Our People

Ethnicity, Slavery and, Indentureship

We are the descendents of many peoples who have helped to shape our history and culture. Our main ethnicities are: Groups of Indigenous peoples, Africans, Indians, Europeans, Chinese and Portuguese.

Indigenous peoples: Our earliest inhabitants were the Carib, Arawak and Ciboney groups of indigenous peoples who migrated from South America. Today, descendants of these groups along with other indigenous people such as the Maya, Garifuna, Surinen and Tainos are still to be found in our Region.

Europeans: The first Europeans to arrive were the Spanish in 1492 – led by an Italian, Christopher Columbus – followed by the Portuguese, English, Dutch and French. While historians have uncovered indications that African sailors arrived in the Caribbean before the Europeans,the vast majority of Africans were brought as slaves when the colonial powers divided our lands among themselves, based on conquest and began to import Africans.
Africans: From as early as the first half of the sixteenth century, Africans came to work as slaves on the plantations. The slaves came mainly from Ghana also known as The Gold Coast, Côte D’Ivoire, often referred to as Ivory Coast and from Guinea. Slavery lasted for more than 300 years and its indescribable inhumanity from port of origin to plantation, caused such severe psychological damage that the effects are still evident in our society today. Haiti was the first member state to abolish slavery. This took place in 1793 and in 1804, that country became an independent Republic. Slavery was officially abolished in 1834 in all other member states except Suriname. For four years thereafter, a system of apprenticeship – essentially a modified form of slavery – was put in place. In Antigua, however, there was no apprenticeship system and the slaves were completely free from 1834. In Suriname, slavery was abolished in 1863 and for ten years thereafter a system of apprenticeship was imposed.

East Indians: From 1838 East Indians were brought from India to the Caribbean in large numbers as indentured labourers, following the abolition of slavery, the shortage of labour that resulted and the introduction of the indentureship system, in all member states, except Barbados and Haiti. Nearly half a million East Indians were brought in to serve under this system, making them the largest group of indentured labourers. Their descendants represent the majority of the population in Guyana and a significant proportion of the population in Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname.

Portuguese and Chinese: West Africans, Europeans – particularly Portuguese from the Madeira Islands – and Chinese were also brought in under contracts of indentureship. At the end of their contracts the Portuguese and Chinese left the plantations and along with immigrants from the Middle East, particularly Jews, Syrians and Lebanese, established businesses. These groups settled mainly in Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago as well as Suriname where there is also a significant Javanese presence. The Javanese, from the country now known as Indonesia, first arrived in Suriname in 1890 as indentured labourers. Indentureship ended in 1924.

The system of slavery did not provide for any entitlement to the slave, however, the contracts for indentureship included a low fixed wage, housing and medical attention as well as a grant of land or return passage on completion of service. In many other ways, however, indentureship continued a system of labour exploitation and degradation, which began under slavery.

Concurrent with the system of indentureship was the establishment of the “Village System” mainly in Guyana and Jamaica. These were communities of freed people on land bought and developed outside of the plantations. Beterverwagting, Buxton, Friendship Village and Plaisance in Guyana and Birmingham, Kitson Town, Sligoville and Kensington in Jamaica, were all established under this system.

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