4 Sugar

Karen Arnold has released this “Sugar Cane Clipart Illustration” image under Public Domain license. License: CC0 Public Domain
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As seen last chapter, some found freedom and never ending possibilities available to them on the high seas. With distance between the New and Old World shrinking in the minds of adventures and explorers.

Yet, with the shrinking of distance came a growing demand for a deadly supply of white gold… Sugar! Its lifespan can not be chronologically analyzed however. Due to stops and starts, failures and successes, the need for money and laborers, and the need for the sugarcane itself.


The Origins of Sugar

When sugar reached the Caribbean it had already been in other parts of the world. While time and history have made sugar and the West Indies synonymous, the truth is that sugar as well as the slaves used to cultivate it were not native to the area at all.

Sugarcane is a native plant of Papua New Guinea, where traders came across the then domesticated plant and brought it back with them to China and India. In India, the plants juices would be extracted for drinking and the plant would be exposed to Greek visitors. These visitors found the plant interesting and carried it to Mesopotamia about 4th century AD and then onto Persia.

With the later invasion of the Arabs, sugarcane would be brought along to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Nile Delta. The “discovery” and spread of sugar was taking place simultaneously with the Islamic golden age. Sugar mills would crop up in Palestine, Morocco as well as Sicily. Sicily being as far north as one could go to find the correct climate for sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane, of course, being a tropical plant. Sugar would not entice the taste buds of most northern Europeans until the dawn of the Crusades. The marauding and religiously fervent men would bring refined sugar back home to a people used to sweetening their food with honey and fruit juice.

Europe’s White Gold

“South Sea Islander labourer in the sugar cane fields at Bingera” by State Library of Queensland, No known copyright restrictions.

In said day and age, Sugar became the most precious spice on the market. It was reserved for special occasions and used to show one’s wealth; hence the moniker of white gold. Sugar was the food of kings and a luxury given its rarity and high price in European markets. As we saw with the age of exploration, Venice and Genoa catered to the demands of the people while making themselves rich.

However, while demand and wealth grew the supply diminished. So when the opportunity of planting the cane on the Atlantic islands of the Canaries and Madeira presented itself, Europe capitalized on the knowledge. With fresh soil and a 3-cylinder milling process developed sugar refinement boomed once more by the 1400s.

It is believed that Columbus brought cane cuttings to Hispaniola although nothing came of it at the time and the notion of cane planting would be brought up later once again. Cane was, however, brought to Puerto Rico and, by 1571, the Island was was exporting 212,000lb to Santo Domingo’s 1,290,000lb. Portugal on the other hand did not have the wet and lush fields of the Caribbean in which to grow cane due to the papal demarcation line. The did, however, have Brazil; conveniently located near their Cape Verde islands no less. South of the equator, Portugal had established 60 sugar mills by 1570, 120 by 1585, and 192 by 1612. The sugar was grown and milled forcibly by the natives and imported Africans.


Portugal managed to outrace Spain in the sugar production race. For Brazil was exporting 25,000 tons a year by 1610 in comparison to Spain’s measly, less than, 1,000. Spain, however, had to contend with transportation and logistic issues in the form of pirate attacks; which increased the expense of transport. Then there was also the fact that the settlers tended to grow ginger rather than sugar as it was more cost-effective; though production on this front would also dwindle. The competition would grow to include England and France by the 1650s as they abandoned tobacco crops for cane.

Needing help to grow the cane, as they entered unfamiliar territories and waters, the British and French turned to the Netherlands. They had the funds to pay for the equipment, work force, and to prop up the fledgling plantations.

“Image from page 24 of “The gospel of slavery : a primer of freedom” (1864)” by Internet Archive Book Images, No known copyright restrictions

By 1630, the Dutch West India Company was in control of northern territories in Brazil with sugar mills having a direct connection to Antwerp. This control, however, would not last. With the separation of Portugal from Spain and the nativist hatred for the Dutch interlopers, the Dutch and their partners would find themselves, by 1654, kicked out of Brazil altogether. The Frenchmen, who had gone to Brazil to learn the business, soon found themselves growing cane in Saint Domingue (Haiti) which had been granted to them under the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick.

“PC_2094_F1” by State Archives of North Ca, No known copyright restrictions.

The Laborers

We need to understand, before continuing, that the cultivation and refinement of Sugar is backbreaking work. Work, the settlers were unwilling to do themselves and more than happy to import Africans to do for them.

For over 200 years, slaves would be brought to trading posts and markets where they would be sold on chopping blocks or off the decks of ships, as if they were meat. They were displayed stark naked so as not to possibly hide any illnesses or deformities from the buyer. The buyer would then survey the “merchandise” as if selecting a prized stallion, checking their teeth and other such parts. The going rate for a good “quality” man being 30£, anywhere from 25£ – 27£ for a women, and a child for even less. However, we purchase of slaves was rarely done in currency but rather in their produce equivalent. For example, a wrongfully enslaved nobleman and POW was freed in exchange for 800lb of sugar.

“Image from page 34 of “A companion to Blackie’s tropical readers, books I and II : containing suggestions for experiemnts and practical work” (1911)” by Internet Archive Book Images, No known copyright restrictions.

How is it done?

Before one can begin to even think of growing sugar cane one must first have the right environment. Sugar plantations needed to be situated in an area that offered:

  1. Soil not prone to flooding
  2. Hot temperatures with plenty of sun
  3. A hot but not dry atmosphere

Hence, the popularity of sugar in the Caribbean. However, sugar plantations mean a tree problem; as they were cleared away to make way for said plantations.

Changing Views

What began with Columbus continued with each wave of settlers, conquerors, governors and demand for gold, spices and white gold. The plant and animal life as well as natives of the Atlantic and Caribbean islands were being transformed. For example, Columbus introduced horses, cattle, sheep, and crops (cane, grapes, coffee, wheat, etc.) from Europe. Yet, these all came with insects (cockroaches-worms), new flora, bacteria, microbes, and diseases.

Europeans were tasting papayas, guavas, and pineapples while the natives were catching smallpox, Malaria and various forms of influenza. This too would work in European favor as it would prove an effective weapon. Then there was the lack of knowledge!

None were aware of the ramifications of clearing the trees for cane. The deforestation, land erosion, and stagnant pools of water producing mosquitoes (which in turn causes illnesses). Another European disease was Yellow Fever! Africans were okay as they had been exposed to a form of it along with Malaria, yet, the natives had no antibodies or immunities to these diseases. This too demonstrated the lack of knowledge held by Europeans. They ascribed African survival to being African and not their existing immunities to the various diseases wiping out the native populations.

Population Shifts

With whites also easily susceptible to illnesses, the indentured servant  population would decrease in favor of the hale and hearty Africans. In Barbados, for example, the black population doubled from 1645 to 1665 while that of whites plummeted. By 1680 there were 17 slaves for every servant, causing a dramatic 360 degree turn of events. There, however, still existed a 20,000 population of whites. Unfortunately, this was just the start…

Labor Intensive & Taxes

The rapid increase in importation of slaves was to supply the demanding labor force needed for sugar. It takes a year for a full stock of cane to grow and it also requires tending throughout this period despite its bamboo like exterior. Once the cane is full grown and cut, it has to be processed in 24 hours before becoming fermented and therefore useless. This was why sugar refinement was not only complex but also an art in speed; in addition to having to cut the cane by hand. Once cut and the refining begins those laborers needed to be careful not to get pulled with the cane into the squeezing mechanism and the one boiling it down need to be sure not to get even a speck of the hot goo which could stick like crazy glue. This ‘crazy glue’, however, would mean having to get that body part cut off or depending on the severity you could die.

The process, as a whole, dictated a specific extraction mechanism which had to be imported. This in addition to the managing of the plantation was what gave planters a sense of entitlement. That the English government, for example, should be more appreciative of “their” efforts in producing the sugar. Therefore also appreciative of their part in boosting the economy with production of such an expensive good. These planters also saw taxation as unfair with every rise made in duties on the crop from 1605 to 1705. Nor should they have to pay the additional 4.5% tax on exports either.

“Slave trade from Africa to the Americas (8928374600)” by jbdodane, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Sugary Sweet… 

From 1669-1700, 11,700 tons to 27,400 tons of sugar was shipped to Europe from the West Indies; with Barbados, at its peak, the center of the trade. Sugar changed the taste buds of Europeans while destroying the lives of the enslaved, exterminating the natives and wiping out entire ecological systems and habitat.

With the demand for sugar came a demand for slaves. However, understanding of the necessity and arrival of Africans abroad necessitates the understanding of their journey and near cultural extinction.


“Am I not a Man and a Brother?” by Allen Gathman, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.
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