Slavery and Revolution


Slavery was an integral part of the British-Atlantic system. Before the American Revolution there were enslaved people living in all of the British colonies in the Americas, and in Britain itself. By far the most reliant on slavery were colonies in the Caribbean. The people who were forced to work as slaves on tropical plantations in places like Jamaica originated from West Africa. Enslaved people were transported to the Americas from Africa in their millions, encountering the horrors of the Middle Passage, across the Atlantic Ocean, on which many died.

New-World slave systems dictated that slavery and freedom were tied to skin colour and ancestry. Slaves were descended from Africans, whereas whiteness was a badge of freedom. In Jamaica, enslaved people outnumbered whites by a ratio of about ten to one. They were put to a variety of work by slaveholders, but the majority were destined to labour and die on one of the island’s sugar plantations.

A growing number of sugar plantations in the Americas fed a booming demand for sugar among consumers in North America and Europe, and most of the sugar made by slaves in Jamaica was shipped ‘home’ to British markets. Other slaves in the island worked on coffee plantations, on livestock farms (or ‘pens’), on smaller mixed-crop properties, or in port towns like Kingston.

The difficulty of life and work on British-Caribbean properties like the sugar estates of Jamaica, where the work of planting, harvesting, and processing cane was especially arduous, ensured that enslaved people did not reproduce their numbers naturally through procreation. In other words, deaths outnumbered births, and this meant that planters – men like Simon Taylor – relied on the transatlantic slave trade to maintain the labour force on their plantations and other properties.

Slaveholders used brutality and terror to extract work and obedience from enslaved people. In Jamaica, the managers of slaves made effective use of brutal punishments, sexual abuse, divide and rule tactics, and small incentives to drive production and maintain dominance. They also stuck together, maintained a well-armed local militia, and relied heavily on support from the British military. Despite this, resistance by enslaved people was endemic, and rebellions common.

Enslaved people opposed and resisted the slave regime in various different ways and in all parts of the system. There were some large rebellions, such as the huge uprising that threatened white domination in Jamaica between 1760 and 1761. People also found other ways to push back against their oppressors, working slowly, running away, sabotaging equipment, taking extra provisions, or finding other ways to undermine the slaveholders when their backs were turned. In addition, enslaved people strove to forge cultures and communities in spite of the hardships of their situation.

It was only in the 1780s that British campaigners, like William Wilberforce, initiated a sustained political campaign against aspects of the slave system, beginning first with criticism of the slave trade. These campaigns contributed to the ending of the British transatlantic slave trade in 1807. Eventually, a combination of British public pressure and protests by enslaved people helped bring about the end of slavery in the British empire by 1838.