Sugarcane Plantations in the Americas

Sugarcane Plantation
Sugarcane Plantation

The histories of African slavery and sugar production in the Americas are inextricably bound together. The plantation economies of the Caribbean and Brazil, which together received approximately 80 percent of the estimated 10 million African slaves transported to the Western Hemisphere from the 1490s through the 1860s, were dominated by sugar production.

As an expansive scholarly literature since the 1960s has made plain, sugar and slavery are the keywords of much of Brazilian and Caribbean history and together have shaped the cultural, economic, political, social, and demographic history of the Atlantic World in many profound ways.

The origins of sugarcane (Saccarum officinarum L.), a type of grass, have been traced to New Guinea in around 8000 b.c.e. By the first century c.e., it was grown across much of southern Asia and the Pacific. By 1000 c.e., its production and consumption among the elite had spread through much of the Mediterranean world, largely in consequence of the spread of Islam.

In the 1400s, the Portuguese and Spanish developed important templates for later New World plantation sugar production on their Atlantic islands: the Portuguese in São Tomé and Madeira, the Spanish in the Canaries. Before the encounter with the Americas in 1492, both were employing African slave labor to produce sugar and developing processing techniques that, after 1492, were transplanted wholesale to the sugar-producing zones of the Western Hemisphere.

Christopher Columbus is credited with taking the first sugarcane to the New World in 1493 from Spain’s Canary Islands. Soon Hispaniola had largely reproduced the industrial processing techniques developed in the Atlantic and made its first shipments of sugar to Europe around 1516.

By the mid-1520s, large quantities of sugar were being shipped from Brazil to Lisbon. The sweet granular substance proved a sensation among its elite customers, and demand skyrocketed. Cultivation and processing of sugar quickly spread throughout the Antilles and the Brazilian littoral as well as to Mexico, Paraguay, and South America’s Pacific coast.

Early Spanish efforts in the Caribbean ended largely in failure, though by the 1580s the French and English began plantation sugar production using African slave labor in the Lesser Antilles. Large-scale slave-based commercial sugar production in the Caribbean did not take off until after 1650, on the islands claimed by the French, English, and Dutch.

The English example is instructive. Sugar from Barbados began arriving in England in the mid-1650s. In the 40 years from 1660 to 1700, annual English consumption rose from 1,000 to 50,000 hogsheads, while export rose from 2,000 to 18,000 hogsheads. By the 1750s, the vast bulk of the 110,000 hogsheads imported annually were being consumed at home.

The peak of British West Indian sugar exports to England was in 1774, with nearly 2 million hundredweight. Growth rates for the French were comparable. For the Portuguese, the 1600s was the century of sugar, as their coastal plantations in Brazil spread rapidly inland, especially in the Northeast. Demand seemed insatiable, and production grew apace.

Sugar making, especially in its New World incarnation, has been aptly described as an industry that depends on farming and factory production. Through a series of complex steps requiring substantial skill and technical infrastructure, the cane juice was extracted from the stalk by mechanical means (crushing, chopping, etc.).

After the juice was boiled and cooled numerous times, with precise temperatures and timing, the end product consisted of a granular precipitate of the plant’s naturally occurring sucrose, ranging in color from dark brown to white. Its labor demands were intensive and immediate; for optimal production values, the cane juice must be extracted from the plant within 24 hours of its harvest.

Two Categories of Labor Needed

Sugar production thus required two broad categories of labor: one in the field to cut and haul the cane to the mill, and another in the mill to process the juice into granulated sugar. These labor requirements in turn created two broad strata of slave laborers: more numerous field slaves, among whom mortality rates were exceedingly high (in 17th-century Brazil, an average of 90 percent of imported African slaves died during their first seven years in the colony), and a smaller number of skilled slaves, who tended to receive more preferential treatment. Among mill slaves, industrial accidents were common, as many were crushed to death in the grinders and burned in the mill’s many boilers and kettles.

As sugar production skyrocketed so did the importation of African slaves into the sugar-producing zones. The relationship between the two was direct, as most scholars agree. In 1645, before widespread sugar production had taken root, Barbados counted 5,680 African slaves; by 1698, with sugar production having grown by more than 5,000 percent, its slave population exceeded 42,000.

Jamaica counted 1,400 African slaves in 1658; by 1698, their numbers had risen to over 40,000. Slave population growth rates in Antigua, Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), and other English, French, and Dutch sugar islands were comparable. The vast majority slaved in the sugar economy.

In 17th-century Brazil, sugar plantation slavery came to form the central pillar of the colonial economy. Similarly, one of the colony’s core social institutions became the engenho (same root as the English engine), which came to mean both the machinery of the mill itself and the larger plantation complex.

The sugar harvest (safra in Portuguese, zafra in Spanish) began toward the end of July and continued without stop for the next eight or nine months. Slaves were divided into crews: one to cut and haul cane to the mill, another to process the cane into sugar.

Water power turned the grinding mill in larger engenhos, oxen in smaller engenhos. The highest strata of workers consisted of the boiler technicians and artisans, who could be either slave or free. The average engenho had from 60 to 80 slaves, though some counted more than 200.

Overall slave mortality rates averaged from 5 to 10 percent annually but were higher among field slaves. Sugar planters became the dominant social class in Brazil and almost everywhere else where sugar production formed the basis of the colonial economy.

Caribbean and Brazilian sugar production generated ripple effects throughout the Atlantic World. Large quantities of West Indian sugar were exported to Britain’s North American colonies, where most of it was distilled into rum. The West Indian trade also fueled the North American colonial economy through its large and growing demand for lumber, foodstuffs, and other goods produced for export to the sugar islands.

Rum exports to Britain similarly skyrocketed, from 100,000 gallons in 1700 to 3,341,000 gallons in 1776. The effects generated by West Indian sugar production on the British and British North American economies were enormous and remain the topic of ongoing scholarly research and debate.

In his book Capitalism and Slavery (1944), West Indian historian Eric Williams was the first to propose a direct causal relationship between the growth of African slavery in the New World, dominated by sugar production, and the development of capitalism in Europe, particularly in Britain. Spawning a huge debate and literature, this book has been challenged in many specific points.

Yet the overall thrust of his thesis—that sugar, slavery, and British capitalism all emerged together as part of the same process of social transformation—has stood the test of time, its main arguments retaining credibility in the scholarly community six decades after the book’s publication.

African Slavery Expands

After the French acquisition of the western portion of the Spanish island of Hispaniola in the Treaty of Ryswick of 1695 (henceforth Saint-Domingue), sugar production and African slavery exploded. By the 1760s, slave imports averaged between 10,000 and 15,000 per year.

By 1787, the number exceeded 40,000 per year. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, Saint-Domingue was populated by an estimated 500,000 slaves, more than two-thirds born in Africa, vastly outnumbering both whites and mulattoes.

Known in France as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Saint-Domingue had quickly become the world’s largest sugar producer, with more than 800 sugar plantations, many with hundreds of slaves. Decadal mortality rates among slaves on Saint-Domingue in the mid- and late 1700s are estimated at more than 90 percent.

The more than 10 million African slaves transported over nearly three centuries to work in New World plantation agriculture, most in sugar production, has been called accurately the largest forced migration in the history of the world.

The African diaspora, fueled in large part by an insatiable European demand for sugar, coffee, tobacco, and other tropical plantation export commodities of the Americas, profoundly shaped every aspect of African, European, and American history, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil. The long-term historical effects of Europe’s sweet tooth remain readily apparent across the Americas, Africa, and the broader Atlantic World.

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