April 14, 1816 – Slavery Rebellion in Barbados

According to “The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700” by Mark Johnston, the first commercial production of sugar in the new world began in Brazil in 1550. The sugar industry advanced rapidly with the importation of slaves from equatorial Africa, financed by the Dutch East India Company. But in 1660 sugar production began to shift to Barbados and other West Indies islands. An English settler in Barbados, John Drax, acquired a great deal of land, equipment from the Dutch, and slave laborers from Africa. In the space of twenty years, Barbados became a major supplier for Europe, and by the mid-1650s, sugar production had largely supplanted tobacco and all other crops as the dominant economic activity of the island. By 1660, Barbados generated more trade than all the other English colonies combined.

[For an exploration of the complex reasons why the sugar trade switched from Brazil to the West Indies, you can read a detailed and interesting analysis by Matthew Edel, “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of West Indian Competition” in Caribbean Studies 9, no. 1 (1969): 24-44 online here. He notes that the war between Spain and the Netherlands, common trends in economic cycles, and cultural developments all played a role.]

As sugar developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates.

A BBC history of slavery in Barbados reports that as the sugar industry grew, slaves were imported in large numbers from Africa, especially from what is today the country of Ghana. They estimate that from 1627 to 1807, when Britain abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself), some 387,000 Africans were shipped to the island against their will, in overcrowded, unsanitary ships, which made the Middle Passage a synonym for barbaric horror. Moreover, as they point out, the high mortality rate among slaves working on the sugar plantations necessitated a constant input of fresh slaves in order to maintain a work force.

By 1700, there were 15,000 free whites and 50,000 enslaved blacks. To ensure the imbalance didn’t threaten the plantocracy, black or slave codes were implemented in 1661, 1676, 1682, and 1688. In response to these codes, several slave rebellions were attempted or planned during this time, but none succeeded.

On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1816, some 20,000 slaves from over 70 plantations rose up in the largest major slave rebellion in the island’s history. Three days later it was put down by the local militia and British imperial troops stationed on the island. The uprising was later called “Bussa’s Rebellion” after the slave leader Bussa. One hundred and twenty slaves died in combat or were immediately executed, and another 144 were brought to trial and executed. The remaining rebels were shipped off the island.

Statue of Bussa in Bridgetown, Barbados

The New York Times noted that The “Bussa Rebellion” prompted the British authorities to build six signal stations on the island’s high points where officers could detect slave revolts and warn other lookouts. One of the stations, Gun Hill in the Parish of St. George, has been restored by the Barbados National Trust, and offers visitors panoramic views to the south and east, plus an exhibition on the semaphore system used for signaling any threat from land or sea.

In 1826, the Barbados legislature passed the Consolidated Slave Law, which simultaneously granted concessions to the slaves while providing reassurances to the slave owners.

Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire 18 years later, in 1834. In Barbados and the rest of the British West Indian colonies, full emancipation from slavery was preceded by an apprenticeship period that lasted four years.

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