The Dutch in the Caribbean

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Assess the contributions of the Dutch to the development of the Caribbean. The incorporation of the Dutch into the Caribbean during the latter half of the 16th century and early 17th century came on the heels of them seeing the prosperous economic opportunities at the time dominated by the Spanish. In the Caribbean, the Dutch concentrated on wrestling from Portugal its grip on the sugar and slave trade through attacks on the Spanish treasure fleets on their homeward bound voyages.

Though the prime and most active time for the Dutch in the Caribbean lasted for about one hundred years, they were able to damage the monopoly the Spanish blissfully enjoyed by their; privateering attacks this created a diversion so that the English and French could settle the Lesser Antilles. They provided these British and French colonies with estate supplies, cultivation knowledge particularly on sugar and were a major influential factor to the gravitation of British and French colonists towards sugar cultivation, slave labor via the Atlantic slave trade and the transportation of raw materials from the tobacco and sugar plantations.

As Spain’s power declined in Caribbean history, more and more of the islands were colonized not only by the Dutch but also by the British and the French. The Dutch contributed enormously to the development of the Caribbean so much so that they were referred to as the ‘’foster fathers’’ of the Caribbean, mainly because of the roles they played assisting the British and French colonists. Additionally, the Dutch owned colonies in Brazil however for only a short period of time until it was recaptured by the Portuguese whilst there they converted the colony through trade and capital into a prosperous tropical crop producing colony.

Sugar was the premier crop of choice, following the Portuguese recapture of Brazil the Dutch ventured to the eastern Caribbean taking with them their developed expertise in sugar production which in time played a major role in transforming Caribbean colonies and economies. The Dutch also settled in territories such as Tobago and St. Eustatius in 1632, Aruba in 1636 and Saba in 1640. These Dutch territories acted as centers for trade and as warehouses for the storage of goods to be traded and transported.

Moreover, it must be noted that unlike their European counterparts they pursued a much different agenda; they were not centered on the colonization and religious conversion aspects while embarking on journeys of conquest in the New World. Their main concerns were mainly trade, entrepreneurship, ship-building, and maritime endeavors. By the mid 17th century the Dutch controlled and owned 60% of the ships involved in maritime trade amounting to a total of 15,000 ships out of approximately 25,000 ships. By 1648 the Dutch were indisputably the greatest trading nation in the world.

The contributions of the Dutch to the Caribbean vary from technical to financial in the following each of these contributions are discussed and assessed to show how they perpetuated the development of the Caribbean. To begin, in the mid 17th century sugar cane was brought into the British West Indies by the Dutch from Brazil. The Dutch had taught the colonists the technical knowhow of cultivating the sugar cane crop. University of Kansas economic historian Richard B. Sheridan in describing the Dutch says, “they were masters of sugar technology and taught the English the art of sugar making. Upon landing in Barbados and other islands, the Dutch quickly urged local farmers to change their main crops from cotton and tobacco to sugar cane and with declining prices of cotton and tobacco due mainly to stiff competition from the North American colonies. This option seemed quite enticing to British planters. Robert Greenwood, S. Hamber and Brian Dyde in their book Amerindians to Africans described the Dutch contribution to be so great in that they believed they (the Dutch) made the change possible. Likewise J. H Parry in his book A short History of the West Indies says, “The Dutch, without realizing it, started the sugar revolution”.

According to the Dutch innovators, sugar was best grown on land that was near the coast where the soil was naturally yellow and fertile. The sugar colonies of Barbados and Jamaica grew to become jewels of the British Empire during the 1700s. The sugar cultivated on the plantations sweetened the teas of Europeans in the 17th century. Evidently, sugar needed capital which the small planters of the eastern Caribbean did not have, but the Dutch came to the rescue by supplying credit. A Dutch merchant would put up the capital on the security of the crop.

In this way many planters started. The Dutch took over the export and sale of the crops in return for providing the initial capital. Here we see the Dutch concocting a deal with planters who are not entirely financially equip to sustain a sugar plantation by offering loans on credit to planters in return the Dutch exported and sold the cultivated sugar back to Europe. Furthermore, early sugar plantations had an extensive use of slaves because sugar was considered as a cash crop, and it was most efficiently grown on large plantations with many workers.

As a result, slaves were imported from Africa to work on the sugar plantations, the Dutch responded to the needs of the plantations in the Caribbean by supplying the labor that was needed following the failure of previous labor systems used on the British and French colonies such as the use of indigenous people and white indentured laborers. Their involvement in the Atlantic Slave trade saw them succeeding the Portuguese in Africa in the Atlantic slave trade. By the 17th century the Dutch had a forty boat fleet which traded on the West African Coast year round.

This fleet belonged to the Dutch West India Trading Company formed in June 1621. This company, a national venture, was well-organized and well-funded, unlike the ventures of the other European countries. The Dutch dominated the trade from 1600-1700 during this time the Dutch were the premier source for African slaves to work on the expanding plantations of the British and French colonies especially during the course of the Sugar Revolution which as mentioned earlier was suggested by the Dutch as a more economically beneficial option

The Dutch brought slaves from West Africa to the West Indies at a rate of about 3000 per year. It has been said that the Dutch made the West Indies black. Without the importation of slaves by the Dutch to the Caribbean to work on the plantations the prosperity of the plantations would have been a mere shadow of the profits enjoyed following the implementation of the African slaves on the plantation. Tools and equipment were provided to the colonists by the Dutch such as harvesting tools and milling machines such as watermills and windmills also steam engines.

These tools and equipment were necessities of the sugar plantations for the planters as they allowed for faster and more efficient production on the plantations. However these machines cost money which once qualified, planters were provided with loans on easy pay back terms, similar to those given out to planters to establish the said sugar plantations. This sort of money-lending activity was intrinsic of the Dutch in the Caribbean in return they reaped the profits of the plantations through exporting the harvested crops.

Another contribution of the Dutch to the development of the Caribbean was the allocation of markets for the goods that were manufactured by the English and French colonists. This was enabled by the Dutch having a clear monopoly in maritime trade as discussed earlier, they were able to efficiently and more productivel take the goods and transport them back to Europe for sale. The Dutch came up with the fluyt , a marvel of Dutch efficiency and engineering. The fluyt was both sturdy enough to withstand rough seas and shallow draught for inland waterways.

Unlike other countries’ such as Britain and France whose merchant ships, which doubled as warships, the fluyt carried few, if any, guns, leaving extra space for cargo. It was cheaper to build, costing little more than half as much as other ships, thanks to the use of mechanical cranes, wind-driven saws, and overall superior shipbuilding techniques. The fluyt also had simpler rigging that used winches and tackles, thus requiring a crew of only 10 men compared to 20-30 on other European ships.

This resulted in two things. First of all, the Dutch could carry and sell goods for half the price their competition had to charge, giving them control of Europe’s carrying trade. Second, they were able to dominate Europe’s shipbuilding industry. In his book Columbus to Castro Eric Williams stated, “.. The Caribbean sea became a Dutch canal. ” In those early times salt was important in preserving both fish and meat which was used in the preparation of food for both planters and slaves on the colonies.

This salt was also provided by the Dutch for the colonists on both French and British colonies. The salt was stolen at Araya from Spain, brought to the Caribbean and sold to colonists at reasonable prices. It is clear that in most cases the colonies of the British and French served as an outlet for inferior and unpopular goods that were unfit for the European market. These goods ranged from poor confectionaries for example sweets and soft drinks to sub standard cigars and cigarettes.

The mother countries of these colonies particularly Britain and France threw a blind eye and were uninterested in the needs of the plantation owners besides them providing wealth and raw materials. Colonies operated primitively using animal power to power mills they were dependent on their colonial mothers to provide basic needs to sustain a comfortable life on the plantations. This gap was bridged tremendously with the contributions of the Dutch to the British and French colonies by providing markets for the planters to trade and purchase quality European goods to raise their ‘deplorable’ standard of living soaps, erfumes, clothing, liquor, cigars and other manufactured goods were now available to the colonies and were well patronized by the planters. However the grasp of Dutch on the Caribbean trade began to weaken coming to the end of the 17th century due to a number of factors. The pressures of competition from British and French merchants led to the depletion of the Dutch monopoly. The loss of ship members due to their involvement in piracy on the seas dented the productivity of Dutch ships which sailed the Dutch to a near century of riches from trade.

A major contributor to the decline of the Dutch was the series of Navigation acts instituted by the British and French which restricted trade and established a great degree of risk which in most cases was still undertaken by the Dutch through illegal trading with the British colonies for example the seizure of Dutch vessels with cargoes from France in 1650-52 was seen as achieving by violent methods the objectives that the Navigation Act 1651 was to achieve by statutory means, the crippling of the Dutch entrepot trade which depended on colonial and French commodities.

Unlike the nurturing spirit exhibited by the Dutch in times of hardship for British and French colonies in the reverse they failed to lend a helping hand to the Dutch rather they added to the misery by enacting laws of trade and navigation which was at the heart of the Dutch once thriving economy.

The acclaimed “Foster Fathers” came under intense pressure due to declining profits and as such were unable to continue to offer credit to British and French planters whom by now were reaping benefits of fully functional and lucrative sugar plantations. In conclusion, the Dutch during their reign in the Caribbean established a successful empire built upon a foundation of trade and entrepreneurship. The Caribbean was developed through their operations in the colonies of the British and French.

The Dutch pioneered the movement towards acquisition of Caribbean colonies followed by Britain and France, where they assisted their European brethren in establishing successful colonies and plantations by imparting knowledge and advice to them on sugar cultivation, providing labor and markets for trade and substantially adhering to the needs of the colonists in the Caribbean where their mother countries displayed traits of neglect. The absence of the Dutch in the Caribbean would dramatically change the course of history and life as we know it today. Bibliography Boxer, C. R, The Dutch Seaborne Empire, London,1977.

Greenwood. R, Haber. S, Dyde. B, Amerindians to Africans 3rd Edition, London, 2008 Hiss, P, Netherlands America the Dutch Territories in the West, London, 1946. Jones, J. R, The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century, New York, 1996. Knorr, K. E, British Colonies Theories, 1570-1830, Toronto, 1944 Mills, D, ‘A Look At… Slavery Then and Now Half-Truths and History:  The Debate over Jews and Slavery’ Washington Post, October 17th 1993. Parry, J. H, A Short History of the West Indies, London, 1988 Williams, E. E, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969, New York, 1970. Endnotes

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