Slavery, slave resistance and the anti-slavery movement


From the mid seventeenth century, plantation owners in the Caribbean found it more and more difficult to find white workers. The work of growing crops like sugar and cotton was very hard, especially in a tropical climate, and white people frequently fell ill and died from disease.

African slavesPlanters resorted to using imported African slave labour. They acquired them from a well-established traffic in slaves that had existed on the west coast of Africa since the fifteenth century. Africans caught in war or kidnapped were marched down to the coast to forts and factories run by Europeans.

From there, they were put into slave ships and endured a horrific journey across the North Atlantic Ocean. They suffered from extreme overcrowding, seasickness, dysentery and small pox. Slaves were thrown overboard if they died or if the ship was becalmed and food or water began to run low. On arrival in the West Indies, they were sold like animals in slave markets.

The establishment of slave communities

So many slaves were imported that they heavily outnumbered the white populations in the islands. However, the whites maintained their dominance by legal and military force, by extreme cruelty and by ensuring the poverty of black people. An ideology was established which defined black people as sub-human and no more than pieces of property. Whites also segregated themselves socially from blacks to ensure that they preserved their own cultural identity.

Once established on the Caribbean plantations, the slaves had children and tried to establish community life as best they could. By the end of the eighteenth century, most slaves were Creoles (those who had been born in the islands). Only a small percentage were born in Africa.

Slave resistance

Slave resistance to their condition took different forms:

Cultural resistance

The slaves developed music, songs and stories which sustained them or which criticised their masters covertly. They developed a distinctly Afro-Caribbean form of Christianity, as opposed to their masters' conventional European style of worship. They also retained or transformed African customs and beliefs to sustain their black identity.


Some slaves ran away and, if not captured and punished, might form independent communities of runaway slaves. These ‘maroon societies' were more common in mountainous or isolated areas. They often existed in permanent conflict or guerrilla warfare with white soldiers and plantation owners who tried to destroy them. Again, Rochester's sense of dangers in the landscape acknowledges this aspect of Caribbean history.

Slave revolts

These were more dramatic forms of resistance but generally they were less successful. Jamaica saw a series of them in the eighteenth century and they were suppressed with great savagery by the whites:

  • The revolt of 1760, for example, in which 60 white people died, saw
    • 400 slave rebels die
    • Another 100 executed
    • 500 transported.
  • The most widespread revolt in Jamaica, however, was the Baptist War of 1831-32, just on the eve of slave emancipation
    • This involved around 20,000 slaves
    • 14 white people died
    • In reparation for this, 500 slaves were executed.
  • This revolt forms part of recent history for the events in Wide Sargasso Sea.Toussaint L'Ouverture
  • The most successful slave revolt was that led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in 1791, which led to the establishment of Haiti as an independent black republic.

In her autobiography Smile Please, Jean Rhys said that her grandfather's house was burned by freed slaves after the Emancipation Act in the 1830s. She may not have been accurate about this, although the house was burned a century later in 1932. Clearly, her own family history is woven into the revolt at Coulibri in the novel.

Anti slavery movement

The British anti-slavery movement was started in 1787, although individuals had long protested against the practice. Many of the early abolitionists were Quakers, others were inspired by the ideas of freedom and equality circulating during the French Revolution in the 1780s and 90s. Their strategy was to attack the Atlantic slave trade on the grounds that, if this was abolished, the supply of slaves to the islands would dry up and planters would have to treat their existing slaves better.

Their opponents were not only the Caribbean planters but also all those engaged in the transport of slaves. The ‘triangular trade' involved:

  • British ports such as Liverpool and Bristol, which exported goods to Africa
  • These were then exchanged for slaves
  • The slave ships went to the West Indies
  • In due course, valuable commodities such as sugar and cotton came back to British ports in return.

The movement for abolition did not progress smoothly. It was held up by war between Britain and France, by the slave revolt in Haiti and by domestic opponents with an interest in the slave trade. However, by 1807, Parliament had passed an act ending the Atlantic slave trade.

The abolition movement then turned its attention to trying to influence other countries to abolish their slave trades too. This irritated the Americans and the French, in particular. The movement stalled to some degree and attention turned to examining the effect of an abolished slave trade on the islands themselves.

Effect of abolition on the Caribbean islands

Deterioration of conditions

At first, it was found that the slave population declined and only began to recover in the 1820s. Meanwhile, the slaves themselves became more restive as planters became harsher and tried to get the same productivity from fewer people.

Religious resistance

The factor making for even greater resistance on the part of the slaves was religion. Slaves were being converted to Christianity and in the British colonies they were converted to non-conformist churches, the Baptists and Methodists.

Under the influence of these churches, black people gained a sense of spiritual and communal unity. They also had meeting places (their chapels) away from the plantations. In these meeting places they listened to charismatic black preachers who found in the Bible images of salvation and freedom that spoke directly to their condition. They could also make common cause with white non-conformists back in Britain.

Full emancipation

These factors were a major influence on slave resistance, especially the rebellions of the 1820s and 30s in Demerara and Jamaica. Back in Britain, the abolitionists lobbied Parliament, produced millions of pamphlets and gave lectures in order to persuade more people to their cause.

The result was that in 1833 Parliament passed the Emancipation Act. Emancipation of slavesThis outlawed slavery in Britain and all its colonies. However, it instigated a transition phase, seven years' apprenticeship for the slaves before they could have full freedom. In practice, the conditions under this apprenticeship scheme were often no less cruel than under slavery proper.

Christophine refers to this in her anger at the new incoming estate owners who used the treadmill and the chain gang to force their ‘apprentices' to work. However, the situation was amended and 1838 was set as the date for full emancipation.

Effect of abolition on the British Caribbean plantations

British Caribbean plantations suffered an economic slump. The British government did not pay sufficient compensation to plantation owners and the price of sugar fell by half. It is at this point in the area's history that Wide Sargasso Sea begins.

The planters, who often had quite small estates, were bankrupted. This is the fate of Mr Luttrell in the novel, who commits suicide, and Antoinette's family. Their estates were then bought by wealthier people from England, like Mason in the novel.

Jean Rhys' family also suffered in this way. Her mother's family had owned slaves on their estate Geneva and did not receive compensation for their emancipation, so that, after losing this slave labour, the estate declined.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.