1) Most abolitionists had not expected that so many of the freedmen would leave the plantations or that so many would fail to become the hard working, God-fearing peasantry that they had envisioned. Unwilling to admit that the fault lay with an unrealistic assessment on their own part; they attributed the blame to the planters as well as to the colonial and home governments. Obstinacy or obstruction on the part of the planters and the colonial civil servants could only lead either to the stagnation that the freedmen had experienced, or, worse, to a decline in their living and working conditions. Yet, the planters were also disappointed. They realized that their slaves had not been emancipated in order to improve the profitability of their plantations, but only a few planters had expected that their supply of permanent plantation labour would be reduced so dramatically. In order to fill the gap they were forced to search for reliable labourers in such far away places as India and China. In sum, the abolition of slavery seemed to have produced nothing but disappointment all round. (2)

In much of the existing historiography the traditional bêtes noires are the planters. They are accused of clinging to an old-fashioned and wasteful production system. This system, it is claimed, had already adversely affected profits during the last decades of slavery and it continued to do so after slavery had been abolished. These continuities between the pre- and post- emancipation periods have constituted the traditional explanation for the fact that the effects of slave emancipation did not come up to expectations. (3)

Since the 1970s, however, the role of the planters in the plantation economies of the New World has been reinterpreted. The view that they were 'uneconomic', wasteful, and backward-looking autocratic rulers of a crumbling empire has been turned almost upside down. More recent studies of the nineteenth-century slave economies in the Americas now portray the planters as highly efficient managers in the most prosperous section of the world economy at the time. New interpretations based on a careful analysis of the many surviving plantation records confirm that the planters carefully tuned the purchase of slaves to their needs, and were keen to avoid creating a wasteful mix of labour and capital. They also confirm the fact that planters were keen to introduce new machinery as well as to experiment with new crops such as cotton and new varieties of sugarcane. With slave prices rising, the planters also attempted to increase the natality, and decrease the mortality, of their slave populations by spending more plantation money on providing better food, housing, and medical care. (4)

Strangely, the new evidence regarding the management of Caribbean plantations, and of slave economics in general, has so far influenced the historiography regarding planters and freedmen in the post-emancipation era scarcely at all. Studies of the emancipation experience continue to stress the decline of the plantations, the dominance of the planters, and the relatively weak position of the ex-slaves. Even the arrival of a new influx of 'workers in the cane' was incorporated into the existing, negative interpretation of the post-slavery era. The title of the first comprehensive survey of labour migration from India to the Caribbean is telling: A New System of Slavery. (5)

Thus the prevailing view has been that the freedmen were underdogs, who could not be accused of making mistakes, or, if they did, could be excused on the grounds of the high level of compulsion in the post-emancipation society. Similarly, it is claimed, indentured labourers from Asia were so badly treated they could not possibly succeed in building a new and successful existence in the West Indies. The Caribbean plantation world always had been and had remained a 'bad' region, and anyone going there must have been forced, misinformed, or otherwise duped by crooks and profiteers. (6)

The surprisingly-optimistic findings derived from the recent research regarding Caribbean plantation slavery, however, have found their corollary in the new findings regarding labour migration from Asia during the nineteenth century. Most studies now refute the view that indentured labour migration was simply the slave trade and slavery in another guise. By moving to the Caribbean, Indians, on average, increased their living standards considerably. Indian women living overseas did have fewer children than in India, but the death rate in the Caribbean-except during the early years of immigration-was also considerably lower, resulting in a demographic growth rate higher than in India itself. Suicide, marital violence, and return migration decreased over time, while Indian ownership of land, savings, and even physical stature increased. These new data have destroyed the (no doubt racially biased) assumption of the abolitionists that more than a million Asian migrants were of such limited intellectual capacity as to be misled for almost a century into inadvertently degrading themselves. In reality, the attraction of the earning potential of the Caribbean can be deduced from the massive influx of Asian migrants. After all, they could have opted to go to many destinations in Africa and Asia, or, for that matter elsewhere in India itself. (7)

These findings regarding the social and economic ramifications of Caribbean plantation slavery, as well those regarding Asian immigrants, put the traditional interpretation of the post-slavery period into question. Unfortunately, it is not as yet possible to arrive at definitive conclusions as the relevant data regarding demography, income levels, and other aspects of the lives of ex-slaves in the Caribbean have not yet been fully unearthed. To arrive at a body of statistical evidence regarding the ex-slaves will not be easy as those who could have provided the data, such as colonial civil servants and the planters, have left much less statistical information about the freedmen than about the slaves. Once the freedmen moved away from the plantations, they removed themselves from quantitative history. We have no mortality and natality rates, no records of diseases and their treatment, no information on incomes and expenditure.

In view of this dearth of data we have to rely on circumstantial evidence. Thus it is of the utmost importance to use our new insights into the nature of the plantation economy and of indentured migration from Asia to test the existing interpretations regarding the post-emancipation societies. While we might be approaching the 'end of history' in the historiography of slavery, we certainly have not reached this point in analysing the relevant information about the post- emancipation period. (8)

The Slaves and the Second Plantation Revolution: the Policy of Amelioration

Detailed historical research over the past thirty years, drawing upon the many surviving plantation archives, provide us with a remarkably new picture of the New-World plantations. These studies make the point that we should strongly distinguish between the first, pioneer, phase of the capitalist plantations in the Caribbean—roughly between 1650 and 1750—and the second phase, which is to say the period between 1750 and 1850 during which the mature plantation system developed. The differences between the two periods are striking.

The changes on Caribbean plantations after 1760 were as fundamental as those during the period after 1640. In view of that, it is possible to speak of a second plantation revolution. Rather than being dying, blood-sucking leeches at the periphery of world capitalism, modern archival research has shown that after 1760 the plantations in most parts of the New World became rather successful economic enterprises, with a strong potential for economic growth as well as for improvement of the working and living conditions of its labourers. In the British Caribbean most of these improvements were already in place before 1800, while in other parts of the Caribbean the second plantation revolution occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century. (9)

It was during this second period of rapid growth that slavery was abolished. In theory, the abolition of slavery might have been to the advantage of all concerned. It would have allowed the freedmen to select those employers paying the highest wages, and it would have allowed the planters to dispense with payments for costs not directly related to productive labour on the plantation such as housing, plantation hospitals, and medical care and rations for those too young or too old to work. (10)

In some of the smaller islands in the Caribbean, especially those with a high population density, plantations did prosper after emancipation without the arrival of additional labour, their operation being based on capitalist labour relations as existed elsewhere during the nineteenth century. In most parts of the Caribbean, however, rising wages were unable to attract enough ex-slaves to work on the plantations. The law of supply and demand simply did not work in those parts of the Caribbean where freedmen had the opportunity to obtain land of their own, despite the fact that there was usually a decline in personal incomes as soon as the ex-slaves opted to become peasants. Yet rising wages did not reverse the 'flight from the plantations'. In fact, higher wages further stimulated the freedmen's move away from the plantations, as their need for a regular cash income was limited. That explained the planters' 'backward bending' supply of labour. (11) The more they paid, the less likely it was that the freedmen would work longer hours on the plantation.

The Demand for Labour in the Caribbean after Slave Emancipation: Compulsion or Choice?

Very rapidly after emancipation the labour costs of Caribbean plantations reached a level at which it became attractive for the planters to hire labourers from Europe and Asia. Planters were, in addition, willing to pay high prices for former slaves and migrant labourers brought in from elsewhere in the region, as well as for illegally-imported slaves. They tapped a wide variety of sources. Traditionally, they had turned to Africa, but the supply of free Africans was minimal. Paradoxically, the Africans stopped migrating across the Atlantic at the very moment in which the African migrants themselves finally could have negotiated a price for their participation in international migration. (12)

Therefore, planters recruited labour in Europe (mainly in Spain and Portugal, although some Germans were also attracted) and in India and China. After a transitional period extending roughly from 1830 to 1870, most migrant labour to the Caribbean came from British India and Spain. (13) Why were the planters in the Caribbean so desperate to attract labour bonded to work for a certain period on their plantations? It has been suggested that the reason for the worldwide search for labour was of a political nature and not economic in origin. The planters in the Caribbean, it is said, had been used to working with unfree labour. Emancipation had created a free labour market that the planters wanted to avoid, and in order to achieve this they imported indentured labour from outside the region. (14)

New research on the plantocracy in the Caribbean sheds doubt on this supposition. Planters had been innovating their work methods both before and after the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately, it turned out to be technically impossible to save on labour in the fields, whether to plant or to harvest sugar cane, cotton, or coffee beans. In view of that, most plantations needed a sizeable labour force that lived on the plantations and could perform daily tasks in the field. In order to produce competitively, the plantations thus required a special type of labour. The only way to ensure its regular availability in sparsely-populated areas without a market-driven supply of labour was to conclude labour contracts. The ex-slaves increasingly refused to sign such contracts and withdrew from permanent positions as resident field labourers. A decreasing number of freedmen did remain available to work on the plantations on a seasonal basis as members of so-called 'jobbing gangs', but their arrival on the plantation could not be planned with absolute certainty. (15)

There has been some debate among historians about the 'flight from the plantations'. Did the ex-slaves go of their own volition or did the planters push them? The answer is that a combination of the two occurred, but that the decisions of the freedmen were the decisive factor. In principle, the situation was clear: many freedmen wanted to continue living in the ex-slave quarters where they had always lived even when they preferred not to work on the plantation. Planters, on the other hand, only wanted those freedmen to live on their estates who intended to provide more than an occasional day's work. Others should leave or pay rent. Those who provided neither labour nor rent were accordingly evicted. (16)

Thus stated the options looked clear-cut. In practice, however, decisions to evict former slaves from the estates were not so easy to carry out. By evicting a non-working family member the danger was that all the ex-slaves of that family would leave, some of whom might be valued workers. That is the reason why there were only 'one or two' evictions in Guiana, and the same seems to have been the case with Trinidad. The planters and the government did evict ex-slaves in Jamaica from both estate and Crown lands, but evicted squatters could move elsewhere or they could buy land, especially when the government had instituted a land grant scheme for the East-Indian immigrants. The availability of land was the crucial factor. It explains why the eviction scheme failed to produce a new body of landless freedmen with no choice but to work on plantations. (17)

The replacement of slaves and freedmen by indentured immigrants took time. In the British Caribbean the first indentured labourers arrived after the end of the period of apprenticeship (1834–1838), which had artificially prevented the large-scale withdrawal of labour from the plantations. In the French and Dutch Caribbean, slavery had still not been ended by the time that the British planters were beginning to experiment with indentured immigrant labour. Indeed, in the Spanish Caribbean the use of indentured immigrant labour came to an end even before the slaves had been emancipated. In addition to the different timing of slave emancipation the ability of the planters to choose among the different possibilities varied widely. The British planters—mainly in Guyana—had been able to attract indentured labourers from the poor regions of Portugal, especially from the island of Madeira that was economically very depressed at the time. In similar fashion, the Cuban planters could recruit from the poor regions of continental Spain as well as from the Canary Islands. Planters in the French and Dutch Caribbean did not have these options. The British government did not allow the Cuban, Peruvian, and Brazilian planters to recruit labour in British India, while this opportunity was granted to British, French, Danish, and Dutch planters. (18)


It seems that the preferences of the ex-slaves and those of the planters differed widely and that slavery failed to educate the slaves for the market economy after slavery. The choices that the freedmen made resulted in more personal freedom, but at the same time in a decline in their standard of living, their life expectancy, and their educational progress. It would be wrong to make the planters the main culprits for this decline. Slave emancipation had made the Caribbean planters the most vulnerable employers in the Atlantic world, at least in the more sparsely populated areas. There is no reason to assume that by replacing freedmen by Asian immigrants they showed a penchant for creating a loyal rather than an economical workforce, in spite of the fact that in hiring indentured labour from Asia, they seemed willing to engage many more labourers than were required as a nuclear workforce. The extra labour must have been economically advantageous as the planters obviously wanted to move away from the system of the 'jobbing gangs', composed of freedmen, who arrived irregularly and on short notice and were willing to perform only certain types of work. Generally speaking, the planters were unable to rely on additional labour from the ex-slaves and could expect little help from the colonial government in disciplining the freedmen. Lack of personnel, abolitionist pressures from the metropolis, and the relatively easy access to land all made it impossible for the planters and the West Indian government to imitate the governments of Western Europe in their attempts to create a labour force responsive to monetary incentives. Draconian vagrancy laws did not work, as their implementation required the creation of a colonial police state that—among other reasons—could not be financed. (19)

There remained a strong demand for labour on the Caribbean plantations despite the application of labour-saving methods on account of the fact that—at least until the 1930s—the technology of harvesting sugar cane remained extremely labour intensive. However, strong competition on the market for sugar gave the employers in the region little economic room for manoeuvre as protection for their products was progressively removed. These two factors signified the end of export agriculture in the Caribbean, albeit that the death struggle was long and painful. The constantly diminishing number of plantations in the Caribbean is proof of the fact that the West Indian planter could, indeed, go bankrupt by offering higher wages, by providing for the ineffective family members, by allowing labourers more time to tend their private plots, and by providing better housing and more social services in general. Like employers elsewhere, Caribbean planters needed to cut labour costs in order to stay in business, and that strongly limited their ability to accommodate the preferences of their workers. However, in spite of these limitations, plantation work remained the most secure source of income for the freedmen and most alternative employment caused a substantial decline in their living standards. Freedom came at a price, and it was obvious that the plantation system had not prepared the ex-slaves for this disappointment.

  1. A previous version has been published as P. Emmer, '"A Spirit of Independence" or Lack of Education for the Market? Freedman and Asian Indentured Labourers in the Post-Emancipation Caribbean, 1834–1917', in After Slavery. Emancipation and its Discontents, ed. H. Temperly (London, 2000), pp 150–168. On the post-emancipation decline in sugar production and per capita income see Herbert S. Klein and Stanley L. Engerman, 'The Transition from Slave to Free Labor: Notes on a Comparative Economic Model' in Between Slavery and Free Labor; The Spanish-Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Frank Moya Pons and Stanley L. Engerman (Baltimore/London, 1985), pp. 255–69. Back to (1)
  2. See Peter Kolchin, 'The Tragic Era? Interpreting Southern Reconstruction in Comparative Perspective' in The Meaning of Freedmen, Economics, Politics, and Culture after Slavery, ed. Frank McGlynn and Seymour Drescher (Pittsburgh and London, 1992), pp. 292–311. Back to (2)
  3. As 'pars pro toto' I only mention three recent studies: Michael J. Craton, 'Reshuffling the Pack: The Transition from Slavery to Other Forms of Labor in the British Caribbean, ca. 1790–1890', New West Indian Guide, 68 (1994), 23–75 and O. Nigel Bolland, 'The Politics of Freedom in the British Caribbean', in The Meaning of Freedom, ed. McGlynn and Drescher, pp. 113–46 and Gad Heuman, The Caribbean (London, 2006), pp 100–6. Back to (3)
  4. The—by now classic—argument for the viability of the West Indian plantations was put forward by Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh, 1977). On the 'policy of amelioration' see J.R. Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 1750–1834: The Process of Amelioration (Oxford, 1988). Back to (4)
  5. H. Tinker, A New System of Slavery; the Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920 (London, 1974). Back to (5)
  6. '...the plantocracies with the connivance of the imperial government and the British government in India began the steady importation of an alternative labour force of East Indians under terms of indentureship that were little better than 'a new system of slavery'' (Michael Craton, 'The Transition from Slavery to Free Wage Labour in the Caribbean, 1780–1890: A Survey with Particular Reference to Recent Scholarship', Slavery and Abolition, 13.2 (1992), 45). Back to (6)
  7. David Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834–1922 (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 120–39. Back to (7)
  8. Pieter C. Emmer, 'Scholarship or Solidarity? The Post-Emancipation Era in the Caribbean Reconsidered', New West Indian Guide, 69.3 (1995), 277–90 and Michael J. Craton, 'Response to Pieter C. Emmer's "Reconsideration"', New West India Guide, 69.3 (1995), 291–7. Back to (8)
  9. Drescher, Econocide, 65–91. Back to (9)
  10. David Eltis, 'Abolitionist Perceptions of Society after Slavery' in Slavery and British Society, 1776–1846, ed. J. Walvin (London, 1982), 195–213. Back to (10)
  11. Green, British Slave Emancipation, 196–9; Alan H. Adamson, Sugar Without Slaves: The Political Economy of British Guiana, 1838–1904 (New Haven, 1972), 119–21; Stanley L. Engerman, 'Economic Adjustments to Emancipation in the United States and British West Indies', Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 13 (1982), 200–1. Back to (11)
  12. Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge, 1983), 146, 147; W.G. Clarence-Smith, 'Emigration from Western Africa, 1807–1940', in European Expansion and Migration: Essays on the Intercontinental Migration from Africa, Asia and Europe, ed. P.C. Emmer and Magnus Mörner (New York and Oxford, 1992), 197–210. Back to (12)
  13. P.C. Emmer, 'Immigration into the Caribbean: The Introduction of Chinese and East Indian Indentured Labourers between 1839 and 1917' in European Expansion and Migration, ed. Emmer and Mörner, 251. Back to (13)
  14. Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy (Baton Rouge and London, 1983), 22. Back to (14)
  15. Emmer, 'The Price of Freedom: The Constraints of Change in Postemancipation America in The Meaning of Freedom, ed. McGlynn and Drescher, 30; Craton, 'The Transition from Slavery to Free Wage Labour....', 60 suggests that plantation managers forced the system of 'jobbing gangs' upon the freedmen. However, Craton does not provide evidence that the freedmen were willing to offer their labour in any other way. Back to (15)
  16. The classic article on evictions from the estates: Douglas Hall, 'The Flight from the Estates Reconsidered: The British West Indies, 1838–1842', reprinted in Caribbean Freedom, ed. Beckles and Sheperd, 55–64. Back to (16)
  17. Green, British Slave Emancipation, 297–300; Philip J. McLewin, Power and Economic Change: The Response to Emancipation in Jamaica and British Guiana, 1840–1865 (New York and London, 1987), 199, 200. Back to (17)
  18. Stanley L. Engerman, 'Servants to Slaves to Servants: Contract Labour and European Expansion' in Colonialism and Migration: Indentured Labour Before and After Slavery, ed. P.C. Emmer (Dordrecht, 1986), 270–6. Back to (18)
  19. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the data allowing me to calculate the percentage of military and police per 1000 inhabitants in the various countries of the North Atlantic World. As there must have been a general increase during the 19th century my suggestion is that the ratio still remained much smaller in the Caribbean than in Western Europe. As far as the vagrancy laws were concerned, Seymour Drescher notes that 'at the end of apprenticeship even West Indian vagrancy and contract laws had to be made more lenient than they were in England. This legislation was rolled back in the 1840s, but only to the extent that it was made identical with British metropolitan labor status' (Seymour Drescher, 'Free Labor vs Slave Labor: The British and Caribbean Cases', in Terms of Labor. Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor, ed. Stanley L. Engerman (Stanford, 1999), 73; Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment. Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation (Oxford, 2002), 158,159). Back to (19)

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