Atlantic History European, Javanese, and African and Indentured Servitude in the Caribbean
Lomarsh Roopnarine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0313


The movement of indentured laborers from Europe, Java, and Africa to the Caribbean in the decades before and after the abolition slavery (British Caribbean (1838), Dutch Guiana (1873), and the Danish West Indies (1848) in particular) has been overshadowed by the larger movement of indentured Indians and Chinese to the region. An estimated 500,000 Indians and 250,000 Chinese were brought to the Caribbean and Spanish Peru. By contrast, no less than 90,000 indentured Europeans, Africans, and Javanese were brought to the Caribbean region. Nevertheless, the smaller number of indentured from the latter group pales in comparison to their significance and contribution to the Caribbean plantation society in the 19th and early 20th centuries in terms of providing labor, serving as a buffer between the planters and other ethnic groups, and adding to the mosaic of culture in the Caribbean. However, European, African, and Javanese indentured servitude in the Caribbean has to be contextualized in its own domain before any careful assessment can be made. The European indentured were mainly from Ireland, Germany, Scotland, and Denmark, on the one hand, and Portugal (honorary whites), on the other. The former groups were brought to the Caribbean before African slavery while the Portuguese were brought to the region, mainly to British Guiana, after the abolition of slavery, although the first batch of Portuguese arrived in British Guiana in 1835. Taken together, both groups of indentured proved to be a supplementary source of labor to the plantation system for reasons relating to maladjustment to tropical labor and victims of social ills. The Portuguese, in particular, when their contracts expired drifted toward retail business. Some indentured Africans were brought or recruited from the West African coast but a majority of them were rescued on the high seas on slave ships bound for Cuba, Brazil, and the southern United States by British warships policing the Atlantic Ocean after the slave trade was abolished in 1807. Instead of sending these rescued Africans back to their homeland, they were indentured mainly to the British Caribbean. The Javanese were brought from the Dutch colony of Indonesia, mainly inland Java and the seaports of Batavia, Surabaya, and Semarang to Dutch Guiana after 1873. When their contracts expired, they formed independent communities and engaged in large-scale agriculture and retail business. The Javanese were brought only to Dutch Guiana, now Suriname.

European Indentured (Irish and Danes)

White indentured servitude was introduced in some islands in the Caribbean a few decades before the arrival of African slavery; however, only a few scholars have studied and published on this labor experience. Works by them include Beckles 1989 and Beckles 1990 on Barbados; Chinea 2007 on Puerto Rico; and Hvid 2016 on the Danish West Indies. Except for Hvid 2016, comparative studies on white indentured servants in the Caribbean are rare.

  • Beckles, Hilary McDowell. White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados, 1627–1715. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

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    This book focuses on the transition of white indenture to black slavery in colonial Barbados. The author notes that the welfare of the white indentured laborers was secondary to the primary motive of economic gains, and, as a result, the laborers became “white chattels” or “white slaves” within the system of proto-slavery.

  • Beckles, Hilary McDowell. “A ‘Riotous and Unruly Lot’: Irish Indentured Servants and Freemen in the English West Indies, 1644–1713.” William and Mary Quarterly 47.4 (1990): 503–522.

    DOI: 10.2307/2937974Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The article examines the social terms of servitude, the degree of servant protest and resistance to planter’s domination of social and economic life, and the extent to which such actions affected labor relations and community development in the West Indies.

  • Chinea, Jorge L. “Irish Indentured Servants, Papists and Colonists in Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico, ca. 1650–1800.” Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 5.3 (2007): 171–179.

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    This article links the Irish diaspora to a long history of Anglo-Spanish rivalry both in Europe and in the West Indies. It shows how changes in Spain’s colonial priorities impacted Irish immigration in Puerto Rico. Three numerically small but significant Irish “waves” are identified and briefly examined in the context of Spain’s foreign immigration policy: indentured servants around the middle of the 17th century.

  • Hvid, Mirjam Louise. “Indentured Servitude and Convict Labor in the Danish-Norwegian West Indies, 1671–1755.” Scandinavian Journal of History 41.4–5 (2016): 541–564.

    DOI: 10.1080/03468755.2016.1210890Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This is a rare article on how indentured servitude and the use of convict labor began and evolved in the Danish-Norwegian West Indies in the period 1671–1755. It examines indentured servitude and convict labor in the Virgin Islands and draws a comparison with the workings and use of indentured servants in the British West Indies.

  • Rodgers, Nini. “The Irish in the Caribbean 1641–1837: An Overview.” Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 5.3 (2007): 145–155.

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    One section of this article provides information on Irish immigrants as bonded or indentured laborers in the Caribbean. Interestingly, the article argues that the Irish in the Caribbean were the colonizers and colonized at the same time. Nevertheless, the article provides a good overview of the Irish experience in the Caribbean over three centuries.

  • Sheppard, Jill. “A Historical Sketch of the Poor Whites of Barbados: From Indentured Servants to ‘Redlegs.’” Caribbean Studies 14.3 (1974): 71–94.

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    The article provides a vivid account as to why white indentured servants were brought to Barbados and documents their experience on the island as well as concludes that they were victims of historical and environmental events and circumstances. Their welfare was neglected, and, as a consequence, they remained on the margins of Bajan society.

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