ROADS TO INDEPENDENCE - Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides

Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)


As the freed slaves struggled for survival, an urban workforce grew up. A vocal labor movement developed into political parties with independence on their agenda.

With slavery finally abolished - in the British islands in 1834, the French islands in 1848, and the Dutch islands in 1863 - the post-emancipation period began. This lasted until the vast social and political changes unleashed by World War II (1939-45) started the ball rolling toward most of the islands being given independence.


A young indentured laborer from India who came to Trinidad in the 19th century.

Elizabeth Saft, Courtesy of New York Public Library


Migrant workers cutting sugar cane in Trinidad, circa 1897.

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The freed slaves were permitted for the first time to develop an independent economic life. Previously denied land of their own, those with money bought up parts of abandoned estates, fought for the use of Crown lands, and organized networks of staple crop production and sales outlets in the towns. Starved of labor, the plantations hired thousands of East Indian indentured contract workers brought to parts of the region from Asia between 1838 and 1917.

Emancipated slaves became the nutmeg farmers of Grenada, fishermen of Antigua, banana growers in St Lucia, small sugar producers on St Croix, cocoa farmers of Trinidad, and the market women, or “higglers,” of all the islands.

Employment shortages

Much of what the new, free farmers produced were cash crops, destined for sale in the local market or even abroad. They were peasants in the sense that their lifestyle, with all its old kinship patterns of family, was rural; but their economic values were capitalist. They operated, often with shrewdness, as sellers and buyers in a free-market island economy. As a class, however, they were stratified, like all classes, for there were at once the rich farmers and the poor farmers, as is still the case today.

The abolition of slavery was not, however, the panacea that the masses had hoped for. Their economic opportunities were limited on most islands by a lack of surplus farming land, no access to credit, and no manufacturing jobs to absorb the excess labor. Conditions for black workers did not improve and indeed plantation owners often treated them worse than under slavery when they had an interest in their health. Low wages, food shortages, poor living conditions, and crushing poverty forced many from their homes in search of work.

In the 1880s, the French began work on the Panama Canal; by 1888 20,000 men, 90 percent of them Afro-Caribbean, were engaged in excavating the channel. A second labor force was assembled when the US took over construction in 1904-14, again, mostly from the West Indies. At the peak of construction, 40,000 workers were involved. The fortunate survivors returned home with cash in their pockets and were able to start businesses or buy land.

At the same time, an urban workforce evolved in trade and commerce centers like St Thomas, Fort-de-France, Bridgetown, Port of Spain, and Willemstad. In the 1900s another workforce developed around the oil refineries in Trinidad, Curaçao, and Aruba, and banana companies like the Geest group in St Lucia. With the oil companies came full-scale capitalism, resulting in technological dependency; a growing separation between European and colonial economies, with an increasing imbalance of trade; external ownership and control; the influx of foreign managerial personnel; and a system in which the colonies sold cheap and bought dear: they produced what they did not consume, and consumed what they did not produce.


Farm workers on strike in the 1940s.

Barbados Museum & Historical Society

Pride and prejudices

By the start of the 20th century, the economic power of the white population had weakened, but whiteness was still regarded as the ideal image. In contrast to the USA, which classified itself by a simple black-white caste system, in the Antilles the classification system was more a subtle “shade” prejudice.

Social status depended upon fine degrees of skin color with wealth and income a factor. Whereas in US society money talked, in Antillean society money whitened. This led to evasive habits of identity, summed up by the Martinican phrase, peau noire, masque blanc (black skin, white mask). The white populace retained their identity by marrying only within their own racial group.

Today, prejudices have not disappeared, but they tend to relate more to ethnicity in as far as the “native” US Virgin Islanders look down on the immigrants from the Leeward Islands, Trinidadians regard Grenadian immigrants as “small islanders,” and the East Indians and Creole black population retain stereotyped images of each other. The French islands tend to resent the influence of the metropolitan immigrant (from France) in big business or government, as they are often prone through ignorance to alienating the local people.

However, on the whole, the Antilleans, with all their differences, still manage to lead a relatively harmonious existence together.

Breakdown of colonial rule

Between the two world wars, the native workers served as a dependent, low-paid, docile labor force for industry, commerce, and agriculture. Conditions that were bad enough in the 1920s were made worse by the Depression. The British colonies became known as the “slums of the empire” with a declining sugar industry supporting an estate labor force by means of an exploitative task-work system.

In St Kitts and St Vincent, the wage level had barely advanced beyond the daily shilling rate introduced after Emancipation a century earlier. There was gross malnutrition and chronic sickness; a housing situation characterized by decrepit, verminous, and unsanitary conditions; and a working class, when it had work, in a state of economic servitude to a well-organized employer class. The defense mechanisms of a strong trade-union movement were stultified by the existence of punitive legislation.

Such conditions led to labor riots that swept through the English-speaking islands between 1935 and 1938 and to bloody encounters between workers and the police, especially in Barbados and Trinidad. These riots, plus the findings of the British Royal Commission of 1938, helped to further the formation of new worker movements, which led to the creation of new political parties seeking, first, internal self-government and, second, independence.

Some of the new leaders, like Grantley Adams (1898-1971) in Barbados, were black, middle-class lawyers. Most were grassroots leaders, such as Vere Bird in Antigua, Uriah Butler in Trinidad, Robert Bradshaw in St Kitts, and Eric Gairy in Grenada. As all were greatly influenced by the politics of the British Labour Party; the parties they founded were also called labour parties.


Historian Dr Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, in 1962.

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Winding road to independence

It was not a straightforward march to independence. A movement led by Grantley Adams, favoring a federation between the islands, culminated in the short-lived West Indies Federation (1958-62). That broke up mainly because Jamaica and Trinidad were not prepared to sacrifice their sovereignty to a central federal government. Nor did they want federal taxation.

Trinidad and Tobago were immediately granted independence within the British Commonwealth (1962) and were followed by Barbados in 1966. But the end of the Federation left the smaller Leeward and Windward islands out in the cold. As a result, in 1967, the British Government changed their constitutional status to “associated states,” which gave them the right to internal self-government but left foreign affairs and defense to London. Some islands, such as St Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla, were lumped together. Anguilla took exception, breaking away and demanding a return to British jurisdiction, which it retains today.


Antigua and Barbuda celebrate independence in 1981.


One by one, the British islands gained independence within the Commonwealth. Grenada was first in 1974, followed by Dominica in 1978, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines in 1979, Antigua and Barbuda in 1981, and St Kitts and Nevis in 1983. Nevis made an attempt at secession from St Kitts in August 1998, but failed when only 62 percent voted in favor in a referendum. However, Anguilla, Montserrat, the Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands, and British Virgin Islands have clung to the Crown, and are known as Britain’s Overseas Territories.

Dutch and French loyalties

With the arrival of the oil companies, Dutch political and union leaders became more involved in their relationships with them than with The Hague. The same inequity of power between mother country and colony remained, but it was alleviated by the innovative Dutch Kingdom Statute of 1954, which gave the colonies direct representation in the Dutch cabinet and parliament as an autonomous state.

However, a strong separatist movement grew up in Aruba and the island broke away in 1986, forming its own parliamentary democracy with a status equal to the rest of the Netherlands Antilles. Curaçao and Sint Maarten also voted for self-government, and on the symbolic date of October 10 2010, the Netherlands Antilles was formally abolished. Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten are independent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while the smaller islands of Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius are special municipalities.

The French Antilles have a close relationship with France. The loi cadre passed by the Paris National Assembly in 1946 established the islands as overseas departments, départements d’outre-mer (DOM) - with St-Barthélemy and St-Martin joining with Guadeloupe to share equal status with Martinique. This gave islanders all the rights of French citizens, and equal representation in national politics with economic support from France, which has tempered the development of separatist movements. In 1974 their status improved when they became régions with more administrative power. However, in 2007, St-Martin and St-Barthélemy seceded from Guadeloupe and became collectivités d’outre-mer, first-order administrative divisions of France.


Flying the flag outside the Parliament of Aruba.