The History of Slavery in the Caribbean and Its Influence on the Islands’ Culture

Since the very beginning of the colonization of the Americas, the presence and the influence of the African people and their cultures was fundamental in the formation of nationality and culture.

Towards the middle of the 15th century Portuguese sailors initiated exploration of Africa’s west coast. In 1441 these sailors obtained gold dust from a trader and went on to establish trade and commercial relationships with African kings and chiefs in the region. They traded European products such as colourful textiles, gunpowder, firearms and alcoholic beverages in exchange for gold powder, spices, tropical woods and ivory. One year after their first trade, they took on a cargo of ten African slaves.

Forty years after the first African slaves were traded, Portuguese sailors gained permission from a local African leader to build a trading outpost and storehouse on Africa’s Guinea coast. By the beginning of the 16th century almost 200,000 Africans had been transported to Europe and the islands of the Atlantic and the English, French and Dutch were establishing their own slave trading posts along the western coasts of Africa.

Hispaniola was the first Spanish-held territory in the Caribbean to which enslaved Africans were brought in the early 16th century. The first slaves to be shipped across the Atlantic to Spanish territories had to be Catholic and had to speak Spanish; they became known as “Castillán Blacks” or “ladinos” and many worked on the islands’ sugar plantations. Many slaves brought to the Americas escaped from their owners and joined groups of previously enslaved native Indians to fight for their freedom. This prompted Nicolás de Orvando, Hispaniola’s first royal governor, in 1503 to petition Spain to stop sending “ladinos” because they were suspected of inciting a revolt. He requested instead the importation of ‘raw’, “unacculturalated” Africans directly from west Africa.

In 1510 Ponce de León is believed to have brought the first slaves to Puerto Rico, although Orvando may have transported some African slaves from Santo Domingo the previous year. In 1517 the young King Charles I of Spain and V of Germany authorised the shipment of slaves directly from Africa. Those that came directly from Africa, who had not been baptised and spoke no Spanish, were called “bozales”. By 1619 at least 12 million Africans had been sent to the Americas.

As slavery continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, escapes became more common. Many escaped slaves lived in the mountains and forests, while the masters would hunt them in the hopes of recapturing them.

Following the Haiti Revolution from 1791 to 1804, known to be the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti became the first country in America to abolish slavery.

In 1822, Jean Paul Boyer, Haiti’s president, invaded the Dominican Republic and declared that all slaves that escaped from their masters in Cuba and Puerto Rico and sought refuge in the Dominican Republic would be freed.

In 1867 there were positive steps towards the abolition of slavery with a decree in Spain providing that all children born of female slaves would be born free and all slaves aged 60 or over would be freed. Slavery was finally abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873 and the 29,335 slaves on the island at the time were officially declared free. Puerto Ricans rejoiced and many cities and towns held public festivities to commemorate the event; Abolition Day is still celebrated on the 22nd of March. Slavery was then abolished in Cuba in 1880 and in Brazil in 1888.

As the African slaves became integrated with the Indians in the different colonies, as well as with their European masters, the gradual fusion of these three races and cultures came to characterize life  in the American colonies, particularly in the Caribbean. Relationships with persons of different races and heritage was culturally acceptable for the Spanish and the Portuguese and consequently there was a rapid growth of a mixed race society in the American colonies throughout the centuries of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule.

The fusion of these three racial groups (Spanish, African and Indian) gave way to different physical traits and types, which were given different names to distinguish the different mixes. Artists created paintings of the different physical characteristics and created tables naming the results of the fusions of races.

From a Spanish man and an Indian woman a mestizo is born

From an Spanish man and a black woman a mulatto is born

From an Indian man and a black woman a wolf is born

From an Indian man and a mestizo woman a coyote is born

The mixed race society of the Caribbean is still racially and culturally strong today. Anthropologists believe that, despite European and Asian invasions since prehistoric times, inhabitants of Africa’s west coast and central regions preserved their pure racial characterstics. The African slaves were also able to preserve many of their cultures as well as some of their religious beliefs. In spite of the Spanish imposed Christianity, their devotion to their traditional gods did not disappear completely, rather both devotions fused together and adapted. Music and dance are important parts of daily life in western and central Africa and the colourful carnivals held every year in the Caribbean are a part of the islands’ African heritage.

Museo de las Americas in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico has a fantastic exhibit on the history of the trans-atlantic slave trade and how it contributed to the multi-cultural, mixed race society that exists today.

Museo de Las Americas opening hours:

  • Monday to Friday – 9:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 16:00
  • Saturday – 10:00 to 17:00
  • Sunday – 12:00 to 17:00

Entry cost:

  • Adults $6.00
  • Children, students and adults aged over 65 $4.00


  • Reversing Sail: A History of African Diaspora by Michael A. Gomez

The History of Slavery in the Caribbean and Its Influence on the Islands’ Culture

by Uncover Travel time to read: 4 min
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