Slavery in the Americas: The Guianas

s Figure 1.-- The engraving comes from a Dutch book. It shows a plantation owner with a group of slave women and children. The caption says, "An afternoon in the plantation life." We can see that, as in other South American colonies and the Caribbean, the slave women go shirtless and the children unclothed. Some of the children are probably mulattoes and are so represented. The source describes the location a 'West-Indië', that suggests the Dutch Antilles (Dutch West Indies), but as the Dutch islands are arid it was probably Suriname.

Most of South America was a part of the Spanish or Portuguese colonial empires. There were three other colonial powers (England, France, and the Netherlands) which established small colonies in the northeast corner of the continent--the Guianas. Thee was resistance from the Spanish and Portuguese, but unlike the rest of South America, the Guianas were not colonized by Spain and Portugal by the time that Dutch, English, and French seapower was growing. These colonies were English, French, and Dutch Guiana. It was the Dutch who played a key role in bringing the sugar industry from Brail to the Guianasa and the Caribbean. These colonies were culturaly linked with the Caribban possessions of these colonial powers. The population of all three colonies, including the number of slaves was relatively limited. The pattern was basically the same, efforts to enslave native Americans failed and captive Africans were imported. Some slaves escaped and established Maroon populations with the Native Americans in the interior. Eventually indentured workers were also imported from the Dutch and English colonial empires. Settlement patterns varies simewhat. The Dutch for security reasons tended to concentrate settlement and economic activity around sugar plantations sited inland from the coast. The British able to rely more in the powerful Royal Navy began to found cane plantations on the richer coastal lands. The British and French had Caribbean islnds perfectly suited for can culture. The Dutch Caribbean islands like Aruba abd Curaçao were more arid and less suited for cane culture. Emancipation occurred at various times. The British led the effort to end the slave trade and were the first to emancipate the slaves. The Dutch were the last. The Dutch were particularly important because they worked out the basics of plantation sugar production. Details on slavery in the three colonies is available: Dutch Guiana, British Guiana, and French Guiana. Guyana and Suriname are now independent. French Guiana is now part of France.

British Guianaa/Guyana

Dutch Guiana/Surinam

The British and Dutch like other European colonizers attempted to use Native Americans as slave labor. As in other countries, the Native Americans did not prove a long-term solution and very limited European settlement took place. . Many died in captivity through mistreatment and lack of resistance to European diseases, but unlike the Caribbean islands, cthey could escape deep into the interior or bush. The Dutch played a key role in developing plantation sugar agriculture during their brief control of Brazil during the European colonial wars (17th century). Dutch planters driven out of Brazil brought that knowledge to Suriname. Labor was carried out by African slaves. The Dutch were one of the principal Europeam naval powers and extensively involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Thus there was a ready supply of captive Africans to the planters in Suriname. Slaves were lesse useful on the Netherland Antilles because agricultural land was limited. Considerable development subsequently took place in Surinsme (early 18th century). The most important was plantations focusing on sugar production. Most of the work on the plantations was done by African slaves. Modern accounts include statements like, "The treatment of these slaves was bad." Such statements are often based on assumptions rather than fact. There is no doubt that work on a slave plantation was hard. And there was no doubt that there were many abuses. And escpees into the interior show that substantial numbers rejected enslavement. But so was life in Africa where they came from. Of course no one would want to be a slave, but in assessing living conditions want needs to assess objective indicators such as food consumption and popultion growth. Sugar proved to be a fantastically profitable crop leading to the importation of more and more African slaves. Africans thus developed over time as the principal part of the population. Labor on a sugar plantation was very hard. Some African slaves like the Native Americans before them, escaped into the interior which was largely undeveloped. Such escapees were known as Maroons, but in Surinme called 'Djukas' or 'Bush Negroes'. Some would acquire weapons and attack plantations. Over time the Maroons created a kind of buffer zone between the Dutch planters, who settled land along the coast and to some extent the main rivers, and the Native American tribes deep into the interior. The Netherlands during the French Revolution was invaded by France and eventually incorporated into the French Empire. As a result, the British occupied Suriname (1799). The British abolished slavery, but made no effort to enforce that action. Nor did they move against the Dutch population. The British returned Suriname to the Dutch after Napoleon's defeat as part of the Congress of Vienna peace settlement (1816).

French Guiana

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was dominated by the Portuguese and British, but France was an important participant. The vast majority of the captued Africans were dlivered to Haiti, with lesser numbers to Martinique, and other colonies. In comparison smaller numbers were delivered to the relatively small number of plantations on Guadeloupe and French Guiana. The Caribbean islands becme emensely valuable with the development of sugar as a cash crop. Sugar was produced on extrodinarly brutal plantations using slave labor. Gaudeloupe, Haiti (Saint-Domingue), and Marinique were the source of emense wealth--especially Haiti. The Dutch played a key role in the Brazilian/Caribbean sugar industry. The Dutch briefly seized the area from the Frnch. And it was the Dutch whjo brought the first slaves to what is now French Guiana (1654). The French rgained control if Guiana (1674). It is at this time that the serious agricultural development begans. The French when they returned also established plantations, but development was fairky limited compared to their main sugar island--Haiti. The Native Americans an the easy of running away into the interio both complicated plantation agriculture in French Guiana. This was the situation just before the French Revolution (late-18th century). The French sugar as well as Cayenne pepper and other spices. As in the Caribbean islands, they They brought in several thousands captured Africans to work the plantations because the Native Americans could not be ucessfully enslaved. As in the Caribbean, the plantation/ slave system was very brutal. Small numbers of African slavees escaped into the interior and became known as maroons. Unlike the Caribbean, the French had no way of controlling this. Maroons could be hunted down on small islands with relative ease having no place to hide, but not in the vast South American intrior.


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Created: 11:15 AM 10/24/2014
Last updated: 4:54 AM 5/22/2017