Sugar Cultivation and Trade

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Sugar Cultivation and Trade

Sugar, a sweet crystallizable material that consists essentially of sucrose, is transparent or white when pure, brownish when less refined. It is obtained primarily from sugarcane, and, since the early nineteenth century, from sugar beet as well. Other, minor sources are sorghum, maples, and palms. Nutritionally, sugar is important as a source of dietary carbohydrate but little else, although it is also employed as a sweetener, and to cure and preserve other foods. Sugarcane, the main source, is a stout, coarse, tall perennial grass (Saccharum officinarum) with juice or sap high in sugar content. In a tropical climate the cane may be planted at almost any season as the plant does not require a rest period, but temperatures slightly below freezing kill the leafy tops, substantially reducing the sugar yield.

Prior to 1500 sugar had entered Europe from the east as a flavoring spice. Venetian and Sicilian supplier-producers sold small quantities at exorbitant prices to wealthy elites, but by the early 1600s the Italian industry had been ruined by cheap slave-produced sugar from the New World.

Canary Island sugarcane arrived in the Americas in 1493 on Christopher Columbus's second voyage, which introduced many European foodstuffs with the goal of establishing a permanent colony on Hispaniola. Sugarcane easily prospered in the New World environment and its cultivation spread across tropical America as it was colonized during the following centuries.

The fundamental requirements for the growth of sugarcane and the development of a plantation system were numerous, but were met in many regions of tropical America. These included:

  1. extensive, fertile lands near navigable coasts and rivers, with a deep water port nearby to facilitate the movement of large, bulky cargos;
  2. abundant timber reserves for construction and fire-wood—the latter used for the extensive boiling, and eventually the steam power, necessary for the refining process;
  3. the importation of tools and implements, especially cast iron gears, levers, axes, and the omnipresent machete;
  4. readily available foodstuffs for the large labor population, often grown on the plantation itself;
  5. a continuing supply of cheap labor—slaves—including both women and men, who were employed in planting, cultivation, and harvesting.
Sugar production in the Atlantic, 1500–1860
São Tomé5,0001550s
Dutch Brazil4,0001639
Saint Domingue78,0001791

The Spanish initially employed Indian slaves as a labor force, but sparse populations and devastating epidemics soon made it clear that native labor was insufficient. African slaves began to be imported in 1512, first to compliment and then to replace the Indians. Before long the terms sugar and slave had become indelibly linked, an association that lasted up until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Spanish did not fully develop the sugar industry, however, as the great mineral riches of the mainland distracted them. The Portuguese colony of Brazil was the site of the first major success with sugar cultivation. Immediately upon the founding of Pernambuco in 1526, and São Vicente and Espiritu Santo in 1530 to 1532, Madeira Island sugarcane was introduced. The Atlantic island techniques of cultivation, however, would be extensively modified. A new agricultural system appeared: the plantation. Substantially large landholdings—coupled with Brazil's proximity to Africa, which made for lower importation costs and higher survival rates for slaves—assured the expansion of large-scale sugar production.

The monoculture society that developed was multifaceted, as numerous goods and service industries were necessary. Food, as mentioned, was crucial and many times produced on the estates themselves, creating hybrid plantation-farms with their attendant needs. Sizable initial capital investments were needed, and credit was obtained both locally and from overseas sources—though dependence upon the mother country for financing tended to decrease over time. On the increase continually, though, was the consumption of goods and services for the planter class, and in some areas absentee ownership appeared.

The success of Brazil encouraged other European countries to become involved in sugar production. The Dutch West Indies Company occupied Recife and Olinda (Pernambuco) in the Portuguese sugar region of Brazil in 1630, but was expelled in 1654. Subsequently, the Dutch focused on establishing their own settlements, which they did on the islands of Curaçao (1634), St. Eustatius (1636), and St. Martin (1631–1648)—the latter shared with the French. The English settled St. Christopher (1624), Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Montserrat (1632), Antigua (1632), and Jamaica (1655). The French concentrated on St. Christopher (Kitts, 1624)—where they joined forces with the English to thwart the Spanish and Carib Indians—Guadeloupe (1635), and Martinique (1635).

Irrespective of which European power was involved, the planting, cultivation, harvesting, and processing of sugar followed the same pattern. For planting, mature cane stalks are cut into sections and laid horizontally in rows about six feet apart. Like other grasses, the stem produces nodes—four to ten inches apart along the aboveground section. The mature stems reach twelve feet or more in height. The stem between the nodes is made up of a hard, thin tissue or rind and a soft, fibrous core. In this center is the juice, with its high concentration of sugar. More than one crop may be harvested from a planting, but once cut the cane must be milled as soon as possible, as delay results in loss of sugar content. Once the harvest starts, milling becomes a twenty-four-hour job.

Sugar mills are located in the center of the cultivation area to facilitate prompt transportation. After being washed, the cane is sent through roller mills—large grooved rollers—that crush and macerate it, producing the liquid runoff containing the extracted sugar juice. This slightly acid juice is neutralized with lime and then boiled. The nearly clear juice at the top of the tanks is drawn off and sent to evaporators, where a progressive process leaves a sludge. This sludge is centrifuged to separate the brown sugar crystals from the liquid molasses. To produce transparent or white sugar, the brown sugar crystals are passed through an additional round of melting, filtering, and boiling, after which drying is necessary. The molasses from the sludge, or "poor man's sugar," is used as an additive for foods and livestock feed, and to manufacture alcohol and alcoholic beverages—the famous eau de vie de molasses, aguardiente de caña, and rum bullion.

The early Caribbean production was characterized by its low quality crystallized sugar and high volume of molasses. The by-product came to rival the refined sugar in volume and value as a large quantity of the sticky syrup was transformed into rum at both local and New England distilleries. And although Brazil continued to produce an enormous crop, by the late seventeenth century the West Indies had become the world's largest source of sugar. In both places, slave labor and easy transportation permitted lower prices than was possible for sugar imported from the East or grown in Europe, and as a result the American trade dwarfed all other rivals combined. By the early eighteenth century the term Sugar Islands had become quite literal: the economies of entire islands such as Barbados, Guadalupe, and Martinique centered on sugar production. In 1750 the French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti) was the largest sugar producer in the world.

Larger-volume production and lower prices allowed sugar consumption to extend to almost all social groups in Europe; sugar became enormously popular and experienced a series of booms. The principal reason for the increased demand was the great change in the eating habits of Europeans. They consumed candy, cocoa, coffee, jams, and tea in greater quantities than even before, creating a larger demand that stimulated greater production. It is estimated that the "sugar islands" produced up to 90 percent of the sugar consumed in Western Europe. By the end of the eighteenth century, monoculture sugar production monopolized the economies of numerous islands; in the case of Barbados and the British Leeward Islands, for example, sugar accounted for, respectively, 93 and 97 percent of overall exports.

Cuba, the largest of the Antilles and one of the oldest colonies in the region, withstood the onset of sugar monoculture until the end of the eighteenth century. Until that time, it possessed a multifaceted economy based on diversified agriculture (cattle leather, foodstuffs, sugar, and tobacco), heavy industry (the largest shipyard in the Spanish empire, plus a canon foundry and other metal works), and substantial service industries and bureaucracy. A nascent planter class, stimulated by Bourbon reforms in commerce and communication, appeared just as the age of revolutions began, however. Bourbon commercial and communications reforms that legalized the importation of large numbers of slaves and the access to heretofore closed markets stimulated the nascent planter class to expand production. The Saint Domingue slave revolt of 1791 drove up sugar prices worldwide and signaled the entry of Cuba as the major sugar/slave colony for the next century.

Despite Cuba's dominance, American pioneers on various colonial frontiers attempted to be self-sufficient as far as sugar production was concerned. This led to some curious sugar experiments, and to some of the worst or strangest sugars ever manufactured. One of the most unique efforts was the extraction of sugar and molasses from watermelons attempted in the southeastern United States—the volume of watermelons and firewood necessary for the production of one pound of sugar was staggering. Obviously, this experiment was a commercial failure.

In the nineteenth century, the price of sugar declined as production volumes increased. Multiple sources made for fewer market fluctuations, and the "white gold" became just another commodity. While sugar lost much of its uniqueness, all of the sugar colonies displayed enduring hallmarks. The plantations had stripped the environment of timber and had sown flowing seas of sugarcane, destroying the preexisting ecological system. The indigenous population had long since disappeared, replaced by imported, ethnically mixed Africans who produced a new amalgamated culture. And a new economic order had appeared. No longer were the colonies dependent upon the mother country; now their fortunes were shaped by the rise and fall of world prices, and by their ability to survive in the face of stiff international competition.

see also Plantations, the Americas.


Bethell, Leslie, ed. Colonial Brazil. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Deerr, Noël. The History of Sugar. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1949–1950.

Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Moreno Fraginals, Manuel. El ingenio: Complejo económico social cubano del azúcar. 3 vols. Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1978.

Sauer, Carl Ortwin. The Early Spanish Main. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Sheridan, Richard. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623–1775. Bridgetown, Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 1974.