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Colonisation and slavery

This period in the smaller islands is tied to the establishment of systematic agriculture, particularly of sugar cane.
The plantations, however, needed enormous quantities of labour but the conquerors had decimated the peaceful Arawaks and the hard labour of the plantations killed off the last few survivors.
As the Spanish had done before them, the English, French and Dutch turned to Africa’s reservoir of humanity and the trade in slaves.

It is from that massive transfer by slave ships of the African population (called, as mere cargo, ‘ebony’) that the ethnic origins of almost all today’s Antillean people stem.
What followed over nearly two centuries, particularly between the French and English, was a struggle without quarter over possession of the most fertile islands and over supremacy at sea.
From the end of the 17th century until 1815, the struggle was continuous. The rivalry caused an unbelievable turnover in the sovereignty of some of the islands, even the smallest of them.
Although punctuated by numerous treaties, the Anglo­French­Dutch land and sea wars (among which was the famous Battle of the Saintes) didn’t end until after the Napoleonic Wars. The Treaty of Paris (1814­15) definitively established sovereign claims. France kept Martinique, Guadeloupe and its dependencies, but lost all its other possessions. The British Empire took the lion’s share, establishing its authority over the majority of the Lesser Antilles. The Dutch in Sint Maarten, Saba and Statia, and the Danes in the Virgin Is, kept what they started out with.


The end of slavery and colonisation

If peace at last reigned in the Lesser Antilles, the problem of slavery nevertheless remained. At bottom the prosperity of the islands was factitious because it depended on the enslavement of that section of the population who hailed from Africa.
But over the same period in Europe the Enlightenment had awoken many minds to more humanitarian and egalitarian principles. 

The French Revolution put these into effect with the abolition of slavery in 1794, but in 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte re­established it, perhaps influenced by his wife Joséphine, a noblewoman of Martinique Creole extraction.
England was the first to make a move, with the Emancipation Act of 1833. Prompted by Victor Schoelcher, France followed in 1848, then the Dutch in 1863.
Deprived of free slave labour, many plantations were in danger of bankruptcy. Importing workers from India was tried, but the pay was not enough given the misery that the work involved.

However, thanks to favourable exchange rates, technical developments and agricultural diversification, some estates managed to stay in business until the 20th century. 
Despite abolition, the underlying social structure of the European American colonies meant that the majority of the old slaves hardly benefited except as a sub­class within the colonial system. The system lasted until after the Second World War. 
The French islands then became ‘Overseas Departments’. The small Dutch territories were grouped together in an autonomous federation. The Danes gave up their islands to the Americans. And the British, tired of maintaining the fragile economies of these minute particles of their old colonial empire, got rid of the majority of their islands in the Antilles between the 1960s and the 80s. So ended the period of colonisation…