West Indian planters.—In the British West Indies, the production of sugar profoundly influenced social and economic conditions. The West Indian planter with his vast estate worked by slaves had crowded out the small landholder. He represented the capitalistic class, belonged to the Anglican church, and held views similar to those of the rural aristocracy of the mother country. It has been customary for historians to paint a roseate picture of life on the West India plantations, an
Barbados and the Leeward Isles.—During the seventeenth century most of the British sugar came from Barbados and the Leeward Isles, but lack of fertilization and slave labor had brought about deterioration on the estates, and during the eighteenth century both population and productivity were on the decline. In 1762 the white population of Barbados was about 18,000 and the blacks numbered 70,000. In 1736 the island produced 22,769 hogsheads of sugar, while during 1740-1748 the average annual production was 13,948 hogsheads. In 1744, Antigua, St. Christopher, Nevis, and Montserrat contained a total of about 11,000 whites and 60,000 slaves. As the lands became less productive, the planters attempted to make up the loss by increasing the number of slaves, a method which probably aggravated the condition.
Jamaica.—In the eighteenth century, Jamaica was the West Indian frontier. There could be found large tracts of unoccupied land suitable for sugar culture. In spite of this the population increased slowly; this was mainly due to slave insurrections which were frequent until 1739, to the fact that there was a constant migration of small landholders from the British West Indies, and to a depressed sugar market. The Island of Jamaica contained 3,840,000 acres; in 1754, 1620 planters had under cultivation 1,671,569 acres. The demand for slaves was keener than in any other British sugar island. During 1702-1775 it has been estimated that the planters purchased about 5,000 negroes a year from the slave traders.
A contemporary description of Jamaica.—Leslie described the island customs in 1740 as follows: "The Gentlemens Houses are generally built low, of one Story, consisting of five or six handsome Apartments, beautifully lined and floored with mahogany, which looks exceeding gay; they have generally a Piazza to which you ascend by several Steps, and serves for a Screen against the Heat.... The Negroes have nothing but a Parcel of poor miserable Huts built of Reeds, any of which can scarce contain upwards of two or three.
"The common Dress here is none of the most becoming, the Heat makes many clothes intolerable, and therefore the Men generally wear only Thread Stockings, Linen Drawers, and Vest, a Handkerchief tied around their Head, and a hat above. ... The negroes go mostly naked, except those who attend Gentlemen.... The Laidies are as gay as any in Europe, dress as richly, and appear with as good a Grace.... Learning is here at the lowest Ebb; there is no publick School in the whole Island, neither do they seem fond of the Thing.... The Office of a Teacher is looked upon as contemptible, and no Gentlemen keeps Company with one of that Character; to read, write, and cast up Accounts is all the Education they desire, and even these are but scurvily taught.... The Gentlemen, whose Fortunes can allow, send their children to Great Britain. ... The Laidies read some, dance a great deal, coquet much, dress for Admirers, and at last, for the most Part, run away with the most insignificant of their humble Servants. Their Education consists entirely in acquiring these little Arts."
Emigration.—There was a constant migration of small landholders from the British West Indies to the French and Dutch islands, to Guiana and to the North American colonies. Several acts were passed whose object was to increase the number of colonists, but they had little effect, for the small landowners could not compete with the great slave proprietors. The colonists with small capital preferred to start where lands were cheaper and where social fines were not so tightly drawn.
Illicit trade.—The largest market for northern goods was found in the West Indies. Here was a field which required the products of the temperate zone. As Pitman observes, "Its demands upon Northern lumbermen, stock-raisers, and farmers, furnish a powerful incentive for the clearing and settlement of the continent." In spite of legal restrictions the Yankee skipper plied his trade. The planters of the sugar islands believed that the Molasses Act would restore their prosperity, but they soon found that natural economic laws were stronger than parliamentary enactments and that the northern sea-captain smuggled as of old. A considerable inter-island trade which ignored nationality was also carried on. St. Eustatius and the Virgin Isles became important smuggler havens, and even when war was in progress, the British Americans did not hesitate to supply their enemies with provisions and lumber in exchange for sugar, rum, and molasses.