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Enslavement in Trinidad: the beginnings

By Bridget Brereton

In my last column I tried to compare slavery and indenture as systems of labour control. In this piece, and in the next articles, I'll consider how Trinidad became a slave society, and whether it was essentially different from other Caribbean slave societies.

Eric Williams entitled Chapter Four of his History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago "Africa to the Rescue". He meant that, to quote his words, "Africa had been brought in by Spain into Trinidad as the solution of the labour problem". But the truth was that, before the 1780s, Trinidad really didn't have a "labour problem" nor was there much demand for enslaved labourers.

We know exactly when the first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1806; and we know all about the first ship bringing the first indentured Indians in 1845. But we'll probably never know when the first enslaved Africans came to Trinidad. There were certainly a few present during the period of Spanish colonisation up to the late 1770s, however.

Spain was not at this time directly involved in the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and since Trinidad had no flourishing plantations, mines or ranches, there was very little demand for them. Very few of the impoverished Spanish settlers had the means to purchase them. But a few enslaved Africans, and a probably slightly larger group of free persons of African, African-Spanish, African-Amerindian or African-Spanish-Amerindian descent, formed part of the small population of Spanish Trinidad in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It was the arrival of French immigrants, lured to the island by generous offers of free land, tax concessions and other advantages, which transformed the island into a slave society. Starting in 1777, but accelerating in the 1780s and 1790s, hundreds of planters from the French Caribbean colonies, from Grenada (British since 1763 but with many French settlers) and from France, emigrated to Trinidad.

Most were white, but a significant group were "free coloureds", people of mixed African/European descent who were free and, in many cases, quite wealthy. Both groups brought with them their human "property", their enslaved labourers, for the land grants offered by the Spanish government were proportionate to the number they introduced to the island. The more enslaved persons you brought in, the bigger your land grants (though free coloured immigrants got less than whites, however many slaves they might bring).

These immigrants, with their enslaved labour, created flourishing cotton, sugar, coffee and cocoa plantations, and made Trinidad what it had never been: a plantation economy based on the coerced labour of enslaved Africans. It was the toil of these men and women which opened up the island to settlement and cultivation, and made money for their enslavers.

The majority of Trinidad's enslaved people in the last quarter of the 18th century were "Creoles": people born in the French Caribbean colonies, or Grenada, and brought with their owners to the island. They spoke Patois, a French-based Creole language, they were at least nominally baptised Roman Catholics, and they shared a cultural complex of music, dance, and folklore which can be described as an African-French "Creole" fusion.

But after 1790, many enslaved people kidnapped in Africa and brought over on the infamous slave ships arrived, responding to the new demand for labour as the island began its rapid development as a plantation economy. Most were brought by British slave traders.

By the time Britain captured the colony in 1797, there were just over 10,000 enslaved people in Trinidad (56 per cent of the total population). Because Britain was then by far the largest slave-trading nation, its seizure of Trinidad stimulated a very large influx, mainly from Africa. The enslaved population doubled in just five years (1797 to 1802) to reach about 20,000. Imports from Africa remained high right up to the abolition of the British trade in 1806-07.

While an estimated 3,800 arrived from Africa between 1784 and 1792, the total was around 20,000 between 1798 and 1807. As a result, Trinidad now had a far higher proportion of Africa-born people than an older, "mature" slave society like Barbados: in 1813, about 60 per cent were Africans, reversing the earlier "Creole" majority.

Britain's abolition of the transatlantic trade cut off imports from Africa, but a flourishing inter-colonial slave trade developed. Because enslaved workers were relatively few in Trinidad after 1807, while the plantations were still expanding, human property fetched much higher prices there than in the older colonies like Barbados. Thousands were brought to Trinidad between 1807 and 1834.

Some of them came legally—coming with their owners who were settling here—and many came illegally, arriving officially as "domestics" with their owners but actually to be sold as field labourers in violation of laws enacted by the British government in the 1820s. These arrivals helped to boost the enslaved population after the end of the transatlantic trade, but high mortality and low birth rates ensured that its overall size in fact declined between 1807 and 1834, clear evidence of the brutality of the system.

In my next piece I'll consider how far slavery in Trinidad was different from the system in other Caribbean countries.

Bridget Brereton is professor emeritus of

history at UWI and has studied and

written about the history of T&T and

the Caribbean for many decades

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