Economy and Environment in the Caribbean: Barbados and the Windwards in the Late 1800s

Economy and Environment in the Caribbean: Barbados and the Windwards in the Late 1800s

Economy and Environment in the Caribbean: Barbados and the Windwards in the Late 1800s

Economy and Environment in the Caribbean: Barbados and the Windwards in the Late 1800s


"Bearing in mind the recent renewed interest in the economic and environmental problems of small islands everywhere, (this) is a highly appropriate time to bring back to world attention the issues of that time, which served in large measure to define the patterns of development in Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent in the early decades of the twentieth century", -- David Watts, University of Hull, England

In this historical geography of the British colonies of Barbados and the Windwards (St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada), Bonham C. Richardson describes the economies, environments, and societies of the four geographically dissimilar islands and outlines the severe economic depression they experienced following the 1884 plunge in London sugar prices and the exacerbating effects of two catastrophes, a massive hurricane in 1898 and a volcanic eruption in 1902.

In response to these problems, the British parliament created the 1897 West India Royal Commission to outline a new policy for the islands' development. Concentrating on the years between 1880 and 1905, Richardson makes use of unpublished archival records, local newspapers, and records of the Royal Commission to explain the enormous changes in land-use patterns.

In a novel approach, Richardson emphasizes the effects of the islands' physical environments and devotes chapters to climate, waters, lowlands, and highlands. He also demonstrates how these environmental zones and resources were contested by different socioeconomic groups, leading him to one of his most provocative arguments: that depression-induced demonstrations and riots in the islands in the late 1890s in large part precipitated the Royal Commission'swise decision to advocate the break-up of sugarcane plantations into smaller shareholds. Thus, Richardson demonstrates the ways in which working people, far from being victims of colonialism, managed to influence British deci


America was long viewed primarily as a place to be acted on by Europeans, Bonham Richardson reminds us at the start of his book. The Caribbean, earliest colonized and longest controlled by European powers, was the quintessential transatlantic appendage. Almost all West Indians were imported or bred, just as their locales were exploited, to service European interests.

What happens to such people and places when their owners have no more use for them? That agonizing conundrum suffuses the chronicle told here. Among the most bereft of Britain's outworn, virtually cast-off colonies in the late nineteenth century were those of the southeastern Caribbean. The parlous plight of Barbados and the Windwards, the causes thought responsible, and the measures urged to alleviate them are trenchantly exposed in these pages.

In common with all the Caribbean, Barbados and the Windwards had been exploited since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to raise tropical crops for European consumers. Of these, by far the most profitable and extensively grown was sugar cane. Sugar and other export commodities were produced largely by slaves brought from Africa; by the eighteenth century slaves vastly outnumbered free West Indians. A handful of Europeans ran the plantations and governed the colonies, but absenteeism was rife; few landowners or colonial officials stayed in the Caribbean of their own choice. But sugar was so lucrative that some islands, notably Barbados, grew little else; even food for slave labourers had to be imported.

Two mid nineteenth century events transformed the British Caribbean. Emancipation in the 1800s freed the slaves but left them under planter subjugation. In many islands former slaves cultivated higher ground off the estates, but most had to supplement produce from provision grounds with plantation wage-labour. And restrictive suffrages denied the large majority any elective role in local government. 'A race has been freed', commented a colonial official in 1848, 'but a society has not been formed'.

The second change was a sharp decline of imperial interest in the West Indies, signalled first by the withdrawal of tariff protection for West Indian sugar. Several circumstances combined to cripple the planters and to impoverish their former slaves. The promotion of European beet sugar; the ex-

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