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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1996
  • Online publication date: March 2008

7 - Economic and Social Development of the British West Indies, from Settlement to ca. 1850


In 1775, it was an open question whether Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean would follow the thirteen continental colonies into independence. The tropical colonies were integral elements in an economic system that linked them with the North American mainland; to a large extent, they shared common cultural and political traditions. As McCusker and Menard comment, “The economies of the mainland and the islands were so tightly intertwined that full understanding of development in one is impossible without an appreciation of developments in the other.” At the same time, the Caribbean colonies possessed characteristics that distinguished them from the English settlements to the north; it was these features that determined their unique political and economic future.

The principal distinguishing characteristics of the British West Indian colonial economy were its monocultural focus and dependence on external trade, the dominance of large-scale plantations and involuntary labor systems, the drain of wealth associated with a high ratio of absentee proprietorship, and the role of the servile population in the internal market. Why these features occurred in exaggerated form in the Caribbean rather than in other regions of the Atlantic system is an important question for debate. The British colonies in the Caribbean were subject to an imperial policy common to all of that state’s territories, and the colonizing stock of “settlers” was essentially the same for all of the regions occupied by the British before the middle of the seventeenth century, the formative stage of settlement. Thus, the role of (imperial) cultural and political factors in engendering British West Indian distinctiveness is likely to have been insignificant.

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