The British West Indies and Canada

The British West Indies and Canada provide us with two more counterpoints to the successful wars of revolution. The 13 colonies were unusual in their revolt against British colonial rule. Canada and the British possessions in the West Indies did not seek independence. Both regions would experience a gradual transition to independence. They present fascinating comparisons to both British North America and Latin America. In many ways, their social and economic structures looked similar to those of the U.S. South and Latin America, yet they would remain colonies for another century and a half. In this outline, we will focus on Canada and the British West Indies as yet another set of paths in the age of revolution.

The British West Indies and Canada provide us with two more counterpoints to the successful revolutions and wars for independence.

A. The British began to acquire colonies in the Caribbean in the mid-17th century.

  1. Although British privateers (or pirates) had been operating in the region since the mid-16th century, it was not until the 1620s that England began to establish colonies.
  2. At the same time as English colonists began settling in New England, they also began to occupy Barbados and some of the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean.
  3. In 1655, a British expedition took Jamaica from the Spanish.
  4. Over the next century and a half, England would acquire many islands in the eastern Caribbean, Guiana on the coast of South America, and several other footholds on the mainland around the Caribbean.

B. In the 17th and 18th centuries, these West Indian colonies developed very much like the U.S. South.

  1. The population of the British West Indies in 1800 was small, with some 60,000 whites, 15,000 free blacks and mulattos, and 500,000 slaves spread across many islands.
  2. Most of the islands became engines for the production of sugar through slave labor.
  3. As it had been in Brazil and Cuba, the fear of whites was the threat of slave uprisings.

The islands of the British West Indies did not follow the path of Haiti or the 13 colonies.

A. The white colonial assemblies in the islands supported the ideals of the North American rebels, but they refused to join the rebellion.

  1. The success of the American revolutionaries marked a watershed for the British West Indies.
  2. The negative economic consequences of the American Revolution were counterbalanced in the 1790s by the positive consequences of the Haitian Revolution (for these colonies, that is).
  3. Unlike the United States, Britain chose to emancipate slaves in its empire in 1833, thus defusing the divisive issue that would produce so much bloodshed in Haiti and the United States.
  4. Many West Indian planters bitterly opposed the move to emancipation in the early 19th century.

B. Although the colonies in the West Indies remained British beyond the age of revolution, their role in the empire declined and diminished.

  1. At the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the empire entered into a new phase, what historians often call the Second Empire.
  2. The many British colonies in the Caribbean developed a variety of political systems.

C. When independence came for these islands, it was in the years after World War II.

  1. Avoiding explosions of disaffected Creoles, Indians, or slaves, the British had managed to defuse tension and delay independence for more than a century and a half.
  2. The Creole elites had access to trade and, increasingly, self-rule.
  3. They followed the path of evolution, not revolution.

Canada is an even more interesting counter-example than the British West Indies.

A. As we saw at the beginning of these outlines, both the British and the French moved into the northernmost regions of North America in the 16th and 17th centuries.

  1. The French had a strong but small colony, New France, in the region that today is Quebec.
  2. The British took the maritime province of Nova Scotia from the French in 1713 and New France (Quebec) in 1763.
  3. The British allowed the French-speaking peoples of Quebec to remain Catholics and to use French civil law; further, Britain recognized the use of the French language.
  4. In effect, it created a sort of foreign enclave within British North America.

B. The loyalist migrations into Nova Scotia and Canada transformed the British colony after 1776.

  1. In 1783 alone, the British evacuated more than 30,000 loyalists to the maritime province of Nova Scotia.
  2. In the 1790s, the growth of the population in British North America forced the Crown to divide the old French colony in two.
  3. Canada was less populated and less economically developed than its southern neighbor.
  4. During the War of 1812, the United States invaded Canada but was unable to make much headway.

C. Armed revolts erupted in both upper and lower Canada in the 1830s, forcing the British government to act.

  1. In Upper Canada, the revolt in 1837 was led by William Lyon Mackenzie.
  2. In Lower Canada, Louis Joseph Papineau tried to mobilize farmers in a rebellion, also in 1837.
  3. These failed rebellions prompted the British government to act and to avoid the mistakes of the 1770s.
  4. In the 1860s, the Canadians took the final step toward self-government.

What are we to conclude from these two cases?

A. First, we see that war and revolution were not the only paths to self-rule and independence in the American colonies.

  1. Although Canada, the 13 colonies, and the British West Indies all formed parts of the same colonial empire in the Americas, they followed three different paths.
  2. All were influenced by the forces of modernization and change in the 18th century, but only the colonials in the 13 colonies chose to break from the empire.
  3. Slavery and the need for imperial protection, as well as direct access to the British economy, helped keep West Indian planters loyal.
  4. Very high numbers of loyalists, and the influx of even more in the 1780s, helped hold Canada back.

B. Second, both Canada and the British West Indies benefited politically from the American Revolution.

  1. The success of the rebels in the 13 colonies ultimately made the British Crown and government more attentive to the remaining American colonies.
  2. In the decades after 1783, the British chose to allow greater local autonomy and self-rule.
  3. The two major grievances of the Creole elites across the Americas—lack of political autonomy and free trade—had been achieved to a large degree in these regions by the 1840s.
  4. Canada and the British West Indies evolved out of colonialism and managed to avoid war and revolution.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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