BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!



The series has now ended but you can still enjoy a wealth of information on the site, from the interactive timeline to historical narratives and profiles.


The West Indies and Sugar, Episode 22 - 25/10/05


Shackled Africans being taken into slavery (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Shackled Africans being taken into slavery (Getty Images)
View more images

The settlement of the West Indies showed a healthy profit for London investors. These were the colonies that almost immediately made money for themselves and for the British. After experimenting with many crops, it became clear that there was money to be had in sugar. This became the most intensively worked crop for the islands, which is why the West Indies became a slave society.

The islands seem to have been settled for at least 3,500 years by the time the British arrived. From the gulf, including America mainland, came the Arawaks, Caribs, and Ciboney maybe as early as 3,500 years ago. The Europeans arrived following Columbus, who in 1492 believed he had discovered the western route to the Indies - the lands east of the Indus. The Spanish settled Hispaniola in 1496.

Once a route across the Atlantic had been established, it was almost impossible for mariners not to make landfalls in the Caribbean (named after the Caribs). The Dutch, French, English and Danish landed within 100 years. The British claimed some islands but did not immediately settle them. Others islands were taken from the Spanish and French, either during war or in property exchanges featured in peace treaties for much of the following 400 years. Barbados was claimed in 1605 and settled by 1624, four years before St Kitts and Nevis. Later, in 1627, Barbados officially came under the crown. Antigua followed in 1632 and Anguila was settled by 1650. Five years later, Jamaica was seized taken from the Spanish.

This period was almost exclusively supported by Charles I. Cromwell did not stop settlements, but the Civil War split communities and even families in the colonies as much as it did at home in England. During 300 years from the 1620s to the 19th century, the British aquired most of the West Indies.

Back to top

Historical Figure

Charles II 1630-1685

The eldest son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. He returned to London after the Commonwealth on his birthday of 29 May and ruled in a liberal and generally joyful manner in spite of terrible repressions of the people by his ministers. Religious intolerance persisted at the same level as had caused the non-conformists to flee, but for different reasons. Anti-Catholicism caused him to introduce two Declarations of Indulgence (1663 and 1672). The second declaration was withdrawn under parliamentary pressure and, in its place, the Test Act made life even harder for Catholics. The irony was that, for not entirely religious reasons, Charles was committed to the Church of Rome. Britain was strongly anti-Catholic. From this schism in English political life emerged the distinctions of Whigs and Tories.

Back to top

Did You Know...

Today some 25 per cent of the Commonwealth is in the West Indies. Apart from Ireland, the oldest continuous colonies were West Indian and Barbados is the third oldest Parliamentary Democracy in the world. British settlers opened a House of Assembly in 1639.

Back to top

Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the West Indies region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the West Indies

There are currently no messages.

Back to top

Contemporary Sources

Letter by Eliza Fenwick from West Indies to her mother
Fenwick voices strong criticism of slaves in the West Indies.

"I think the slaves - I mean the domestic slaves - the laziest and most impertinent set of people under the sun. They positively will do nothing but what they please. There are always three or four to do the work of one, and they laugh in the Owner's face when reproved for not doing their duty. They take liberties that no English servant would be allowed to do. They will not scour the floor that is too hard for them, and the field Negroes are sent for to do it. I am told the condition of the field Negroes is deplorable enough and the only way to make the domestic slave do as they are bid is by threatening to send them to the plantations."

Letter by Eliza Fenwick's mother, 21 March 1815
Mrs Fenwick, who later joined her daughter in West Indies as English school teacher, writes of her abhorrence of slavery to a friend back in England.

"It is a horrid and disgraceful system. The female slaves are really encouraged to prostitution because their children are the property of the owner of the mothers. These children are reared by the Ladies as pets, are frequently brought from the negro houses to their chambers to feed and sleep and reared with every care and indulgence till grown up, when they are at once dismissed to labour and slave-like treatment. What is still more horrible, the gentlemen are greatly addicted to their women slaves and give the fruit of their licentiousness to their white children as slaves.

Back to top

Have Your Say

Timeline & Map

Interactive Timeline

More on the Empire

Elsewhere on

Elsewhere on the web

Book of the series

Audio CD


Send your Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy