Recorded history in the Caribbean islands begins with slavery, when Christopher Columbus "discovered" that superior military technology would enable his soldiers to violently exploit the native Amerindians. Caribbean Workers' Struggles, by Jamaican-born Richard Hart and available from the Socialist History Society, describes the development of labour relations, from slave labour to capitalist free labour through to modern trade unions and political independence.
The earliest white merchants employed indentured servants to farm their land. The brutal exploitation of African slaves, considered by plantation owners to be cheaper to transport and better suited to working in hot weather, grew out of the expansion of the sugar cane trade. As one planter noted, the extreme profitability was considered well worth killing "30 or 40 Negros per year more". Slave owners preferred to drive slaves to death than provide them with sufficient living conditions. Almost all slaves in Antigua, for example, died within nine years of "importation".
Slave revolts took the form of organised disobedience, deliberate damage to property, absconding and two Maroon Wars (Maroons were escaped slaves). Two rebellions in Jamaica in the 1760s were a serious threat to established rule, and the 1791 Revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in French Saint Domingue (Haiti) even defeated the force sent against it by Napoleon.
House slaves listened in on abolitionist missionaries at the tables of the big houses, generating rumours that the king wished them freedom. Significant uprisings in Jamaica and Barbados in 1815 to 1816 were motivated by the belief that royal troops would not oppose them. In fact, missionaries never actually advocated slave disobedience. The gradual abolition originally offered in 1823 would have required more than a century to come to fruition.
Hart, who also authored Slaves Who Abolished Slavery and The Life and Resurrection of Marcus Garvey, neglects to mention the influence of the French and American revolutions on the ideology of struggle, and the involvement of white women suffragists in the abolition movement. The evidence, recorded only by the exploiters, is sparse for the early period. Hart nevertheless provides interesting facts about the numbers and origins of the slaves participating in rebellions and the value of the damage caused to particular owners. Rebellions after 1830 are described in much greater detail. Here he paints a more colourful picture, as with one 1865 Morant Bay rebel who tried to persuade the crowd to return goods they had stolen, saying, "We don't want cloth, we want powder; we do not come here to thieve, we come to kill."
This book is testimony to the courageous and unceasing struggle from below that won freedom and political rights for a population of slaves.
Caribbean Workers' Struggles is published by Bogle L'Ouverture Press, £6 and can be ordered from the Socialist History Society website.