The University of Mississippi
THE 1996 PORTER L. FORTUNE, JR. SYMPOSIUM
The South in the Caribbean
4 October 1996
©Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.
THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF THE CARIBBEAN
When I accepted the invitation to give this lecture, I debated whether to focus on some narrow aspect as a case example of the history of the political economy of the Caribbean, or whether to attempt a more general, interpretive overview of the topic. Since I am not presently engaged directly in a Caribbean research project and my involvement in Caribbean history over the past forty years has been one more of teaching that research, I decided on the latter.
Although the lands bordering the Caribbean Sea developed under the tutelage of several different European empires, and more recently under North American dominance, when viewed as an economic unit, there is a certain unity to its development and in its patterns of historical evolution. The Caribbean, in fact, came to be the classic region of plantation society and development. It was the area to which Europeans came first to plant colonial enterprises, and from which they left last. Thus did the colonial Caribbean became the great laboratory of imperialism in the Americas. We might expect, therefore, to find there both the best and the worst of colonial institutions and practices. More often than not, the imperial interests of the dominant powers in the region have had more to do with the economic and political development of the region than have the inhabitants of the region itself. The history of the Caribbean Basin, in fact, has long been a history of the struggle between imperial interests and the those of the local inhabitants.
The Spanish came first, at a time when feudalism was still the dominant socio-economic system. Early Spanish efforts in the Caribbean were not profitable. Motivated by the primitive mercantilism of the Spanish renaissance, Spain nevertheless began the process of extending European trade to the new continent, but the mentality of feudalism seriously limited the initiative and capabilities of the traders and settlers who came. They moved on quickly to the mainland and their success in finding gold and silver in Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere blinded the Spaniards to the potential wealth of the Caribbean's fertility, just as DeSoto's march across the southeastern United States concluded that it was a land of little value, harsh weather, and hostile Indians. But even as they turned their backs on the Caribbean, the Spanish destroyed the native population, leaving vacant islands in the sun for exploitation by Spain's rivals. Once they and the buccaneers who followed had worn down the Spanish sufficiently they established colonies of their own. French corsairs, English sea dogs, and Dutch sea beggars, as they have been popularly labeled, assaulted Spanish commerce and shore settlements throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These assaults inhibited and demoralized Spanish agricultural efforts in the islands and coastal regions.
It is hard to overemphasize the importance of the Dutch in converting these colonies, which often began as commercial trading posts or buccaneering stations, into prosperous plantation colonies. From Virginia to Brazil, the Dutch encouraged and aided the establishment of plantations, not only in their own possessions, but also in the colonies of the British, French, and even of the Iberians. Dutch trade and capital became an essential to the emergence of the region as a producer of tropical crops for European consumption. The Caribbean, and parts of Brazil and North America, became major components of a North Atlantic economic system that would generate surplus capital to fuel the industrial revolution. Cacao, tobacco, and sugar were important crops first encouraged and traded by the Dutch. Dutch investments in these commodities coincided with the Dutch struggle for independence from the Spanish Habsburg. Dutch tobacco trading from Virginia southward to the Guianas contributed significantly to Holland's ability to wage that war successfully. Sugar became brought even greater profits. Spain successfully beat off the French and English assaults on her American monopoly in the sixteenth century, but after the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Dutch gained the upper hand in the Caribbean, and in the seventeenth century the Dutch West India Company reaped enormous profits from both trade and plunder. It was the Dutch who finally broke Spanish maritime superiority in the Caribbean and permitted greater economic growth not only for themselves, but for the other rivals of Spain as well.
The success of tobacco, however, encouraged imitators, and before long there was a flood of tobacco on Europe's markets, pushing prices down and creating unemployment and economic crisis among tobacco planters and their workers in the colonies. There resulted in the 1630s and 1640s a land and labor revolution that left a permanent impression on the Caribbean. Tobacco profits, trade, and plunder had permitted capital investment in the cultivation of sugar, for which the demand was rising rapidly in Europe. The conversion of much tropical land from tobacco to sugar resulted in fewer, but larger plantations and the displacement of the planters and workers who could not afford the capital investment required for sugar production or processing. Sugar producers turned to African slavery as their principal source of labor. While slavery had not been unheard of in tobacco production, most farms were family-sized operations, with the assistance of indentured laborers who came out from the old country for specified periods of service. They were generally less adaptable as field hands on sugar plantations African slave. Many of these displaced people, especially in the English and French islands, turned to buccaneering, and continued the assault on Spanish commerce. New-world based in either their own ports or in those of the French, English, or Dutch from New England to Curaçao, the buccaneers thoroughly crippled what remained of Spanish maritime strength in the region and permitted her European rivals to dominate not only sugar production, but the economic fortunes of the North Atlantic civilization. Although Spain had been first in the Indies, Caribbean plantation society developed from the seventeenth century forward largely in the colonies of her rivals. The Spanish holdingsCuba, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico remained largely subsistence oriented, in a more feudal than capitalist mode.
Sugar became King, and the British and French West Indies surpassed the Brazilian production earlier developed by the Dutch as Europe's primary source of sweetness. Profits from sugar funded the development of larger and stronger colonial empires, while they also provided capital for the industrial revolution. Richard Sheridan in his monumental Sugar and Slavery, (1) provided convincing evidence that the plantation colonies served as a base for the expansion and diversification of the Atlantic trading empire.(2) It was an industry that quickly became self-financing and yielded surplus capital for investment in Britain, and argued persuasively in support of Eric Williams' earlier contention that the wealth generated by the plantation colonies helped to stimulate the Industrial Revolution. The British empire also profited enormously from the trade, often illicit, with the neighboring Spanish colonies and from British subjects operating in Dutch, Danish or other colonies of the region.(3) This expansion of production and trade in tropical and subtropical commodities begun in the seventeenth century reached its apogee during the years from the outbreak of the Seven Years' War to the beginning of the American Revolution (1756-1775). It was not, of course, exclusively Caribbean production. Yet, with tea and spices from India and China, and tobacco, rice, and indigo from the southern colonies of North America, West Indian sugar, rum, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and dyewoods flowing into Britain raised standards of living and paid for the imports of British manufactures, employed ships and seamen, and financed the slave trade and the expansion of plantations and trading stations. "If the colonies of settlement are distinguished from the colonies of exploitation which extended from Tobago on the south to Maryland on the north," concluded Sheridan, "it is clear that the latter were the most important part of the British Empire. They produced the most valuable commodities, consumed more British manufactures and employed more shipping than the New England and Middle Atlantic colonies of North America." (4)
Sugar was intimately related to the growth in the slave trade in the Americas. While the Spanish began the importation of Africans into the Caribbean early in the sixteenth century, it was in the colonies of her rivals in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Caribbean where it flourished most. Slavery became the most defining quality of plantation society throughout the American tropics and beyond. The trading of slaves became was much an industry in New England as in the Caribbean, and the profits made by the traders provided capital for economic development well beyond the region. It was especially important to rise of the North American maritime industry and defense of the slave trade became an economic interest of both private and government interests in North America, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. The 1974 suggestion of Thomas and Bean that "the only group of clear gainers from the British transatlantic slave trade . . . were the European consumers of sugar and tobacco and other plantation crops" who "were given the chance to purchase dental decay and lung cancer at somewhat lower prices than would have been the case without the slave trade" (5) underestimates the close relationship between the Caribbean slave trade and production and the rise of northeastern US capitalism.(6) More recently, William Darity, Jr., has reenforced the argument that West Indian plantations and the slave trade were intimately bound to the rise of British industry and maritime power. He challenges those who have neglected the role of the West Indies and argues that the ratio of profits from the slave trade and plantation production in the Americas to the national income and to total investment in England was quite large, and that the share of imports and exports in the gross domestic product of England during the period in question was also large. He concluded that the British mercantilists thoroughly understood the economic forces of their time, and because Britain was the most through and single-minded mercantilist power "in pursuit of the grand mercantilist scheme of commercial conquest, naval power, colonialism, slavery, and metropolitan industrialization," she became "the world's industrial leader by the start of the nineteenth century."(7)
Agricultural estates in the greater Caribbean thus developed along lines that Latin American historians have conveniently categorized as Haciendas or Plantation, each symbolizing one of the great socioeconomic systems that have dominated the western world since the middle ages. The hacienda in its classic form was an American version of the feudal manor; the plantation the product of capitalist agro-export refinement. In its idealized form, the hacienda, most prevalent in the Spanish colonies but not absent altogether in English and French America as well, was dedicated to subsistence agriculture, with little or no production for consumption beyond the immediate area. It was single-family owned, and the family lived on the estate. Ideally, it was self sufficient, a complete economic unit, economically independent of the larger world. The owners of such estates favored a decentralized economic and political system, were locally oriented, and had little real commitment to the central state. The hacienda was traditional in most ways, including the relationship between the master and his labor force. Workers were usually serfs, often Indians, in these labor intensive agricultural estates. In the Spanish colonies, the creole masters sought to retain formal feudal institution, such as encomienda and repartimiento, that kept Indian or mestizo workers under their power. Progress was of secondary importance on these traditional estates, which tended to repeat the economic experience of the past, rather than experiment with new forms. The goal was to preserve existing life-styles and defend against threatened changes. Often short on capital or in debt, the owners were in no position to purchase slaves or invest in productive machinery, so that even where creoles might have had an interest in converting their estates to plantations, they lacked the means to do so.
In contrast, the plantations that emerged in the Caribbean and later in Central America and in the U.S. South, were capitalist in fundamental organization. They were export oriented. Family ownership was common, but the trend was toward company ownership, with absentee ownership common in both cases. They were highly dependent on international commerce, often limiting their own production to a single cash crop. They were directly related to the international economy and recognized the authority of centralized states, while lobbying actively to influence their policies in favor of the plantations. Capital intensive, they turned to African slavery for labor, but also sought labor saving machinery and maximum efficiency of production, marketing, and transportation. Regardless of actual ownership, their orientation was European (or North American later on), and they were directly concerned directly with economic and technological progress and competition.
Few estates fit these model characteristics exclusively, and many certainly contained elements of both, especially on the North American mainland. Many were in some stage of transition from hacienda to plantation. These models serve merely to illustrate characteristics of agricultural estates and the differences in outlook and practices from feudal to capitalist mentality.
The mercantilist policies of the European colonial powers continued into the eighteenth century, accompanied by a series of intercolonial wars. Beginning with the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655, British success in these wars brought her more islands, first at the expense of Spain and later of Holland and France. By the mid-eighteenth century the British had achieved a dominant position, but were limited by the size of their markets in the closed mercantilist systems in which markets were reserved for their own producers. Notwithstanding their territorial gains, however, the French sugar producers, with the help of government policies that subsidized and encouraged with tax benefits the Caribbean producers, had achieved greater economy in production and were thus in a better competitive position, especially for the markets of continental Europe. French reexports to the rest of Europe accounted for more than sixty per cent of the French production. This helps to explain the phenomenal rise of Saint Domingue (Haiti) as the leading sugar producer in the region in the eighteenth century. After 1763, France had been reduced to only Haiti, Martinique, Guadaloupe, and tiny St. Martin in the Caribbean, and had been pushed off the North American continent entirely. Britain, on the other hand, which had earlier reduced the Dutch to a minor position, had a multitude of sugar islands, led by Jamaica and Barbados, but also including the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Anegada, Antigua, Barbuda, the Caymans, Montserrat, St. Kitts, Tobago, and Nevis. To these it would add the large island of Trinidad in 1800. Both the British and the French encouraged expansion of sugar cultivation in these islands, resulting in rapid increases in slave population and exports of sugar. Haiti, especially, experienced rapid growth in its slave population and sugar production. By the 1780s it produced more sugar than all the British islands combined. Overproduction was forcing the prices down for producers everywhere, but the greater volume and markets of the French appeared to put the French producers in a better position. and whatever additional markets might be found. Diminishing returns to the British producers led to their decline by the last third of the eighteenth century.(8) The international rivalries, the rebelliousness of slaves, and overproduction all caused strains on the plantation systems of the eighteenth century. Ultimately both the French and the British West Indian plantation systems collapsed, opening the way for the rise of Cuban production in the nineteenth century, tied especially to new markets in the United States.
The French Revolution and its Haitian counterpart brought a sudden end to the apparent French success in Saint Domingue, however. According to sociologist Arthur Stinchcombe, the Haitian revolution "was perhaps the first modern case in which a revolution set up a line in the world system between revolutionary third world countries and conservative capitalist world system rulers. The French Revolution briefly became such a symbol of a great divide in the world system in the 1790s."(9) First in Haiti, and subsequently in the British islands, the abolition of slavery undoubtedly hastened the decline of the plantation economy in those colonies, but broader economic forces had already set the trend in that direction. The Napoleonic Wars and Latin American Wars for Independence reduced the Spanish American empire to Cuba and Puerto Rico, but her Bourbon reforms had begun the process finally of stimulating greater agro-export production in those areas.
Cuban agriculture since the Conquest had been largely subsistence in nature, although by the eighteenth century it exported respectable amounts of tobacco, coffee and sugar. The British Captured Havana during the Seven Years' War, however, and quickly opened it to trade with British merchants, an experience that stimulated great interest in freer trade among Cuban creoles. When Spain regained the island By the Treaty of Paris in 1763 it launched bold new programs both to defend the island against future loss and to stimulate its export economy. Cuban production of tobacco, coffee, cattle, sugar, and other crops surged upward during the last third of the eighteenth century under this encouragement, accompanied by rapid import of African slaves. Advantageously position to penetrate the expanding North American market, by the early decades of the nineteenth century, Cuba had enjoyed a remarkable rise in exports of all of these commodities and, in what Cuban economic historians have referred to as the "golden age of Cuban economic history," had achieved rising prosperity for the merchant and planter classes. Although comparable to the sort of development that earlier occurred in the British and French islands, owing to the larger established population and more stable social institutions, the rapid rise in slave labor produced less of an immediate shock than had occurred in Haiti or the British islands. Spanish Cuba thus took advantage of the difficulties that would soon plague the British and French West Indies. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Cuba would become the leading producer of sugar, in a pattern which would tie it in a close dependent relationship to North America. Meanwhile, the independence of Haiti and subsequently the abolition of slavery in the British islands would disrupt sugar production in those islands significantly. They went into a long economic decline from which in certain respects they have never recovered.
The southern United States would also become a more prominent cotton plantation region in the early nineteenth century, supplanting Brazil by its more rapid adoption of the technology of Eli Whitney's cotton gin and a better transportation infrastructure. The cotton south would take on many of the characteristics of the slave dependent Caribbean. Only the less intense development of plantation economy saved the mainland colonies from the extremes of dependency as it developed in the islands, but thee are striking similarities of dependency. Unlike the islands, however, the mainland colonies maintained a higher level of local food production and a lower degree of absentee ownership. Thus there was greater interest in the plantation region's general social and political development among southern plantation owners than among those in the Caribbean.
Sugar was the most significant Caribbean commodity, but it was not the only plantation crop that came to be vital to the region. Tobacco and coffee, and more recently other crops, often were produced best on smaller holdings where a resident owner participated directly in assuring a quality product. In the long run, these crops produced on smaller holdings assured the continuation of native ownership, as they were less successfully acquired and managed by large, foreign corporations. By contrast, sugar, as well as cotton, and later bananas, were crops well suited to large plantations, slaves, and absentee ownership. Those plantations best typify the classic capitalist plantation in the colonial Caribbean. Modern counterparts of this pattern, however, would include the United Fruit Company and other large banana plantations. Although slavery eventually ended everywhere, the process of emancipation stretched out over nearly a century and caused great variations in the social and economic development of different regions. Where plantations remained, conditions resembling slavery often continued, with racism and planter control of the local political system, as Arthur Stinchcombe has recently put it, "recreating structures similar to slavery and slave society with formal freedom." The different quality of plantation society with different crops, the differences in the controlled markets for the commodities, as well as the timing of slave emancipation led to significant differences in the economic and social development of the Caribbean islands. There had, of course, been some differences among the islands even before the rise of sugar, but sugar and slavery created very different situations from no-sugar islands. "Sugar made society on the islands different from society on the high seas around them and from the metropolitan country," according to Stinchcombe, "And the decay of sugar plantations made them different again, less racist and less slave-like in labor relations, although the residue of slave society was always there."(10) Stinchcombe emphasizes the "great variations among the islands in the forces producing slave societies," forces which produced a variety of political situations, even to the present. These variations, he points out, brought
"political autonomy differently on different islands, transmitted democracy at different times and with different intensities, produced rebellion or resistance among planters to imperial power, led to management of the maritime part of the system with different kinds of market politics and administrative apparatuses, and produced environments in which slave sugar production was introduced easily or with great difficulty. And they varied over time, which produced higher degrees of entrenchment of slave societies on the early-developed islands, produced societies that had, and had not, experienced the French Revolution, and produced an environment for plantation growth in which planters would buy slaves, contract Asian labor, or hire free proletarians moving among islands, depending on the historical situation."(11)
The difference in export crops has had much to do with the development of local economies and societies. Tobacco and coffee, particularly, thrived best when produced on small, family sized farms, where the owner lives on the farm and takes a close interest in the quality of the product. Living in the region, such owners have characteristically taken a greater interest in regional development, whether that be in the Carolinas, Cuba, or Costa Rica, than in sugar, banana, or cotton plantation regions. In those crops, close supervision by the owner is less essential to quality production, and the owners have often lived in other places, even outside the region in Europe or North America, with little interest in the wellbeing of the local region beyond the production of the export crop. This difference is highly important in understanding the relative differences among development in plantation regions.
Emancipation brought major problems to the plantation economies, in both the Caribbean and North America, even if it was not the cause of their decline in the first place. After emancipation, the strength of local governments, representing planter interests, in relation to national (or imperial) governments became an important factor in the ability of the local plantation society to continue to maintain slave-like social and economic patterns. The economic impact of emancipation itself is, of course, a major topic in the literature on the region. The relatively sudden shift in British policy from mercantilism to free trade came to espouse free labor as well. It reflected the rise of classical liberal economic theory, but it also conveniently responded to the problem of overproduction within mercantilist-controlled markets. This had caused the British Caribbean plantation system to already enter into decline by the close of the eighteenth century. David Eltis has confirmed that
"Britain was the most successful nation in the modern world in establishing slave-labor colonies overseas. It was also the first to industrialize as well as the first of the major powers to renounce coerced labor in principle and practice. These two developments, industrialization and abolition, evolved more or less simultaneously in the late eighteenth century. But this was only after a century during which the exploitation of Africans in the New World had become the foundation stone of the British Atlantic economy. Indeed the British about face on the issue of coerced labor could be almost described as instantaneous in historic terms. By the early nineteenth century they had become so convinced of its immorality and economic inefficiency that they were running an expensive one-nation campaign to suppress the international slave trade. They went on to free three quarters of a million of their own slaves. Throughout this process their economy underwent major structural change and, of course, continued to expand strongly." (12)
Eltis reminded us that
"soil exhaustion, competition from the French West Indies and the interruption of the trade in staples-stemming from the independence of most of the British North American colonies-all severely reduced the importance of the English-speaking Caribbean to the British economy. At the same time the British manufacturing sector had grown to the point where it required more markets than the slave colonies could provide and, in addition, was no longer dependent on profits from the slave system for its capital needs. The British attack on coerced labor could thus be seen as the first stage of an assault on the trade barriers that reserved the British sugar market for British plantations and restricted trade with the rest of the world. (13)
With the collapse of the British West Indies sugar industry the old planter class disintegrated. The more enterprising or aggressive of them left for new opportunities, in Africa or Australia perhaps. Those who could afford it returned to retire in Britain. Those who stayed formed a reactionary core that did not know how to make the adjustment to the changed economic and social situation.
The British abandonment of the institution, of course, did not bring an immediate end to slavery, although it may well have contributed to the emergence of Cuba, the southern United States, and Brazil, as the major plantation economies of the nineteenth century. The United States would play an ever expanding part in the political economy of the region from the 1790s forward, even though its share of the market was relatively small before 1865. Haiti, even before its independence in 1804, had interested United States trading interest considerably and been a source of both coffee and sugar. The southern fear of Haitian influence among slaves in the United States, however, prevented a more active role by the US there. Even at that, there was a considerable exodus of French Haitians with their slaves, first to Cuba, where they were not really very welcome for the same reason and did not interact well with the Spanish-speaking creoles, and then to Louisiana. There they swelled the small population by more than 10,000 by 1810, almost doubling immediately the population of New Orleans.(14)
With the collapse of the British and French sugar islands, Cuba became the dominant sugar producer from the 1830s through the 1960s. Cuba as a case history of sugar production offers the best example of the evolution of plantation society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as it passed through a series of essentially revolutionary economic changes. The Bourbon reformers had stimulated Cuban agro-export productivity through expansion of slavery, subsidies, tax incentives, and the legalizing of new markets, including that of English North America completely by 1818. When Spain acquired Louisiana it was placed under the political jurisdiction of Havana and trade between the Caribbean and the Mississippi Valley had been encouraged from that time. Additional exceptions to Spain's mercantilist exclusion of her colonies from trade outside the empire followed. Given a preferred position in the Spanish trading system, Cuba prospered and diversified, especially from 1818 to 1834, as Cuba failed to follow the rest of Latin America in throwing off Iberian rule. A combination of the benefits of the liberal Spanish economic policies and fear of a repeat of the Haitian slave insurrection account for the loyalty of Cuban creoles at this time. Exports of tobacco, sugar, coffee, and hides all rose significantly during this period. There followed however, a trade war among nations resisting the British impetus toward free trade, and retaliations between the United States and Spain led to a second revolution in the Cuban economy when the US applied severe tariffs on Cuban coffee in response to Spanish duties on US wheat flour. Together with the growing US demand for sugar, this led to a fairly rapid shift from coffee and cattle production in Cuba to sugar production. Although tobacco retained importance, by the 1850s Cuba had become a plantation economy heavily dependent slave produced sugar exports, principally to the United States. By 1868 Cuba was producing a third of the world's sugar.
This land and labor revolution, however, had displaced large numbers of small farmers, ranch workers, and wage laborers, who increasingly constituted a disgruntled mass, drifting into Havana and other cities and available to support a challenge to Spanish sovereignty in 1868. The ensuing Ten Years' War failed to win Cuban independence, but it did result in the gradual and compensated emancipation of the slaves by 1886 and thoroughly disrupted Cuban sugar production, and exposing it to serious competition from European sugar beets, as well as cane competition from Hawaii and other new exporters. Resurrecting the Cuban sugar industry brought yet another economic revolution to the island, this time in the application of modern technology. Heavy investment from abroad brought the installation of massive mechanical and transportation improvements to the industry. Narrow gauge railroads, steam operated sugar mills, and other labor-saving machinery made the industry competitive. Once again Cuban production soared, but was accompanied by new social and political dislocation. The modernization of the 1880s saved the Cuban sugar industry, but required the entry of significant amounts of US capital into the production of Cuban sugar. Widespread unemployment, among both former slaves and others, continued.(15)
The resumption of the war for independence in 1895 and subsequent intervention of the United States in 1898 ended Spanish rule, as it delivered the sugar industry more fully into North American hands. Following the war, United States interests became the owners of many plantations and mills, while Cuba formally received a favored position within the US market. By 1914, US interests controlled directly thirty-five percent of Cuba's sugar production.
Following World War I, yet another revolution in the industry occurred. Sugar prices first soared to record heights after wartime controls ended. Many foreigners bought into the industry, with little knowledge of or understanding of the market forces at work. Prices then plummeted as it became clear that production outran demand and in the ensuing crash many lost their shirts. This led to an opportunity for major American sugar consumers-Coca Cola, Hires Root Beer, Hershey Chocolate, and others-bought into the industry to maximize their profits. This reorganization in the industry led to vertical control of sugar production by these large North American consumers. US dominance in the industry continued until the 1960s, when yet another revolution, this more sweeping than any of the others, led to the collectivization of sugar production under Fidel Castro and to the exclusion of the US market to the industry, ending abruptly Cuban dependence on the United States. While the Cuban experiment made remarkable improvements in the standard of living of rural Cuban sugar workers, it failed to make sugar a successful motor product for a generally prosperous society.(16)
This cycle of dependence on markets and capital investment is a familiar one throughout the region. While Cuban sugar perhaps offers the most stunning example of the possible consequences, less dramatic examples abound in the production of bananas and other plantation crops elsewhere. The social costs of foreign control of plantations have generally led to national reactions against the foreigners. Ironically, it has often been the substantial improvement in health advancements, wages, educational benefits, and commerce that have accompanied the plantation societies that have enabled middle and working class interests to rise up against foreign capital.
The economic success of monoculture inhibited the development of more diversified economies. Where sugar or other crops were most successful that was all the more true. Justifying their monoculture on the theory of comparitive advantage, tropical agriculture became characterized by all that went with it, including slavery, dependence on foreign investment and markets, absentee ownership, and impoverished rural working classes. (17)
Plantation agriculture, then, dominates much of Caribbean history from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. This long history, however, can be divided into two categorical periods: first, when mercantilist economic policy was dominant, extending into the nineteenth century; and second, when the influence of liberal capitalist economic policy became prevalent, from the late eighteenth century forward. The obvious differences between these two categories are the protection of markets for the production of the plantation versus a free trade environment of open competition. Neither system has ever been exclusive. Even before the eighteenth century the widespread smuggling and contraband trading in the region constituted a kind of "free trade" that undermined the mercantilist official policies. And protectionist policies have persisted among many of the Caribbean colonial powers even to the present. The other obvious difference between the two categories is in the labor systems of slavery versus wage labor. The injustices and inefficiencies of slavery became widely proclaimed by the beginning of the nineteenth century, although slavery continued in Brazil and the Spanish islands until the 1880s. Under liberalism, however, theoretical systems of free labor have often been abusively exploited through collusion between planter interests and governments. Liberal progress for the agro-export interests has often meant poverty for workers. (18) A socialist response in the case of Cuba has ameliorated the poverty of rural workers, but the overall success of that experiment is still very uncertain.
Agricultural exploitation of the tropical and subtropical regions of Middle America hastened the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Profitable plantations of cacao, tobacco, sugar, coffee, and other commodities that Europe could not economically produce expanded the transatlantic trade and contributed significantly to the capital accumulation necessary to the industrial revolution. They would also help to provide revenues for the growth of naval and military power which the imperial powers required to maintain and protect their mercantilist policies in the Caribbean. Plantation agriculture thus became an essential part of the world-system that evolved in the North Atlantic. Eventually, slave labor, which had been so important to the early development in the labor-scarce Caribbean, became both socially and economically less desirable. Technology and exploitation with government collaboration became characteristic of more modern plantation economies. They were also characterized by dependence on foreign markets and foreign investment. Inevitably, soil exhaustion, labor problems, and political opposition to foreign control would diminish the value of many Caribbean plantations. A cycle of the rise and decline of plantations in different regions therefore characterizes the history of much of the region, not only of the Caribbean islands, but in much of plantation America from Brazil to Maryland. The strong tendency of plantation owners (corporate or individual) to ignore the needs of local inhabitants and the interests of a more diversified regional economy is another characteristic endemic to the region. Although plantation agriculture produced impressive profits for the owners and contributed to capital investment in a wide variety of economic development beyond the region, there remains a strong heritage of its failures in the region itself. The legacy of the plantation remains a heavy burden on most of the region even to the present day.
1. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).
2. Howard Johnson, "Richard B. Sheridan: The Making of a Caribbean Economic Historian," in Roderick A. McDonald, editor, West Indian Accounts: Essays on the History of the British Caribbean and the Atlantic Economy (Kingston, Jamaica: The Press University of the West Indies, 1996), p. 15.
3. Johnson, p. 15.
4. Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery, p. 448.
5. R. P. Thomas and R. N. Bean, "The Fishers of Men: The Profits of the Slave Trade," Journal of Economic History 34 (1974): 914, cited by Ralph A. Austen and Woodruff D. Smith, "Private Tooth Decay as Public Economic Virtue: The Slave-Sugar Triangle, Consumerism, and European Industrialization," in Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), p. 183. The role of sugar especially in promoting the industrial revolution in Europe is further developed by Austin and Smith in this article, pp. 183-203.
6. Douglas C. North made this argument persuasively in his The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790-1860 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961). One aspect of this process has been described by Ronald Bailey, "The Salve(ry) Trade and the Development of Capitalism in the United States: The Textile Industry in New England," in Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), pp. 205-46.
7. William Darity, Jr., "British Industry and the West Indian Plantations," in Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), pp. 247-79. Quotations from p. 273.
8. Clarence J. Munford and Michael Zeuske, "Black Slavery, Class Struggle, Fear and Revolution in St. Domingue and Cuba, 1785-1795," Journal of Negro History 53 (1988): 12-13.
9. Arthur L. Stinchcombe, Sugar Island Slavery in the Age of the Enlightenment: The Political Economy of the Caribbean World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 22.
10. Stinchcombe, p. 4.
11. Stinchcombe, p. 9.
12. David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 4.
13. Ibid. For a fine collection of articles on the impact of the evolution of the abolition of the slave trade see also, David Eltis and James Waivin, eds., The abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade; Origins and Effects in Europe, Africa, and the Americas (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981).
14. On the migration from Haiti to Louisiana, I am very much indebted to an unpublished paper by Michael Mizell-Nelson, "From Saint Domingue to New Orleans, 1792-1809," New Orleans, 1966. See also the edited anthology of Carl A. Brasseaux and Glenn R. Conrad, The Road to Louisiana: The Saint-Domingue Refugees, 1792-1809 (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1992).
15. Ramiro Guerra, Sugar and Soceity in the Caribbean: An Economic History of Cuban Agriculture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964); Fernando Ortiz Fernández, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar(New York: Knopf, 1947); Félix Goizueta-Mimó, Bitter Cuban Sugar: Monoculture and Economic Dependence from 1825-1899 (New York: Garland, 1987).
16. On rural aspects of the Cuban revolutionary experience, see Thomas C. Dalton, Everything Within the Revolution: Cuban Strategies for Social Development Since 1960 (Boulder: Westview, 1993); Carmelo Mesa-Lago, The Cuban Economy in the First Two Decades of the Revolution: Policies and Performances (Tokyo: Instituto Iberoamericano, 1982); Brian M. Pollitt, Revolution and the Mode of Production in the Sugar-Cane Sector of the Cuban Economy, 1959-1980: Some Preliminary Findings(Glasgow: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Glasgow, 1981); Dhram P. Ghai, Cristobal Kay, and Peter Peek, Labour and Development in Rural Cuba (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988); Mariana Ravenet Ramírez and Jorge Hernández Martínez, Estructura social y transformaciones agrarias en Cuba (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1984).
17. Laird W. Bergad, Cuban Rural Society in the Nineteenth Century: The Social and Economic History of Monoculture in Matanzas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), demonstrates this tendency using the example of Matanzas Province, Cuba.
18. See E. Bradford Burns, The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980) for a provocative statement of this argument in Latin America during the nineteenth century.