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The West Indies and the Southern colonies

British colonies in the Americas and Caribbean focused on profitable plantation agriculture, growing cash crops like sugar, tobacco, and rice. These colonies relied heavily on enslaved Africans, creating harsh conditions and strict laws. The wealth from these plantations significantly impacted the British economy.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] When we think of British colonies in the Americas before 1776 we tend to think of the 13 colonies. Those colonies that were located along the eastern seaboard of North America and which rebelled as a group in the American Revolution. But if you were standing in London, say 1770, and you were thinking about British colonies in the New World, it's more likely that your thoughts would have turned to the Caribbean, what they called the West Indies and the sugar islands of Jamaica or Barbados, than say the colony of New Jersey. Because even though this was quite a gigantic swath of territory, these tiny little islands in the Caribbean were incredibly profitable for English investors. Because sugar was a commodity that fetched very high prices in the Colonial Era. In this video I want to focus on the southern colonies and the British colonies in the Caribbean, which although they were somewhat separated in land. Got them next to each other here, but kinda imagine that this is the tip of Florida. So that belongs down here, and all these little islands in the Caribbean are far to the south of mainland North America. So what united these colonies, even though they were divided in geography, is that they were plantation colonies. They were in southern or tropical regions, which meant that they had long growing seasons that made them ideal for planting cash crops. That is crops that are specifically grown to be sold. Now we've already talked a little bit about the crops of Virginia, which would be tobacco, but in this video I want to talk a little bit more about two other crops. Sugar, which was grown in the Caribbean, and rice, which was grown in the Carolinas. Growing these cash crops for export was the main focus of these colonies, and their social structures were organized around producing those cash crops. So let's talk bout sugar. Now we hardly think about consuming sugar in our tea or coffee today, but in the Colonial Era it was an incredible luxury and it commanded very high prices. One of the reasons for this is because sugar was extremely labor intensive to make. The sugarcane plant is actually indigenous to Asia, but Europeans brought it to the New World with the hopes of turning it into a cash crop. They planted it in the tropical areas of the Caribbean and then they imported enslaved Africans to work on their sugar plantations. Now you can see a little bit in these two prints of what sugar processing was like. You would have to grow the cane stalks, press the juice from them, boil the juice until it created crystals. Sugar processing happened 24/7, and unlike tobacco you really had to be very wealthy to grow sugar because it required a huge capital investment upfront. You had to buy a lot of land and grow a lot of sugarcane and get a lot of machinery if you hoped to produce enough to make a profit. So a handful of very wealthy plantation owners, who mostly stayed in England because the tropical diseases of the Caribbean were too likely to kill them off. These sugar barons had unimaginable wealth. The tobacco planters of Virginia were nothing compared to them. And they were ruthless about turning a profit. In fact they thought that it would be more profitable in the event of the deaths of enslaved people from overwork or disease or some kind of accident in sugar processing, to just replace enslaved workers rather than make their work less dangerous. Growing sugar was so profitable that the Caribbean islands, which were so small, couldn't even spare room to grow food. They imported all their food from elsewhere so that every square inch of arable land in the Caribbean could be used to grow sugar. Now with so many enslaved people coming into the Caribbean, by the mid 1600s, enslaved Africans in the Caribbean far outnumbered white people. And consequently the white slave owners became increasingly fearful of slave uprisings. So plantation owners who were, of course, in control of the colonial government began to crack down on enslaved people, codifying the racial status of enslaved Africans. In 1661, Barbados passed a slave code that was incredibly harsh. I won't go into all of it here but the gist of it was that the lives of enslaved Africans were to be very closely monitored. They would require passes to travel. They had no legal rights. And if a slave owner maimed or killed an enslaved person there would be no repercussions for that violence or death. We will see aspects of the Barbados Slave Act in the statutes passed in the southern mainland colonies, and later southern states in the United states. And although we tend to think of plantation slavery generally looking like the slavery we would see later in Georgia or South Carolina, large cotton plantations, for the vast majority of enslaved Africans, their experience would have been much more like what we saw in the Caribbean. In fact, 90 percent of all enslaved people were sent to the Caribbean or South America. Only a little over 300,000 would be sent to mainland North America. So if you're looking for the most typical experience of slavery from the point of view of the people who lived it, life on the sugar plantation was a much more likely prospect than life on a cotton plantation. In fact it was English planters in the Caribbean who decided that they might strike north to create a new plantation colony, which they called Carolina after the English King Charles. Now Carolina was founded as one big colony in 1670, but by 1712 it was separated into two colonies, North Carolina and South Carolina. And the wealthy plantation owners who founded Charles Town, also named after King Charles, brought most of the aspects of plantation slavery they had picked up in the Caribbean with them. The Pass System, the lack of legal rights, the lack of repercussions for whites. One main difference, however, was that in the Carolinas rice cultivation took the place of sugar cultivation as the main cash crop. Plantation owners quickly discovered that many West Africans had worked on their own rice farms before enslavement. And so they particularly wished to purchase West Africans to work on rice plantations. This is an image here of a rice plantation. Obviously, this a photograph, so it would be from a couple hundred years after the settlement of the Carolinas, but I think it gives you a sense of what rice cultivation looked like. I want to finish by just briefly talking about the colonies of Maryland and Georgia, which were also plantation colonies. But I've grouped them together because they were both founded for altruistic reasons. They were proprietary colonies originally like Pennsylvania, for example, meaning that they were the possessions of one person rather than a company or the crown. Maryland was founded in 1632 by an English catholic named Lord Baltimore who wanted to create a haven of religious freedom for Catholics in North America. In 1649, Maryland passed the law concerning religion, also known as the Maryland Act of Toleration, which extended religious toleration to everyone who believed in Jesus. So all Protestants, all Catholics, but on the flip side it prescribed death for anyone who did not believe in Jesus like Jews or Atheists. Georgia was founded a century later in 1732 by an English humanitarian named James Oglethorpe. And Oglethorpe was trying to reform prisons. In England people who couldn't pay their debts were thrown into debtors' prison, which was kind of silly because when they were in prison they didn't have the opportunity to try to make money to pay back their debts. So Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia with the idea that people who were suffering from debt could go to this new colony and work it off. And for that reason he also outlawed slavery in the early years of Georgia's existence, but by about 1750 the pressure to include slaves in the Georgia economy so that it could keep up with South Carolina, for example, grew too great. And so slavery was permitted. So although the colonies of the West Indies and the southern part of North America were in different places and sometimes founded for different reasons, they were all united by the fact that they relied on slavery, and in many cases had a much larger enslaved African population than white population. And they focused for their economies on plantation agriculture. Now you'll notice that in this video I haven't spent much time talking about the experiences of enslaved African people, and that's because I want to devote another video to that. So check out our video on Atlantic slavery.