Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Life on plantations

by Dr Alan Rice

'I have often wondered how English people can go out into the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies they forget God and all feelings of shame, I think, since they can see and do such things. They tie up people like hogs moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged.'

Mary Prince, 1831 

Plantation life

The plantation economies of the Americas were built almost exclusively on slave labour. Crops such as tobacco in Virginia, rice and indigo in the Carolinas, cotton in the southern states and sugar and mahogany in the Caribbean and Brazil helped build economies that enabled the plantation owners to become very rich.

Africans were responsible for this wealth, not least in the knowledge they brought with them from west Africa. Their knowledge made it possible for instance to grow more rice per acre in North America.

By 1807 annual incomes per estate of £4,000 (£400,000 at today's values) were not uncommon for sugar planters such as the Barrett's of Jamaica. The extreme cost was paid by enslaved Africans whose working conditions were horrendous. In Brazil and other sugar estates in the Americas no attempt was made to make conditions comfortable enough so that enslaved Africans could lead normal family lives. They were made to work so hard that the labour force had to be renewed every decade due to an exceptionally high death rate among the enslaved. They were literally worked to death.

Hard labour

By 1750 around 800,000 Africans had been imported into the Caribbean and yet the enslaved population was only 300,000. The sugar islands became a literal 'graveyard for the slaves'. Children were made to work all plantation crops from as young as five. It was a way of work that left little time for anything else.

On the sugar plantations, the way the work was organised meant that a majority of men worked as craftsmen or worked in the semi-industrial mills. Meanwhile, women were mainly limited to working in the fields or as domestics. On many plantations women, who made up the majority of the field workers, were forced to work throughout pregnancy and their babies were raised in nurseries whilst they worked all daylight hours in the fields.

How much a slave was worth in money terms differed depending on their skills. In the 1780s in the Caribbean the value would range from £6 for an old slave to £150 for a skilled boiler of sugar. The value of 56 slaves on a plantation in Antigua in 1782 was £3,590, which is about £360,000 today.


In order to make the most money they could from their plantations, owners used violence on the enslaved labourers. This included everyday whipping and exemplary punishments for those accused of not working as hard as the owners wanted them to. This violent treatment is documented in narratives by Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Robert Wedderburn and Frederick Douglass.

Despite these horrendous conditions, enslaved Africans tried hard to find ways to keep their humanity and dignity. They created families and communities that enabled them to share stories, music and religions within a culture of resistance to their dehumanisation.


In the Caribbean in particular, independent cultivation of crops and sometimes animals meant that enslaved Africans were able to grow food and other crops beyond their own needs. This surplus they were then able to sell in vibrant markets. It gave them an economic and cultural independence that was vital for their survival. In the late eighteenth century as many as 10,000 enslaved Africans took part in markets in Kingston, Jamaica. Such 'subaltern economy was both a way of providing for themselves and a way of resisting their economic exploitation under slavery' (Verene Shepherd).

Asian indenture

Although freedom from slavery ended in the British Caribbean in 1838, the British continued to work their tropical plantations using a new labour force brought from the Indian subcontinent. This labour force was brought over to replace those Africans who abandoned the harsh conditions on plantations, little improved by 'freedom'.

The Indian labour was called an ‘indentured labour' force. The workers came under a contract (an ‘indenture') which was so unfair to them as workers that they rarely made any money from their labour, despite the long hours they worked and the tough conditions. Between 1838 and 1918 over 1.5 million workers came from Asia to the British Caribbean alone. This contradicted British claims that they had been morally good in abolishing enforced labour regimes.