Colonial Sugar Cane Manufacturing

Colonial Sugar Cane Manufacturing

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Sugarcane or sugar cane refers to several species and hybrids of tall perennial grass in the genus Saccharum, tribe Andropogoneae, that are used for sugar production. The plants are 2-6 m (6-20 ft) tall with stout, jointed, fibrous stalks that are rich in sucrose, which accumulates in the stalk internodes. Sugarcanes belong to the grass family, Poaceae, an economically important flowering plant family that includes maize, wheat, rice, and sorghum, and many forage crops. It is native to the warm, temperate tropical regions of India, Southeast Asia, and New Guinea. The plant is also grown for biofuel production, especially in Brazil, as the canes can be used directly to produce ethyl alcohol (ethanol).

Grown in tropical and subtropical regions, sugarcane is the world's largest crop by production quantity, with 1.8 billion tonnes [1] produced in 2017, with Brazil accounting for 40% of the world total. In 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated it was cultivated on about 26 × 10 ^ 6 ha (64 × 10 ^ 6 acres), in more than 90 countries. Sugarcane accounts for 79% of sugar produced globally (most of the rest is made from sugar beets). About 70% of the sugar produced comes from Saccharum officinarum and its hybrids. [2] All sugarcane species can interbreed, and the major commercial cultivars are complex hybrids. [3]

Sucrose (table sugar) is extracted from sugarcane in specialized mill factories. It is consumed directly in confectionery, used to sweeten beverages, as a preservative in jams and conserves, as a decorative finish for cakes and pâtisserie, as a raw material in the food industry, or fermented to produce ethanol. Products derived from fermentation of sugar include falernum, rum, and cachaça. In some regions, people use sugarcane reeds to make pens, mats, screens, and thatch. The young, unexpanded flower head of Saccharum edule (duruka) is eaten raw, steamed, or toasted, and prepared in various ways in Southeast Asia, including Fiji and certain island communities of Indonesia. [4]

Sugarcane was an ancient crop of the Austronesian and Papuan people. It was introduced to Polynesia, Island Melanesia, and Madagascar in prehistoric times via Austronesian sailors. It was also introduced to southern China and India by Austronesian traders around 1200 to 1000 BC. The Persians and Greeks encountered the famous "reeds that produce honey without bees" in India between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. They adopted and then spread sugarcane agriculture. [5] Merchants began to trade in sugar, which was considered a luxurious and expensive spice, from India. In the 18th century, sugarcane plantations began in the Caribbean, South American, Indian Ocean, and Pacific island nations, and the need for laborers became a major driver of large migrations of people, some voluntarily accepting indentured servitude [6] and others forcibly exported as slaves. [7]

With Sugar Came the Slaves

While the influx of slaves from Africa initially meant low labor costs and increased sugar production, slavery in the eighteenth century on the sugar plantation had other profound effects in the Caribbean too. It wasn’t long before the largest group in the Caribbean population was these very slaves.

While the working conditions on the sugar plantations make the sweatshops that lurk in that part of the world in our own time seem gentle in comparison, there were always plenty of Africans to bring in to take the places of those who had worn out – or died. In 1700, there was an annual average influx of 17,000 slaves from Africa to North and South America and the Caribbean by 1810, that rate had more than tripled. During the 1800’s, three out of every five Africans who came to the Caribbean were brought as slaves for sugar plantations. By the time the slave trade fizzled out, following its abolition in England in 1807 and in the United States in 1863, about 4.5 million Africans had ended up as slaves in the Caribbean. This led to an extremely complex social structure, in which skin color and ancestry had a great deal to do with personal power.

This information is just an introduction to this significant issue. Read more about it through the links in the reference section.

The Unsavory History of Sugar, the Insatiable American Craving

The governor’s wife died more than 300 years ago in colonial Maryland. Her coffin was made of expensive lead and her wrists were bound with silk ribbons. But one of the most telling signs of Anne Wolseley Calvert’s wealth was the condition of her teeth. “She’d lost 20, and several others had decayed down to the root stubs,” says Douglas Owsley, the head of physical anthropology at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, whose team analyzed the remains. “One reason her mouth was in such poor condition was that she was affluent enough to afford sugar.”

Americans have always taken as much sugar as they could get—but in the beginning, they couldn’t get much. When George Washington (and his false teeth) ruled the land, the average American consumed about six pounds of sugar per year. That number rose as the sugar beet industry grew and the U.S. signed an 1876 treaty with Hawaii. During Prohibition, soda surged in popularity and Americans never stopped drinking it, with or without rum.

The skull of Anne Wolseley Calvert (Courtesy National Museum of Natural History) When anthropologists examined the skull and mandible of Anne Wolseley Calvert, the poor condition of her teeth stood out. (Courtesy National Museum of Natural History)

There was one dramatic sugar crash in U.S. history—wartime rationing, which began in the spring of 1942. Armies were burning or cutting off access to Pacific cane fields, and the war effort needed sugar to make everything from antiseptics to explosives. According to a government film reel from the time, a five-gun salvo used up the yield from an entire acre of sugar cane. Cookbooks urged housewives to sweeten cakes with syrup left over from canned fruit.

Sugar sales climbed again after the war, and today the average American consumes 130 pounds a year, much of it in the form of cheap, abundant high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar has become so ubiquitous that lower-income Americans now consume the most. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, Americans earning less than $30,000 a year are more than twice as likely to drink regular soda than those earning more than $75,000. Shoppers who don’t have access to fresh produce end up consuming caloric sweeteners in everything from cereal to pasta sauce. In a reversal from colonial Maryland, avoiding sugar has never cost more.

(Graphic By 5w Infographics Sources: Calculated By Economic Research Service / United States Department Of Agriculture)

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This article is a selection from the May issue of Smithsonian magazine

About Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine. She was previously a senior editor at the Atlantic.

A Brief History of Sugar and Sugar Production in the West Indies

A native to southern Asia, sugar cane has been nourishing man since prehistoric times. It is not known for certain what culture developed the technique of converting sugar cane juice into crystalline sugar, but as the earliest known written reference to the process appears in Sanskrit in about 500 B.C., historians have long credited northern India as the place where sugar cane juice was first rendered into a refined end-product. As with other tropical crops of Asian origin, such as bananas and mangos, sugar cane cultivation is believed to have slowly fanned outward from India into China and the Middle East over the course of many centuries. By A.D. 600 it had become well established in Persia, and within a century sugar cane had reached the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa where the first great economic sugar boom occurred.

Although Europe had long been aware of sugar as a valued commodity of the eastern trade, it was not until the Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that western Europeans first encountered sugar cane under cultivation on the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Sicily. Attempts were soon made to introduce the crop further northward, but it was found that the properties of sugar cane were adversely affected by even the slightest frost. It therefore became apparent that the Mediterranean demarcated the far northern limit of sustainable sugar cane cultivation. For the next 400 years or so, the Mediterranean region continued to hold a near monopoly on the European sugar trade. But, as the age of Atlantic exploration dawned, sugar cane was among the first crops to be introduced into Europe’ newly-acquired tropical colonies — first into the eastern Atlantic islands, and later into the West Indies and the Central and South American mainland. By 1450, sugar produced on Madeira had already begun to reach Europe, and by 1490 sugar from São Tomé (a Portuguese island possession in the Gulf of Guinea) had begun to enter northern markets as well. While the introduction of sugar cane into the eastern Atlantic islands surely had a negative impact on the long-established Mediterranean sugar trade, no single event would serve to more severely erode the Mediterranean’s dominance of the industry than the proliferation of sugar cane throughout the New World.

Having quickly perceived the possibilities for sugar cane cultivation in the West Indies, Columbus brought sugar cane to the island of Hispañiola on his second voyage in 1493. In the early sixteenth century subsequent Spanish expeditions carried the crop to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica, then on to the American continent near Vera Cruz, Mexico, where it was reportedly under cultivation as early as 1525. However, nowhere in the New World was sugar cane found to thrive better than in the humid environs of coastal Brazil. After King Manuel I of Portugal issued a royal order to introduce sugar cane cultivation into that region in 1516, the Pernambuco area quickly became the veritable epicenter of sugar production in the Americas. The long-depleted soils and drier conditions of the Mediterranean were no match for Brazil’s optimum climate for sugar cane cultivation, or for its abundance of fertile, well-watered, arable lands, and the ready availability of enslaved laborers. The era of the Mediterranean’s nearly one thousand-year dominance of the sugar industry rapidly drew to a close. By the end of the sixteenth century, the focus of sugar cane cultivation and sugar production had shifted across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas sugar cane had become nearly exclusively a New World crop.

While Spain and Portugal were the first countries to introduce sugar cane into the Americas, it was the Dutch who were largely responsible for its proliferation throughout the Lesser Antilles. Having learned the skills of sugar production during their takeover and occupation of Pernambuco between 1629 and 1654, savvy Dutch mercantilists set out to introduce the crop into the Eastern Caribbean, most notably on Barbados. By 1680, sugar was being produced on nearly all of the British- and French-held islands of the Caribbean, and sugar cane had become the dominant crop of the region [Ligon, 1673 Galloway, 1981 Watts, 1987].

It was during this period of rapid expansion of the West Indian sugar industry that Denmark first set out to establish a New World colony. Backed heavily by Dutch capital, in 1672 the Danish West Indies Company was finally successful in establishing a tenuous foothold on the island of St. Thomas. Soon after the arrival of the first Danish settlers, the colonists were joined by a small band of displaced Dutch planters and their families, who had been expelled by the British from the neighboring island of Tortola upon the outbreak of the Third Dutch War. With them, the Dutch refugees had not only brought sugar cane slips from the plantations that they had been forced to abandon on Tortola, but also the skills of sugar cane cultivation and a firsthand knowledge of the process for converting sugar cane juice into its valuable refined end-products: sugar, molasses, and rum [Knox, 1852 Westergaard, 1917 J.O. Bro-JØrgensen, 1966].

Despite the introduction of sugar cane into St. Thomas at the very outset of the colonizing effort, a lack of suitable land and the island’s limited fresh water resources retarded the growth of the sugar industry in the Danish colony. As late as 1715, only about one-third of St. Thomas’s plantations were planted in sugar cane, and no more than thirty-two properties were reported to have sugar processing facilities [STLL, 1715]. In the hopes of expanding the Danish West Indies Company’s share in the increasingly profitable sugar trade, a decision was made to extend Denmark’s colonial holdings to the neighboring island of St. John. In 1718, when Governor Bredal first laid out a set of guidelines for the occupation of that island, one of the six requirements was that a sugarworks be erected on each plantation within five years on penalty of the confiscation of the property [BD, 1718]. While it was later realized that not all of the land holdings on St. John were suitable for sugar cane cultivation and the order was never enforced, any planter with the necessary capital and appropriate location was clearly encouraged to do so [SJLL, 1728]. It was not, however, until the turbulent decades that mark the turn of the nineteenth century that St. John’s low-yield plantations began to be merged and developed into large-scale, agro-industrial sugar estates.

2. Model specification and estimation

2.1. The gravity model

Anderson (1979) was the first to provide theoretical underpinnings for the gravity model using the properties of the expenditure equation of tradable goods, whereby the origin country’s GDP is a proxy for the production of traded goods and the destination country’s GDP is a proxy for expenditure on traded goods. The derived gravity model also captured transport costs, hence GDP and distance, D I S T i j ⁠ , should be positively and negatively signed, respectively.

Closer ties between two countries – whether geographical, historical, cultural, political, legal or otherwise – tend to increase trade. An adjoining land border, A D J i j ⁠ , can expand trade with neighbouring countries mainly because lower costs facilitate cross border transactions. On the other hand, as overland transport costs tend to be higher than shipping costs, landlocked countries, L O C K j ⁠ , are disadvantaged in trade terms because of their geographical position.

Of particular interest is the trade effect of sharing a common colonial past, split between North–North and North–South colonial dummies, C O L N N i j and C O L N S i j (see Appendix Table A1). A shared colonial history may well boost current economic linkages, usually because past colonisation of another country means that the coloniser has contributed to the colony’s state of institutions – and the language of those institutions. In the case of raw sugar, the effect of colonialism is qualified by its direction. Low-cost producers of sugarcane in tropical countries have long since had a cost advantage over producers of sugar beet in the advanced countries. As sugar consumption evolved from a scarce luxury to a daily necessity, the rich world sought to forge links – often by force – with the developing world. Indeed, much of the foreign land seized under colonial rule was used in the production of raw sugarcane, exploited for trade and wealth gains (see, inter alia, Mintz, 1985). More recently, northern countries have granted trade preferences to selected southern countries, thereby enhancing their relative cost-competitiveness. Consequently, a positive sign is expected for the North–South dummy. In contrast, an expected negative sign for the North–North dummy is aligned with the protected higher cost beet industries in the northern hemisphere.

2.2. Estimation strategy

The generalised gravity model specification, however, is problematic for estimating the determinants of sugar in so far as the time-invariant variables (including the colonial dummies) are subsumed into the country-pair dummies and hence cannot be estimated directly. Moreover, in noting that the generalised version of the gravity equation cannot explain patterns of zero trade flows, Helpman, Melitz and Rubinstein (2008) develop an estimation procedure that uses information relating to both trading and non-trading countries. They argue that gravity model studies of countries with positive trade flows only – and omitting countries that do not trade with each other (i.e. zero bilateral trade flows) – can lead to biased results.

Estimating the log-linear gravity model in the presence of zeros – a common issue in disaggregated data – is problematic because the logarithm of zero is undefined. Haq, Meilke and Cranfield (2013) outline several ways in which the issue of zeros has been dealt with. Zero trade flows have been dropped or replaced with small positive numbers, but the results are potentially biased. More often, one of three approaches has been used: Tobit regression with the zero observations censored Heckman’s (1979) two-stage sample selection approach that corrects for possible bias and the Poisson estimator. Santos Silva and Tenreyo (2006) advocate the last of these be used to deal with the issue of zeros on the grounds that the Poisson pseudo maximum likelihood (PPML) attains unbiased and consistent estimates of the gravity model. In a follow-up paper, they show that the estimator works well even when the proportion of zeros is large ( Santos Silva and Tenreyo, 2011).

Evaluating the performance of several estimators of the gravity model, Xiong and Cheng (2014) find that PPML passes the specification test in contrast to the Heckman model. They also note that the Tobit and Heckman models are subject to potential bias arising from the logarithmic transformation. Using a gravity equation similar to model (3), Anderson, Larch and Yotov (2015) estimate general equilibrium effects of changes in trade costs based on a combination of theoretical developments ( Anderson, 1979 Anderson and van Wincoop, 2003), the preferred use of PPML to deal with the issue of zeros ( Santos Silva and Tenreyro, 2006) and the properties of PPML to produce consistent estimates in the presence of exporter and importer fixed effects ( Fally, 2015). Accordingly, the gravity model of raw sugar trade determinants is estimated using the Poisson estimator with country fixed effects.

The Illustrated History of How Sugar Conquered the World

If you want to understand Western history, you have to understand sugar. And vice versa. Because sugar’s not just something sweet: over the centuries it’s been a medicine, a spice, a symbol of royalty, and an instrument of disease, addiction, and oppression.

Here’s a selective highlight reel of just how sugar has shaped our world, from India to Hawaii and everywhere in between.

The Days Before Cane

Alex Testere

10,000 B.C.: Before sugar ruled the world, honey is queen. Basically any part of Europe, Africa, or Asia that isn’t covered in ice has bees, and thus honey. There are no bees in the Americas, though, so their sweeteners are syrups from trees, agave nectar from cactus, or mashed fruits. People eventually domesticate bees, so instead of happening upon a hive and feeling lucky to encounter honey, they keep hives nearby.

The Birth of Sugar

8,000: Sugar is native to, and first cultivated in, New Guinea. Initially, people chew on the reeds to enjoy the sweetness. 2,000 years later, sugar cane makes its way (by ship) to the Phillipines and India. Sugar is first refined in India: the first description of a sugar mill is found in an Indian text from 100 A.D.

400-350: Recipes call for sugar in the Mahabhashya of Patanjali. They include rice pudding with milk, sweet barley meal, and fermented drinks with ginger.

327: Greeks and Romans learn about sugar during visits to India. Nearchus, Alexandria’s general, writes of “a reed in India that brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made, though the plant bears no fruit.” Small amounts are brought back to the Mediterranean and traded to physicians who use it for medical purposes.

The University of Sugar

Alex Testere

500-600 A.D.: Jundi Shapur, a university in Iran, becomes the meeting place for the world’s scholars (at least those west of China). Greek, Christian, Jewish, and Persian scholars gather to create the first teaching hospital. They study texts from various cultures, and by 600 A.D. they are writing about a potent Indian medicine: sugar. They also develop better methods for processing sugar cane into crystallized sugar.

Arab Expansion

Alex Testere

Circa 650: The Arabs were masters of growing, refining, and cooking with sugar they begin to conceptualize it not just as a medicine or spice, but as a rare delicacy for royalty and the most wealthy. They combine it with ground almonds to create a moldable sweet still popular today—marzipan—and sugar sculptures become regular parts of lavish dinner parties.

As armies of Muslims take over Egypt, Persia, India and the Mediterranean, they bring their knowledge of sugar with them. Many European doctors learn of the medicinal uses for sugar from Arab texts. Under Arab rule, Egyptians master the refining process and become known for making the purest, whitest sugar.

The Crusades

Alex Testere

1099: Europeans conquering Jerusalem learn the details of sugar production, which was a profitable business in the city at the time. When the soldiers return home, they bring sugar with them, sparking widespread demand across Europe.

Venice had been trading with the Muslim world prior to the Crusades, which gave them a fast inroad to dominate the sugar trade in the Mediterranean for almost half a century. But the sweetener remains so rare and expensive that it’s only available to the wealthiest classes until the 1300s.

Sugar Conquers the Western Hemisphere

Alex Testere

1402-1500: The Spanish colonize the Canary Islands, setting up sugar plantations and enslaving indigenous people to run the mills. Export back to Spain is up and running by 1500, though, when the islands become mostly deforested, the sugar industry falters. In 1493, Columbus brings sugar cane from the Canary Islands to Hispañola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). By 1516, Hispañiola is the most important sugar producer in the New World.

1500: Pedro Cabral of Portugal lands on Brazil by accident and establishes sugar plantations there. Portuguese growers make technological advances in sugar production: a new mill design that could be powered by animals, water, or even wind, and a new method for refining sugar that allows them to operate on a larger scale. Brazilian sugar production eventually dominates the industry.

At this point, sugar’s purported medicinal properties have become widely established across Europe. Tabernaemontanus (c.1515-90) writes of it: Nice white sugar from Madeira or the Canaries, when taken moderately cleans the blood, strengthens body and mind, especially chest, lungs and throat, but it is bad for hot and bilious people, for it easily turns into bile, also makes the teeth blunt and makes them decay. As a powder it is good for the eyes, as a smoke it is good for the common cold, as flour sprinkled on wounds it heals them. With milk and alum it serves to clear wine. Sugar water alone, also with cinnamon, pomegranate and quince juice, is good for a cough and a fever. Sugar wine with cinnamon gives vigor to old people, especially sugar syrup with rose water which is recommended by Arnaldus Villanovanus. Sugar candy has all these powers to higher degree.

Sugar and Slavery

Alex Testere

1583: São Tomé, a Portuguese colony that can’t keep up with Brazil’s rate of sugar production, starts exporting slaves to Brazil and other New World islands to work on sugar plantations. It’s a profitable business. By the late 16th century, Brazil out-produces all of the New World colonies and the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean sugar industry collapses.

1600s: At this point, coffee, tea, and chocolate have made their way to Europe. Their arrival drastically increases sugar consumption, making sugar more popular than alcohol ever did, and increasing demand—with lower prices—means a greater reliance on slavery. During the 17th century alone, over half a million African slaves are shipped to Brazil and other New World colonies to work on sugar plantations.

1791: The British Parliament fails to pass the Slave Trade Abolition Bill, which leads to an abstention movement. Abolitionists boycott slave-grown sugar, and the movement increases the demand for slave-free sugar grown in India. American abolitionists also try to avoid Caribbean-grown sugar, turning instead to the maple sugar industry. In 1789, some residents of Philadelphia agree to buy certain amounts at fixed prices in hopes of helping the industry take off. The U.S. government urges Americans to make maple syrup at home and to avoid sweets sold in shops.

1807: Thomas Jefferson signs a bill that prohibits importing slaves to the U.S. Shortly after, the British House of Lords passes an act for the abolition of the slave trade. But slavery remains a widespread practice, continuing in:

the British West Indies until 1834
the French colonies until 1848
the U.S. until 1866
Cuba until 1886
and Brazil until 1888

1817: Ribbon Cane, a fast-maturing sugarcane variety that grows well in the Louisiana territory’s swampy climate, is introduced to the region’s 75 sugar mills. The new production is enough for Congress to pass tariffs on imported sugar, raising demand for cheap slave labor to grow the American sugar industry. Higher yields and plummeting prices, across the U.S. and the Caribbean, help make sugar cheap and accessible to common consumers.

Rise of the Sugar Beet

Alex Testere

1747: Prussian chemist Andrea S. Margraff discovers that sucrose can be derived from beets.

1801: Franz Carl Achard, a student of Margraff, is credited as the first person to extract sugar from beets on a commercial level.

1815 The beet sugar industry thrives in Europe through the Napoleonic Wars, though Napoleon is the subject of much ridicule for supporting the industry. When the wars end, cheap Caribbean sugar is once again exported to Europe, severely damaging the sugar beet business.

1837: Vilmorin, a French seed company, creates the sugar beet, which has a high sucrose content and a structure designed for optimal sugar extraction. As slavery dies out in the Caribbean, European governments enact policies to support their beet growers. With governmental support, the European beet sugar industry expands through the 20th century.

The Industrial Age

Alex Testere

1864: The largest and most technologically advanced sugar refinery in the world opens in Williamsburg on Long Island. With improvements in manufacturing, the production of American sugar increases and drives down the prices.

1887: Lower prices mean less profit, so in 1887, eight leaders in the American sugar industry form the American Sugar Trust with the intention of reducing production to increase prices and profits for all of their companies. After acquiring more companies, they change their name to The American Sugar Refining Company (ASRC). They close facilities they deem inefficient and combine others with ones they already own, essentially fixing the price of refined sugar.

1900: The ASRC creates the Domino Sugar brand to market all of the sugar they produce under one name. By 1907 ASRC controls 97% of all American sugar production.

1906: C&H sugar company is formed by Claus Spreckles, a German immigrant who ran a beet sugar factory in California (C&H stands for California and Hawaii). Spreckles dominates sugar production in Hawaii until the 1930s, when sugar plantations are converted for other uses. Today C&H is part of Domino Sugar, and there are no more sugar factories or mills in operation on Hawaii. Read about the last days of Hawaiian sugar here.

A Sweet Public Menace

Alex Testere

1942: The American Medical Association’s Council on Food and Nutrition suggests that it “would be in the interest of the public health for all practical means to be taken to limit consumption of sugar in any form in which it fails to be combined with significant proportions of other foods of high nutritive quality.”

1966: Medical professionals recommend a decrease in sugar intake, noting new studies that correlate sugar consumption with diabetes and other diseases. These studies, and the increasing rates of diabetes and obesity, spark an interest in sugar substitutes.

1980: The FDA considers fat a greater villain than sugar, driving a trend of reduced-fat (but high-sugar) manufactured food. Sugar-related health issues continue to rise.

The Age of Artificial Sweeteners

1879: A graduate student at Johns Hopkins refines saccharin, a crystalline powder 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar but with no calories. It doesn’t see widespread use until World War I, when sugar was subject to strict rationing once sugar became available again, saccharine was shunted to diet foods. A 1977 study reports that saccharin caused cancer in test animals, causing the FDA to place a moratorium on saccharine use, which is only lifted in 1991.

1952: Calcium cyclamate starts appearing in diet sodas. Studies in the 1960s show that it’s likely carcinogenic, and the FDA bans the sweetener in 1970.

1965: Aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet and Equal) is invented in 1965, and by the late 1970s is used in diet sodas.

1967: High-fructose corn syrup hits the scene.

1998: Sucralose, which goes by the brand name of Splenda and is a whopping 600 times sweeter than sugar, is approved for use in the U.S. Artificial sweeteners supplement or replace sugar in all kinds of food products, but have yet to prove rigorously measurable health benefits.

And We Come Full Circle

Alex Testere

2000s: As artificial sweeteners fall out of vogue, ancient forms of sugar make a major comeback: agave nectar, stevia, dates, and of course honey, which is delicious, shelf-stable, and linked to many health benefits. Nothing beats the classics.

Colonial Sugar Cane Manufacturing - History

The period 1880 to 1920 saw rampant industrial growth in Louisiana, most of which was fueled by out-of-state capital. It was during these years that mainline railroad trackage grew from under 700 miles to over 5,000 miles. Various industries matured during this period, including large-scale centralized sugar processing, industrial lumbering and oil exploration. Because most of the industrial enterprises associated with this growth were established in rural areas, the company town was a crucial feature of the emerging landscape. It was customary for the company to provide for all aspects of the workers' lives, including housing, churches, recreational facilities, etc. Points of interest in the Colonial Sugars Historic District include: Executive Row with the plant manager's house that served as the home (1928 to 1956) of George P. Meade, a co-author of the Cane Sugar Handbook and a well-known figure in the cane sugar refining industry Workers' Row along Fifth Avenue with its cottages dating from the 1910s the c.1910 company chapel the 1902 Char House where liquid sugar flows through massive filters filled with bone char to remove the brown color and the 1929 Power House, designed by the firm McKim, Meade and White, that generates electric power for the water plant and some workers' residences.

The Colonial Sugars Historic District is located in Gramercy, primarily between Main St. and Levee Rd. The mill and the residences are private and not open to the public.

Colonial Sugar Cane Manufacturing - History

16th󈝾th Century

Sugar cane comes to Trinidad
Sugar cane is introduced in Trinidad circa 1542 by Spanish residents, but only for their own sugar and rum production. For the next 230 years, sugar plays no major economic role.

Tobago’s sugar plantations are developed to a high degree much earlier than Trinidad’s.
In the 1780s, French migration to Trinidad begins after Roume de St. Laurent, a French Creole from Grenada, visits Trinidad. As a result, the Spanish government issues the Cedula of Population of 1783, which gives crown land concessions to Catholic settlers. French planters from the other islands with their African slaves develop sugar and cotton plantations in Trinidad. In 1797, the British capture Trinidad from the Spanish crown, and the island remains in British hands until Independence in 1962.

Sugar flourishes in Trinidad and Tobago

St. Hilaire Begorrat, a French planter,
introduces the Otaheite cane to Trinidad.
In 1782, a Frenchman by the name of St. Hilaire Begorrat introduces the Otaheite variety of cane, which flourishes in Trinidad. The sugar industry starts in the Port of Spain area.

The first sugar mill is erected in 1787 by a Frenchman, Picot de la Peyrouse, where Lapeyrouse Cemetery is today. Sugar becomes the leading export good and continues to be so, until 1897 when cocoa takes over.

Slave in the sugar
(Richard Bridgens, 1820s)

Slaves planting and harvesting sugar cane
(Richard Bridgens, 1820s)

Hogsheads, very large barrels,
were used to ship rum, sugar
and molasses abroad.
In 1799, Trinidad produces 2,700 tons of sugar. By 1808, there are 272 sugar mills operating, of which 257 are animal-driven and round in shape, producing 9,500 tons of sugar. Through a process of rationalisation, the number of mills dwindles to 101 by 1882, producing 53,000 tons of sugar.

Left: Transporting cane to the mill (Richard Bridgens, 1820s)
Right: Technical drawing of a mill (Bryan Edwards, 1780s)

The technology of sugar manufacturing changes over time. In the industrial revolution of the 19th century, technological advancements like the vaccum pan and centrifuges lead to more centralisation in sugar manufacturing. Smaller factories become uneconomical.
In 1872, the first central sugar factory, Ste. Madeleine, is completed.

In Tobago, the sugar economy ends in the 1890s due to the collapse of the British firm Gillespie &amp Co. of London.

Top left: Windmill at Lowlands estate, Tobago.
Top right: Muscovado factory with hand-fed conveyor belt.
Below: 1960s modern sugar factory.

Left: Interior of a boiling house, Trinidad, 1820s.
Right: Interior of a boiling house, Tobago, circa 1880s.

Population and crop statistics of the late 18th century.
(From: History of Trinidad by Lionel Mordaunt Fraser)

19th Century

Abolition of the Slave Trade
The abolition of slavery changes the sugar industry permanently. Most of the former slaves abandon the plantations and either migrate to the towns seeking employment or settle on crown lands to grow food crops. A few skilled Africans remain on the plantations, mainly in the sugar factories which require the services of carpenters, masons, boiler-men, carters and factory operators. The African presence on the estates continues, although in diminished numbers.

Emancipation of the Slaves
In 1834, slavery is abolished throughout the British Empire. For another four years, the former slaves are being kept as paid "apprentices" on the plantations, and in 1838 they are given full freedom.

From the 1840s onwards, Trinidad sugar comes under increasing competitive pressure in the UK markets. Reasons for this are a) the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, but not in other territories such as Cuba or Brazil, b) the abolition of import duties from non-British sugar and c) the displacement of cane sugar by beet sugar from the European continent.

Two of Trinidad’s early sugar barons
Left: James Eccles, father of William Eccles and Rosina Burnley.
Right: William Burnley, 1780�, an American, settles in Trinidad in 1798
and becomes the largest planation owner in Trinidad.

Beginning of Indian Immigration
In 1845, the first ship with indentured workers from India reaches Trinidad. The new arrivals are quarantined on Nelson Island and thence allotted the sugar estate on which to work for a period of five years (women for three years). Until the end of indentureship in 1917, approximately 144,000 people come from India. Many choose to stay after their indentureship contracts are over and found families in their new home country.

Population growth between 1782 and 1810
(from The History of Trinidad by Lionel Mordaunt Fraser)

Portuguese and Chinese immigration
In 1846, sugar planters privately charter a ship to bring 219 Madeiran immigrant labourers to Trinidad. They are put to work on the more rigorous but better-paying sugar estates, but the harsh conditions of tropical sugar plantations prove to be too much for them. Some leave for the cocoa estates while others abandon plantation labour altogether and turn to petty shopkeeping. Other ships arrive later in 1846 and in 1847. The Portuguese are not compelled by law to indenture themselves and Madeira does not prove to be a viable source of labour. After 1847, Portuguese immigration is no longer considered a solution to the planters’ predicament and the Madeirans are followed by two groups of Asian indentured labourers—the Chinese and the Indians.

Between 1851 and 1969, 2,645 people from China arrive. The majority of the Chinese immigrants are male, and tend towards commerce rather than agricultural labour. This, combined with the high cost of transport, leads the Colonial Government to discontinue Chinese immigration. At right is the partial passenger list of the “Fortitude”, the first ship to bring Chinese immigrants to Trinidad in 1806.

Investment in Sugar Factories
Between 1870 and 1895, 𧸋,000 is invested by the Colonial Company (later Usine St. Madeleine) in its machinery and transport facilities in Trinidad and British Guiana. To this figure is to be added the original cost of the Trinidad factory, Usine Ste. Madeleine, 𧶍,000.
One small estate, Palmiste, between 1883 and 1894 spends 㿠,600 in modernising its factory and transport facilities. These investments reduce the production cost of sugar from ٦ to ١.
However, not enough investment in the scientific knowledge about cane cultivation is made into the cane farming community, which by the 1920s supplies 40% of canes to the factories. Houses and buildings fall into disrepair: a huge omission on the supply side of the sugar making process.

The cane cutter by Michel Jean Cazabon. Cazabon, one of the earliest recorders of Trinidad’s visual history, captured what may well be the earliest image of an cane cutter in this water colour rendered in the 1850s or 60s.

Beginning of cane farming
Sir Neville Lubbock, Chairman of the West India Committee and a Director of the New Colonial Company Ltd. (later Usine Ste Madeleine), hits upon the idea of having workers on the sugar estates grow canes on idle lands of the sugar company. In 1882, eight men accept parcels of abandoned lands and become Trinidad’s first cane farmers.

Preparing land for cultivation.

Brechin Castle starts
In 1937 the English Company of Tate & Lyle purchases a number of small estates in Central Trinidad and sets up their headquarters at Brechin Castle in Couva. As a large international conglomerate Tate & Lyle soon becomes dominant on the landscape, absorbing most of the smaller sugar factories.

Between 1920 and 1927, over 9,000 Indians are repatriated. The total agricultural population is about 96,000. The development of the oil industry and road building begins to increase pressure on the supply of labour.

Aerial shot of Brechin Castle sugar factory in the 1950s.

From ox-cart to tractor
The 60 hp Caterpillar tractor, imported by Charles Massy since 1924, starts to be deployed in the cane fields for ploughing and grading.
Manure is vital for the fertilisation of cane fields, and sugar companies continue to have large herds of cattle and goats. Additional income from meat and dairy adds to the companies’ bottom line. Mules, horses and donkeys continue to be used for carting and manure. In all, tens of thousands of animals are kept by the sugar companies (in 1955: more than 130,000 animals).

In the 1910s, the Indian water buffalo and the zebu were received from India.

Trade Unionism
The 1930s are years of considerable turbulence in the colony. Workers in sugar and in oil revolt against low wages and poor working conditions in both these industries. The sugar workers are led by Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine), a young lawyer from San Fernando. In November 1937, the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union is formed, led by Rienzi. Union representation sees considerable improvement in the lives of the sugar and oil workers. Union leaders succeeding Rienzi include Anthony Geoffroy, Bhadase Maraj, Basdeo Panday and Rudranath Indarsingh.

World War II
During the Second World War a major section of the work-force is siphoned away from sugar to the better-paying US bases at Chaguaramas and Waller Field. This exodus from the plantations creates shortfalls in sugar production and is a serious blow to sugar manufacture. Production picks up once again after the War and Tate & Lyle becomes a major player in the international sugar market.

This map shows the migration of the sugar industry southward. Up to the time of Emancipation in 1838, sugar cultivation is concentrated mainly in Northern Trinidad, from Diego Martin in the North West to the valleys of the Northern Range going East as far as Toco. The second half of the 19th century sees the decline of the sugar industry in Trinidad. The Sugar Duties Acts from 1846 equalizes the tariff on all sugars imported into Britain, which means that cheaper slave-grown sugar from Cuba, Haiti or Brazil can now compete with that produced by Trinidad, Tobago or Jamaica where labour costs are much higher. In other colonies like India labour costs are also much lower than the Caribbean. In addition European nations are producing beet sugar which now becomes a fierce competitor of Caribbean cane sugar. Plantations in Tobago are reduced into closure as are sugar estates in Northern and North Eastern Trinidad, and in Mayaro. Cultivation shifts to the fertile plains of Caroni and Naparima, well serviced by train lines, where it remains until the final closure of the industry in 2003. (Map from C.Y. Shepard, 1929)

Tate & Lyle
During the 1950s Tate & Lyle are able to purchase as big an establishment as Usine Ste. Madeleine, making Tate & Lyle the colony’s and later nation’s largest producer of sugar, molasses, rum and bagasse. In 1966, Tate & Lyle owned the following holdings in Trinidad:
• Caroni Limited (70.59% - Sugar production)
• Caribbean Molasses Company (Trinidad ) Ltd. (Molasses purchase, transport, storage and distribution)
• Unital (Trinidad) Limited (Import and export agents for Caroni Limited, 70.59%)

Graph at left:
Crop season lasts from January to June, Trinidad’s dry season. For the sugar factory, it is important that a steady stream of harvested canes is fed into its machinery. However, Easter always means a big dip in production, and May coincides with the traditional marriage season of Indians! That also impacts on the man hours being devoted to the harvest. (Graph from C.Y. Shepard, 1929)

Rising Nationalism

Indian sugar workers participate
in demonstrations staged
by the trade unions in the 1970s.
The post-war era is a period of heightened nationalism when Trinidadians and Tobagonians seek independence as well as ownership of their resources. Independence comes in 1962 but both sugar and oil remain under foreign control with little sign of changing. This state of affairs is largely responsible for the Black Power uprising of February 1970. At the end of this uprising the government is forced to make changes in the direction of a greater share in the national economy. One result of this change is the government’s purchase of Tate & Lyle’s Caroni Limited holdings headquartered at Brechin Castle in 1975 under the name Caroni (1975) Limited.

Caroni Distillery

The Caroni Distillery is established in 1918. In 1975, it becomes part of the Government Holdings of Caroni (1975) Limited’s rum division called Rum Distillers Limited. In 2001, Government sells its 49% holding to Angostura. A year later, with the impending closure of the sugar industry in Trinidad and Tobago, Caroni Distillery loses its ready source of local molasses and is closed. Today, Angostura remains the only distillery in the country and has to import its molasses for rum production. Like our sugar, it comes mainly from Guyana.

Caroni Distillery

The death of the Sugar Industry
Figures showing how pay rises in the 1970s
contribute to a steady loss in the sugar industry,
eventually contributing to its demise.
As a national company, Caroni (1975) Ltd continues to produce its traditional brands of sugar, rum, molasses and bagasse. In an effort to diversify, new programmes are introduced such as shrimp farming at Orange Grove, livestock rearing at Morne Jaloux and Rio Claro and citrus cultivation at El Reposo and Tableland. But these initiatives do not succeed, mainly because the management structure remains unchanged and decline is the inevitable result. Higher wages in oil continue to attract the best-trained technicians away from the sugar industry, and the newly established Point Lisas Industrial Estate, adjacent to Brechin Castle, contributes to this talent drain.

The sugar industry dies a slow but sure death. In 2003 Caroni (1975) Ltd is closed, thus ending the long history of sugar in Trinidad and Tobago. There are sad consequences of this closure. Some 20,000 workers suddenly are unemployed, leading to social displacement in the plains of Caroni and Naparima. The established way of life of the cane farmers comes to an end and considerable re-adjustment has to be made. Roads and traces in the sugar areas are handed over to the County Councils which are ill-equipped to take on these responsibilities. The many recreation centres which had been maintained by the sugar company fall into disrepair and are, like the factory itself and indeed Sevilla House, vandalised. At the same time some 75,000 acres of sugar lands are made available to the State for its own purposes. A good deal of these lands is later devoted to housing estates.
Thus ends the era of sugar cultivation in the history of Trinidad and Tobago.

Epic World History

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.

Jamaican slaves toiling in the field

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.