Africa In The Caribbean – By Dennis R. Hidalgo

A historical overview of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean, by Dennis R. Hidalgo

By Dennis R. Hidalgo

Africa and the Caribbean: Overview

The Caribbean, that region that encircles the Sea, shores and the islands also called Antilles, is known for its thriving and diverse African Diaspora.

In the Americas, only Brazil comes close to the Caribbean as a site for African-descended cultures and peoples. In fact, the Caribbean has the most concentrated cluster of Afro-descendents of any place in the world with the exception of Africa. The extraordinary yet agonizing transfer of African peoples and cultures into the Caribbean has been in the making for about five centuries.

In the 20th century, after the broad abolition of racial slavery, many Caribbean societies embraced various forms of African cultural identity. Today, nearly every Caribbean country has elements of African heritage.

A plan of a slave ship used to transport enslaved Africans to the Caribbean

A plan of a slave ship used to transport enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. (Photo: British Library)

Prior to the European conquest, the Caribbean region was densely populated with perhaps millions of indigenous people. The unexpected arrival of explorers from the other side of the Atlantic starting in 1492 led to the natives’ nearly total extermination. Only a few Indians survived fleeing to the mountains beyond European control, often intermingling with escaped Africans and other colonial defectors.

The rapid decline of indigenous Caribbean people coincided with the first importation of enslaved Africans. This Atlantic SLAVE TRADE brought about 11 million Africans to the Americas and over 40 percent of them came to the Caribbean, deeply shaping the region’s population and cultures. Though the trade lasted for centuries, it took just decades for slave traders to replace the Caribbean indigenous population with Africans and their descendants. Since the 1550s, Afro-Caribbean people have been the dominant ethnic group in the region.

The early years of Sugar and African slavery 

Around the 1440s, prior to any Spanish claim over the Americas, Portuguese explorers began to sell captive Africans, first to other Africans and then to Europeans to help fund their explorations along the African coast. Mostly abandoning crude kidnappings, the Portuguese developed transaction systems with strategic posts [Feitorias] on the African coast. Some African leaders resisted. But many African societies practiced forms of slavery, so other leaders, seeking business opportunities, helped the Portuguese create supply networks bringing captives to the foreign trading posts. By the 1500s, about when Hispaniola, the island occupied today by the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC and HAITI, fell to Spanish control, the Portuguese slave trade was well entrenched along the West African coast.

Those who bought African workers exploited their talents in many ways, but SUGAR production came to define modern slavery. Asian traders had brought sugarcane from India to the Mediterranean, and by the 1200s plantations in southern Spain and northern Africa and on islands like Sicily, Crete and Cyprus were producing sugar for a new European market.

When Iberians discovered fertile tropical ground on the Atlantic Islands of the Madeira, Cape Verde, the Canaries and São Tomé, these locations became new hubs for sugar production. The work of processing sugar, with its around-the-clock tending of cane-crushing mills and syrup boilers, did not attract free laborers.

So, when the Spanish and Portuguese occupied these islands they exploited enslaved workers instead — North Africans, Guanches [native Canarians], and other war prisoners. As this backbreaking work took its toll on the laborers, the colonizers replaced them with enslaved West Africans blacks. By 1480s, black Africans had become the most common enslaved workers on the Atlantic Islands, toiling on sugar plantations, early versions of the kind of estates that would dominate the Caribbean.

The Spanish invaded the Caribbean on the heels of the conquest of the Atlantic islands. CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS and others were well acquainted with the sugar plantations of Madeira and Canary Islands. It is not surprising, then, that enslaved Africans would become chief workers on Spain’s Caribbean estates.

In 1503, theologians and others concerned with the moral implications of slavery lost an important campaign Financiers, who had invested in the exploration of the Indies, and others who argued that rebellion justified enslavement, convinced Queen Isabella to permit the sale of indigenous CARIBS into slavery.

The TAINO people, whom Columbus had initially labeled meek and inclined toward Christianity, were also forced into forms of hard labor similar to chattel slavery. For, although the claim over the Americas was to evangelize the natives, the European colonists typically sought to enrich themselves by forcing others to work. Attempting to balance the need for revenue and piety, the Crown in 1503 allowed a seemingly safe tribute system, and in 1512, it also issued the Law of Burgos to regulate colonists’ behavior with Indians. The Crown intended to shepherd Indians into CHRISTIANITY while also making them work. But, despite legitimate concerns for the Indians’ welfare, disease, overwork, and abuse largely eliminated the native labor force by 1550.

Without much fanfare, enslaved blacks began appearing in Spain’s new American colonies. Most had been born in slavery among Christians in Spain and Portugal. Some Spanish merchants gained individual permission from the Crown to send enslaved blacks to the Indies. In 1502 Juan de Córdoba sent an enslaved black man as his business agent to Hispaniola.

That same year Nicolas de Ovando, the island’s new governor, more typically arrived from Europe with various enslaved blacks to work in the fields. Ovando’s slaves escaped from bondage and joined with rebellious Tainos. Yet Spaniards continued sending enslaved workers. For example, Alonzo de Hojeda brought five enslaved Moors to the Caribbean. And PONCE DE LEÓN carried some enslaved Blacks with him to occupy PUERTO RICO in 1508.

DIEGO COLUMBUS, Christopher Columbus’ son and the new Hispaniola governor, convinced the Crown to allow the open importation of enslaved Africans. He complained that the Indians could not break the rocks that contained the island’s GOLD. In 1510 King Ferdinand officially proclaimed open the African slave trade to the Indies.

In fact, his first set of instructions bid the transportation to Hispaniola of 250 enslaved persons ―as soon as possible. Though the document does not identify the workers’ origins, there is little doubt that Ferdinand intended them to be Africans. From this moment, the Caribbean virtually moved closer to Africa. Ships loaded with captive Africans began arriving in Hispaniola to replace the dwindling Indian population in the mines.

By 1520 this mineral wealth had reached its peak. Following HERNÁN CORTES’ conquest of Mexico in 1521, Spaniards began leaving the Antilles in throngs. About the same time, the Crown decided to promote the sugar industry on the Caribbean islands instead of mining. The intention was to keep colonists profiting and the colonies viable. As a direct result of the Crown’s incentives, Hispaniola’s first sugar mill began operating in 1520, staffed by a few remaining Indians and newly arrived Africans.

In 1527, Hispaniola had 25 sugar estates, all of them now mostly worked by enslaved Africans. This increase required a similar growth in slave imports. The population of incoming captives soon outgrew that of the colonists. By the 1540s, Hispaniola’s enslaved population grew to about 12,000, compared to 1,000 free residents. In addition the Italian traveler Girolamo Benzoni reported in 1542 that there were more than 7,000 MAROONS [runaways] living outside of slavery. The maroons continued menacing SANTO DOMINGO even after the 1560s.

The Crown did not focus with the same intensity in Puerto Rico and CUBA as it did in Hispaniola, but the overall pattern of European colonization on these islands was similar nonetheless. After eliminating the Indians, or pushing them into hiding or assimilation, colonists turned to Africans for labor, and increasingly came to depend on agriculture instead of mining.

In the 1600s, as the Spainsh Empire turned its attention away from the Antilles to the mineral wealth in mainland regions of modern day MEXICO and Peru, its European rivals gained a foothold in the Americas. The French, Dutch and the English coveted Spain’s colonial wealth, and repeatedly attempted to seize it. For that purpose, they commissioned privateers and encourage PIRATES to plunder Spanish possessions. [see FRENCH IN THE CARIBBEAN; BRITISH IN THE CARIBBEAN]

The end of the 1500s and beginning of the 1600s were a period of high piracy in the Caribbean in which the Spanish relied even more on enslaved blacks to protect and build its empire. They worked constructing forts, mining copper, cutting timber, building ships or growing food for the Spanish military. Of the 20,000 individuals who lived in Cuba in 1610, for example, about half were enslaved blacks. They provided a vital portion of the skilled labor in the island’s royal arsenals and shipyards.

In the 17th century, despite its waning power in Europe and the loss of American territory to its rivals, Spain was still able to defend its major sea lanes and Caribbean ports. This was in part possible because of the crown’s dependence on enslaved blacks and the intensification of the slave trade in the region.

Continue reading on the next page: The Slave Trade


Dennis R. Hidalgo is a History Professor at Virginia Tech, who loves to read, enjoy nature, sports and hopes to make a positive impact in the world. While teaching and researching the history of the Atlantic World, Prof. Hidalgo seeks to improve as a person and hopes to make a positive impact on people. He blogs at

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