British colonies

The first colonies of the British Empire were founded in North America (Virginia, 1607) and the West Indies (Barbados, 1625). In 1655 Jamaica was secured.

Around six million Africans were taken as slaves to the Americas, at least one third of them in British ships. It has been estimated that overall, about 12 million Africans were captured to be taken to the Americas as enslaved people.

This made Britain rich.

Tropical crops

Jamaican cane cutters working on a plantation
Enslaved people were sent to work on sugar cane plantations

In the 17th century, most farmers in the West Indies were growing cotton and tobacco. However, the owners of the large Caribbean plantations decided to switch to growing sugar cane. The plantation owners purchased enslaved people to provide the labour for this work.

The sugar crop

The sugar cane plant was the main crop produced throughout the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries. These plantations produced 80–90 per cent of the sugar used in Western Europe. Almost every island was covered with sugar plantations and mills. The main source of labour was enslaved people for Africa.

Between 1700 and 1709 the trade in sugar increased dramatically due to the increasing popularity of sugar to sweeten luxury drinks such as tea and coffee.

The 'need' for slave labour

Many believed the slave-based plantation system was vital to British wealth, industry and jobs.

In 1700, Britain's sugar consumption was 4 pounds (weight) per person, a century later that had risen to 18 pounds per person.

The increased availability and popularity of sugar was due to a gradual increase in the standard of living (whereas before only the very rich could afford such luxuries as sugar) and the discovery of more New World colonies which were ideally suited to the growing of luxury crops such as sugar.

Although sugar was the most important crop in the Caribbean, other crops such as coffee, indigo and rice were also grown.


By 1750, sugar became the most valuable commodity in European trade. The rise in demand for sugar resulted from a major change in the eating habits of many Europeans - they used it in jams, sweets, tea and coffee.

Taking advantage of this growing demand for sugar, the Caribbean islands set about producing still more sugar. In Barbados, sugar amounted to 93 per cent of the island’s exports.