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At the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492, Caribbean Arawaks were growing yams, cotton, and tobacco. Columbus claimed the West Indies for Spain although both the Arawaks and the Carib Indians were already living there, as well as the Ciboney people. The Caribs were a fierce and warlike people who lived in the eastern Caribbean islands. The most ferocious Caribs were found on the island of Dominica. Some explorers believed they were cannibals. Europeans on nearby islands lived in great fear of their attacks. Not until many Caribs had been killed by the English in 1683, did the settlers feel at all secure. By 1535 the Spaniards had turned the people of South and Central America into slaves; the original inhabitants were nearly wiped out by disease and ill-use.
In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was founded and by 1623, 800 Dutch ships were engaged in the Caribbean, trading in sugar, tobacco, animal hides and slaves. The company established a colony in Guyana, captured Curacao and other islands off the Venezuelan coast and, for a while, controlled north-eastern Brazil.
The island of St Christopher (commonly known as St Kitts) saw the beginning of French colonization in 1625. By this time the Caribbean was a battleground. Spanish, French, English and Dutch all fought for the islands they called the West Indies. Some islands changed hands more than once in a fierce contest for trade and for land to establish European colonies. Pirates of all nationalities roamed the Caribbean attacking merchant ships. Some, like Henry Morgan, turned respectable on the proceeds of their piracy. He became the Deputy Governor of Jamaica in 1671.
In Europe, tea and coffee were becoming fashionable drinks and this gave rise to a huge new demand for sugar to sweeten them. Sugar grew well in the climate of the West Indies, but sugar cultivation needed many workers. Local workers were not to be found, because the original islanders had died out. So, the colonists imported slave labour from West Africa. The high price of sugar in Europe made some slave owners immensely rich. They built themselves superb houses to live in and were waited on by many servants. By the 1700s the Caribbean produced most of the world's sugar.
At this time Europeans saw nothing wrong in using Africans as slaves. Africans in West Africa were almost defenceless against bands of determined slave raiders armed with guns. They were simply rounded up, crammed by the hundred into ships and taken away. Nearly a third of them died on the three-month voyage to the West Indies. On arrival, the slaves were sold to plantation owners. One in three died within three years of landing from disease or overwork, or after brutal ill-treatment. But the number of slaves still grew. By the end of the 17th century, about 90 per cent of the West Indian people had originally come from West Africa. Those Africans that survived came to dominate the islands. Many thousands of slaves took part in frequent rebellions. One such rebellion occurred in 1739, when a group of escaped Jamaican slaves, known as the Maroons, rebelled against the British. In 1865 disputes between plantation owners and workers resulted in the Morant Bay Rebellion; it was crushed by British troops. Other slaves escaped and set up thriving communities of their own, in remote mountain areas.
The slave trade followed a route shaped like a triangle. A typical voyage might set out from Bristol carrying cloth and other finished goods for sale in West Africa. Once the goods had been sold in Africa, the ship would load up with slaves and take them to the West Indies. The final leg of the voyage would bring a cargo of sugar back to Europe. As Spanish power declined in Europe, other nations seized more trade advantages overseas. In 1713 Britain obtained from Spain the monopoly of the slave trade with remaining Spanish Caribbean colonies.
In 1631 the English started to colonize the Leeward Islands. In 1635 the English occupied the Virgin Islands and the French established a settlement in Martinique. In 1646 the English occupied the Bahamas. In 1655 the English seized Jamaica from Spain. In 1666 English privateers captured the island of Tobago. By 1750 the Spanish, French, English, and Dutch had taken complete control of the Caribbean islands.
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