Englishmen began to migrate to the tropics in the 1620s, the decade when they also settled New England. From subsistence farming, cacao, and tobacco, interest moved to sugar, already turning a profit for the Portuguese in Brazil. By the 1640s England’s island colonies began the conversion to a plantation system organized around this one lucrative crop. Labour-intensive sugar cultivation called for more workers, since few Indians remained in the wake of Spanish exploitation and imported disease. From white indentured servants, planters turned increasingly to slaves imported from Africa by the so-called Triangle Trade. English goods went to Africa to be traded for slaves, who were shipped to the West Indies (the infamous Middle Passage) and sold. Ships loaded with sugar and tropical products re-crossed the Atlantic to England. The population balance in the region shifted dramatically; by the 1780s blacks outnumbered whites ten to one on some islands. Guarded by British garrisons, white colonists lived in suppressed fear of the slave revolts that periodically erupted, drawing bloody reprisals.
The modern image of the Caribbean as a region of beach resorts, rum punch, and exotic flora has antecedents in eighteenth-century travel writing. Although most travellers came to the region on business, their reports often highlight the islands’ exotic or aesthetic features. The eighteenth-century discourses of natural history and landscape aesthetics permeate Caribbean travel writing, often upstaging the region’s less attractive features, in particular slavery. But slavery can never be entirely ignored, even by writers like Janet Schaw or William Beckford who would much rather dwell on tropical scenery. Whether the writer is of African or European descent, these selections all reveal aspects of the slave system. A half-century of political controversy over slavery was fought out partly in travel writing and the closely related genre of the ‘slave narrative’, examples of which we include. Slaves travelled too, though their travel was often (not always) coerced. Although the abolitionist movement was formally organized in 1787, the slave trade was not abolished until 1807. British slaves were freed in 1833, but then labelled ‘apprentices’ until full emancipation in 1838. By then profits from slaveholding and trade with the colonial Caribbean had declined; this, with generous government compensation, helped reconcile slave owners to the epochal change.