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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
16th - 17th century
North America
West Indies
     British and French
     Sugar and slaves

France and Britain
The Caribbean
Cape Colony
Anglo-Russian rivalry
Heyday of empire
South Africa
To be completed

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British and French West Indies: 1612-1664

The first English settlement on any island in the west Atlantic is the result of an accident. Castaways from an English vessel, wrecked on its way to Virginia in 1609, find safety on Bermuda. When news of the island reaches England, a party of sixty settlers is sent out (in 1612).

Three decades later, religious friction in the Bermuda community causes a group of dissenters to seek a place of their own. From 1648 they settle in the Bahamas, a chain of uninhabited islands forming the fringe of the northern Caribbean. This is where Columbus made his first landfall in 1492. In the intervening half century the Spanish have shipped the natives (some 40,000 Arawak Indians) to work in the mines of Hispaniola.


Meanwhile the eastern fringe of the Caribbean is also unattended by the Spanish, apart from occasional raids in search of slaves. The British are the first to acquire valuable footholds in this region. They establish settlements in St Kitts (1623), Barbados (1627) and Antigua, Nevis and Montserrat (by 1636). The French, hard on their heels, occupy part of St Kitts (1627), Dominica (1632) and Martinique and Guadeloupe (1635).

Later in the 17th century Spain loses two large sections of the central Caribbean to her European enemies. An English fleet invades and captures Jamaica in 1655. In 1664 France's West India Company occupies the western half of Hispaniola (the region now known as Haiti).


Sugar, slaves and shipping: 17th - 18th century

The first Spanish colonists in the Caribbean, in the 16th century, have hoped primarily to grow rich by finding gold. The natives of the islands are put to work as slaves in the mines.

Thererafter, when the limited supply of gold is exhausted, the Spanish West Indies survive as part of the broader economy of Spanish America. The islands are both gathering point and staging post for the fleets bringing goods from Spain and taking back the wealth of Mexico and Peru.


By contrast the English and French settling on the islands of the eastern Caribbean need to rely on agriculture. At first they grow tobacco in small holdings. But soon it becomes clear that the most profitable produce is sugar, grown on large estates and cultivated by slave labour in gangs.

By this time the original inhabitants of the West Indies have been virtually wiped out by a combination of European diseases and physical exploitation. The plantation owners rely instead on slaves from Africa.


The slaves are at first imported mainly by the Dutch, who have seized many of the Portuguese slaving stations in west Africa, but later the trade is dominated by the English. Jamaica, in English hands from 1655, becomes the major slave market of the region.

The economic importance of the islands, bringing Spanish, French and British fleets into often close proximity, means that the Caribbean is one of Europe's regular theatres of war. The smaller islands frequently change hands between France and Britain during the 18th century, in an ongoing conflict which reaches a peak in the 1790s during the French Revolutionary wars.


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