King's College London
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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

St Kitts

Engraving depicting a sugar mill showing extracting and boiling of the cane juiceA sugar mill, from: Charles de Rochefort. Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l'Amérique. A Roterdam: chez Arnould Leers, 1665 [FCO Historical Collection]By the end of the third quarter of the eighteenth century St Christopher (St Kitts) was the richest British colony in proportion to its size and was exporting around £400,000 worth of goods annually, almost all of which were sugar or rum.

The island was settled by both the English and French in the early 1620s, and was divided between them by treaty in 1627; the English were allocated the central more fertile portion of the island, with the French receiving the eastern and western extremities.

As on Barbados, the chief export of the early planters was tobacco. However, declining prices led to a focus on other crops, such as indigo and cotton. With its climate and wealth of well-watered fertile land, St Kitts was also ideal for sugar production and this crop was introduced to the English part of the island around 1643.

On the French side it was the island’s governor, Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy (1583-1660), who pioneered the growing of sugar and who had, according to de Rochefort, three sugar mills on his estate by the mid 1650s.

Sugar only slowly replaced tobacco as the island’s main cash crop, however. The development of the plantations on St Kitts was hindered by conflict, as the English and French vied for the control of the island; the French seized the English portion of the island in 1666 and again in 1689, destroying many plantations and forcing the inhabitants to flee the island.

However, the peaceful conditions that followed the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), when the French portions of the island were ceded to Britain, encouraged investment and facilitated the rapid expansion of sugar production. Indentured labour had made up much of the workforce on the plantations in the early days of settlement on St Kitts, but as sugar production expanded, the demand for labour could only be met by importing slaves. In 1708 the population of African slaves on the island stood at around 3,200 but by 1734 it was over 17,000, with around 6,500 having been imported in the period 1722-6 alone.

The plate on display depicts one of de Poincy’s sugar mills and the extraction and boiling of the cane juice to produce sugar.

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