4. Conditions in the West Indies

As an insight into the plight of the servants once they had reached Barbados, Richard Ligon, a self imposed Royalist exile, kept a journal which was published in London in 1657. He observed that servants were put to hard labour, ill-lodged with poor diets. The servants had to rely upon being given pickled sea turtle to maintain a meat diet.

It is interesting to compare the diets of planters, servants and black slaves.



Turkey, pullen ordunghill fowl
Muskova Duck
Turtle dovw, pideon, rabbit
Green Turtle
Hogs f;esh

Fruit Water melons, oranges, limes
Drink Rum and 'Mobby' (pressed from potatoes)
WIne, beeer and ale
  The planters suffered from torsions of the bowels. The cure was ground up sea turtle mixed in beer, ale or white wine
Meat Pickled sea turtle
Oxen (if a beast died by mischance or disease)
Vegetables Potatoes/potato roots
Fruit Yarns

Salted fish
(men - two per week
women- one per week)
skins, head and entrails of oxen which died bymischance or disease

Fruit Yarns/ Plantines etc.
Drink Water

Comparative diets of planters/indentured servants and
negro slaves in Barbados during the 1650's
Main source Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barba( London 1657).


The servants were required to build their own huts and cabins from sticks and plantine leaves. Their clothes were mainly made from canvas. Ligon estimated the annual cost of servant's clothing. 10

Enlarge Enlarge

Account of annual expenses for Christian servant and negro clothing .11 Source: Ligon, op cit, p.115.

Richard Ligon also recorded in his narrative that a typical Barbadian plantation in 1650 would consist of 500 acres of land. There would be a dwelling house, boiling room, cisterns, a stillhouse with a carding room, stables, smith's forge, and rooms for provisions. On such a plantation of 500 acres of land; 200 would be used for sugar, 80 for pasture, 120 for wood, 30 for tobacco, 5 for ginger, 5 for cotton and 70 for provisions such as potatoes, plantines and fruit. 12


The plans of the mill that ground the sugar and boiling room were sketched by Ligon. 13
Ligon, op cit


The planters were generaly mercilessly cruel to the servants; regardless if they acquired their labour on a contracted or enforced basis. They mainly worked as field hands under the control of a severe overseer, from sun up to sun down. If they conmplained, they were beaten by the overseer. Ligon narrated how an overseer had beat a servant on the head until blood flowed for a trivial offence.

In these conditions, and due to disease, 50 to 75 per cent of every 100 servants were estimated to have died without a decent chance of survival before their term had expired. Diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, dropsy and leprosy took their toll. Malaria was transmitted by mosquitos. Yellow fever was introduced into Barbados by the slave ships from Africa and was known as 'bleeding fever'. Bad hygene and poor diets were responsible for dysentery and dropsy.

The Bristol merchants treated the servants as a kind of cargo: they were freight. To them, white labour was an integral component of the Atlantic trade. Indentured servants, on completing their term, mainly became waged artisans, labourers or overseers. The contract between master and servant was legal, not moral.

The system was often referred to as 'white slavery'. A planter usually paid £10 to £14 for a servant and had the right to whip him. The servant was accountable to the master for the entire term of indenture, and was not allowed to leave the plantation without his master's consent. The master consequently had total control over the servant.

Deposition of George Bond, 20 October 1650 Enlarge
in Nott and Ralph, (Eds), Deposition Books of Bristol, 1650-1654,,
(Bristol Record Society, XIII, 1948), p.57.


The export of indentured servants was paid through the import of sugar and tobacco. It was therefore a two-way traffic: each shipment of servants resulting in a return of tobacco or sugar. The traffic was beneficial to the economies of England and the colonies. The demand for labour had to be continuously met with the expansion of production: sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in the American colonies. The plantation servant system consequently became entrenched in both these economies. However, it was the sugar based economy in the West Indies that enabled Barbados tobecome the richest English possession.

The extent of colonization in Barbados is evident in this contemporary map (note the use of camels that were imported from Africa)


Map of Barbados, 1650.
Source: Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados,
(London, 1657). Reprinted by Cass Reprints, 1972.