3. The British West Indies

The West Indies were islands and small parts of the American mainland scattered around the Caribbean Sea. They were named the Indies because Columbus thought he had arrived in the Indian Ocean when he first sighted land in 1494. The area was dominated for many years by Spanish conquistadors on land and the Spanish navy at sea. Trade was forbidden to all non-Spanish ships, except those allowed by the Asiento de Negros. This regulated the slave trade from Africa into Spanish America and was largely in the hands of the Portuguese. Eventually, later in the 16th century, British, Dutch and French traders and privateers (licenced pirates) forced their way into the Caribbean to attack Spanish treasure fleets; they visited Spanish settlements for refuge and resupply as well as taking part in the slave trade. As the Spanish power weakened, these other nations began to establish a permanent presence in the so-called West Indies.

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1623 British tobacco planters settle in St Kitts which they share with French settlers.

1627 Barbados is settled by British planters. Tobacco is the staple crop.

1628 British settle in the island of Nevis, close by St Kitts.

1632 Antigua is settled by planters from St Kitts. It becomes the gateway to the Caribbean for Royal Navy ships. Monserrat is also settled – most of the settlers here are Irish.

c 1640 Tobacco prices slump. James Drax imports methods for growing sugar to Barbados from Dutch planters in Brazil. Sugar prices are high and African slaves are probably imported soon after, in place of indentured servants from England and Ireland. Sugar produced by slaves becomes the predominant crop in nearly all European colonies in the Caribbean area.

1642-9 The Civil Wars encourage increasing intra-colonial trade between the English settlers in the Caribbean and North America.

1648 English puritans led by the Governor of Bermuda William Sayle settle in the Bahamas.

1650 English settlers from St Kitts arrive in Anguilla. Various attempts at conquest by other Europeans usually fail. Soil and climate do not favour plantation agriculture.

1651 The First Navigation Act bans British possessions from trading with foreign ships or markets. It encourages the development of an English merchant fleet and contributes to the outbreak of the First Dutch War.

1655 An expedition sent by Cromwell to capture Spanish colonies is generally a failure, but Santiago is taken and renamed Jamaica. The governor’s tacit support for buccaneers preying on Spanish trade contributes to the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ in the Caribbean. Liberated slaves known as Maroons remain troublesome in the interior of the island.

The Mosquito or Miskito Coast region of Central America provides another safe-haven for anti-Spanish privateers and becomes an early form of English Protectorate.

1667 The Treaty of Breda ends the Second Anglo-Dutch War and confirms British possession of Monserrat in the Leeward Islands.

1668 Henry Morgan, freebooting buccaneer, raids the Spanish silver depot of Portobello and the expedition’s prize money underwrites the prosperity of Jamaica.

1670 The Treaty of Madrid confirms British possession of Jamaica and the Cayman Isles, which are also a resort for pirates and buccaneers.

1671 The Crown colony of the Leeward Islands is created – Antigua, Monserrat, St Kitts/Nevis, Anguilla, Virgin Islands.

1674 After being arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for attacking Panama City after peace was declared with Spain, Henry Morgan is appointed lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

1675 The Coromantee plot of Barbadian slaves seeking freedom is put down with severe punishments.

1680 Britain completes takeover or control of most of the British Virgin Isles.

1685 A Royal Navy squadron arrives at Port Royal Jamaica and begins to put an end to the practice of buccaneering based at Port Royal.

1700 A Scottish attempt to form a colony on the isthmus of Darien fails.

1702 Britain evicts French planters from St Kitts during the War of Spanish Succession.

1713 The Treaty of Utrecht ends the war. Spain grants the Asiento to trade Black Africans into Spanish American colonies to the South Sea Company of London. Trade is poor and the ‘South Sea Bubble’ of financial speculation ruins many British investors when it bursts in 1720.

1718 Pirates and buccaneers in the Bahamas are eliminated by the Royal Navy and the islands become a Crown colony.

1733 The sugar lobby persuades parliament to pass the Molasses Act. It imposes a tax on molasses imported from non-British colonies into the American colonies which continue to smuggle the cheaper French product for the purpose of making rum.

1739 The War of Captain Jenkins’ Ear. Spanish authorities in Havana regard Jenkins as a smuggler and he alleges his ear was cut off as a punishment. Britain declares war on Spain and the conflict develops into the European War of Austrian Succession. Porto Bello, Panama is looted.

1740 The informal British protectorate on the Mosquito Coast is confirmed by a treaty of friendship and some British settlements are established which begin to export mahogany.

The Royal Navy substitute’s rum diluted with water instead of brandy for the daily alcohol ration to ships’ crews. The issue of ‘grog’ was finally ended in 1970.

1741 An expedition to capture key Spanish ports Havana and Cartagena (present day Columbia) fails with terrible loss of life due to yellow fever and other diseases.

1748 Treaty of Aix la Chapelle renews the Spanish Assiento to allow British traders to supply slaves to Spanish America, but Britain takes £100,000 in return for renouncing the Assiento in 1750.

1756 The Seven Years’ War begins.

1759 The prime French sugar Island of Guadalupe is captured; Dominica, St Vincent, Tobago, Grenada, Martinique and other Windward Islands fall into British hands. France only retains St Domingue (Haiti), half the large island of Hispaniola.

1760 Tacky’s Rebellion, a serious slave insurrection, begins in Jamaica.

1762 Britain takes Manila in the Philippines and captures the Spanish fleet in harbour at Havana, Cuba. The cities are returned at the Treaty of Paris in exchange for East Florida and Menorca in the Mediterranean.

1763 The Treaty of Paris confirms British possession of Dominica and St Vincent. Other islands are returned to France and Britain keeps its conquests in Canada.

1764 A Sugar tax replaces the Molasses tax. The American colonies regard it as an example of British mercantile policy continuing to favour the sugar lobby and claim it undermines their own economic opportunities.

1765 The first botanical gardens in the western hemisphere is created at St Vincent.

1776 Another slave rebellion breaks out in Jamaica as the North American states drift into revolt against Britain.

1779 The War of American Independence. The Royal Navy is over-stretched and France captures the islands of Grenada, St Vincent and Monserrat (returned at the Peace of Paris 1783).

1782 Battle of the Saintes. British fleet under Admiral Rodney defeats the French who have begun to take Britain’s sugar islands in the Caribbean. This enables Britain to gain better terms at the Treaty of Paris.

1783 The Treaty of Paris ends the War of American Independence. Britain regains Monserrat etc. The Bahamas, briefly seized by Spain, are returned in exchange for East Florida.

1784 Captain Horatio Nelson arrives in Antigua to help enforce the Navigation Act.

1786 Ships from USA are forbidden to trade in British West Indies.

Anglo-Spanish agreement to evacuate settlers from the Mosquito Coast to Honduras in Central America where they are permitted to cut and export mahogany.

1787 The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, led by Granville Sharp, is formed in London.

1789 The French Revolution starts. The crew of HMS Bounty mutiny on voyage to West Indies with breadfruit plants from the Pacific intended to provide a new food source for slaves.

1793 The French Convention declares an end to slavery in France and her colonies. Britain supports French royalist planters in St Domingue (Haiti) who are fighting the revolt of freed slaves and people of mixed race led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.

British take back the island of Tobago.

1794 British fleet take Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Lucia before going to invade St Domingue, where the troops are badly effected with yellow fever.

1796 Strong reinforcements sent to St Domingue add to losses from disease and enemy action. An assault by L’Ouverture’s former slaves is repulsed with difficulty.

Britain captures the Dutch colonies of Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice on the Caribbean coast of South America (The Dutch Republic has been conquered by France and is now the Batavian Republic). Many planters in Demerara were British.  The territories become British Crown colonies in 1814.

1797 Trinidad is taken from Spain. A long-running rebellion on St Lucia (taken from France in 1794) is put down.

1798 The last British troops are withdrawn from St Domingue. Black troops from Jamaica are left behind because it is feared they might stir revolution among their enslaved countrymen. Most join L’Ouverture’s army.

1799 Toussaint L’Ouverture is virtually ruler of St Domingue. He is eventually arrested and dies in prison, but Haiti wins independence in 1804.

1807 The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act bans the slave trade in the British Empire but slavery itself continues in the West Indies.

1808 The Royal Navy West Africa Squadron begins to patrol the coast of West Africa in order to suppress the transatlantic Slave Trade.

1814 Treaty of Paris. Tobago and St Lucia are awarded to Britain. Demerara and other previously Dutch territories become British Crown colonies.

1815 Sugar price begins to decline due to overproduction, economic depression at the end of the wars and the production of beet sugar in Europe.

1816 Slaves rebel again in Barbados.

1823 A society to end slavery throughout the British Empire is started in London. Slaves rebel in Demerara.

1831 Sam Sharpe, Baptist minister, leads another slave rebellion in Jamaica. Demerara and neighbouring colonies (previously Dutch) unite in the Crown colony of British Guiana.

1834 the Abolition of Slavery Act. Slave children under 6 are free immediately, adults must serve apprenticeship of 4-6 years before gaining full freedom. Slave owners are paid a total of £20million for their loss; most of the money is raised as a loan from N M Rothschild Bank. Full emancipation is achieved ahead of schedule in 1838.

1839 Foundation of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society led by Thomas Clarkson, the world’s first human rights society.

Indentured labour from India begins to be transported into the British West Indies to work on plantations for three years. Some continue to work or set up business and never return home.

1849 Repeal of the Navigation Acts as Britain adopts a free trade philosophy. British West Indies products are no longer protected against foreign competition in Britain.

1854 The British settlements at Belize in the Bay of Honduras are recognised and a local legislature is created under Colonial Office care.

1862 British Honduras becomes a crown colony.

1865 The Morant’s Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. Governor Eyre imposes martial law and more than 400 black Jamaicans are killed. Eyre is recalled in disgrace. Jamaica becomes a crown colony ruled directly from London.

1871 St Kitts and Anguilla form a joint administration.

1882 Nevis joins St Kitts and Anguilla.

1889 Trinidad and Tobago are united under one administration.

1914-18 The British West Indian Regiment serves in Africa, Palestine and the Western Front during the Great War.

1918 Mutiny by soldiers of the West Indian Regiment serving at Taranto, Italy, over work conditions and delayed demobilisation. One mutineer is executed, others imprisoned and the regiment is soon disbanded.

1938 The Moyne Commission is despatched to report on social and economic conditions in the West Indies. Its recommendations cannot be implemented because of World War II.

1940 Bases in the West Indies are leased to the United States. Men from the British West Indies volunteer for service in the British armed forces and the Caribbean Infantry Regiment is formed. It serves in North Africa and Italy.

1944 Universal suffrage is granted in Jamaica, soon followed by other Caribbean islands.

1948 The Windrush carries the first shipload of West Indian emigrants to Britain.

The small, privileged white populations in the Caribbean begin to lose influence with the adoption of the new democratic procedures.

1958 Britain tries to create the Federation of the West Indies, aiming to create a political unit that would gain independence from Britain as a single state. It fails due to larger islands fearing they would bear the brunt of the costs.

1962 Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica become independent countries.

1966 Barbados and Guyana (British Guiana) become independent countries.

1973 The Bahamas becomes an independent country.

1974 Grenada becomes an independent country.

1976 Anguilla breaks away from St Kitts/Nevis and becomes a British Overseas Territory.

1978 Dominica becomes an independent country.

1979 St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines become independent countries.

1981 Antigua and Barbuda, Belize (British Honduras) become independent countries.

1983 St Kitts/Nevis becomes an independent country.

2022 Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands are British Overseas Territories with forms of internal self-government.

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