The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

21
The British West Indies

GAD HEUMAN

The British West Indies in 1815 consisted of a large number of islands and territories acquired over two centuries. The original colonies established in the seventeenth century, Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands, were still the most important British possessions in the region. During the eighteenth century Dominica, St Vincent, Grenada, and Tobago were added to this group as a result of the Seven Years War (1756-63). In the early nineteenth century the British gained St Lucia, Trinidad, and British Guiana. The British were also present in the Bahamas, in parts of the Virgin Islands, and in British Honduras.

These colonies were characterized by different forms of colonial government. The older colonies had their own legislatures, with elected Assemblies and nominated Legislative Councils. Although a Governor represented the Crown, the local Assemblies had significant powers of legislation and taxation. There were very different constitutional arrangements in the most recently acquired territories, St Lucia, Trinidad, and British Guiana. These became Crown Colonies, controlled directly from London, with much less local participation in their political affairs.

The levels of economic development of the British colonies also differed significantly. While all produced sugar, some of the early colonies had been doing so continuously for almost 200 years. Nearly all the land in Barbados, for example, was devoted to sugar; yet in Trinidad and British Guiana the large-scale production of sugar was a relatively new development. These differences would become more marked during the nineteenth century, especially as a result of emancipation and its aftermath.

The economies of the British West Indies in this period have been the source of considerable debate. In Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams argued that the declining economies of the British West Indies led to the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery. More recent research has rejected this conclusion; it is now clear that the colonies of the British Caribbean profited considerably during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The collapse of the largest sugar producer in the Caribbean, Saint-Domingue, led to an increased output of sugar and

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