Sugarcane field

Sugarcane field

I. Introduction

In the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, cultivation of sugar cane and producing sugar, mainly for the European markets, defined the socio-economic, political, demographic and cultural development of the Caribbean region. It is important to note, however, that the development of societies in the Caribbean based on sugar production was somewhat irregular and uneven at the time. As a result, the effects were felt in different ways and unequal intensities. Still, despite the heterogeneity of these experiences, it is possible to survey the common social and economic patterns and institutions that were the foundations of the Caribbean societies.

The 18th century sugar plantation made the commercial links between the Caribbean, Europe and Africa clear. Within this triangular commerce, African slavery was developed as one of the most terrible institutions in the history of humanity. Millions of Africans were moved to the New World and inserted into a kind of society characterized by an ideology of discrimination and racism that still persists, to greater or lesser degrees, in the political and economic structures of more than a few countries in the Caribbean.

II. The first efforts

The first efforts to produce sugar for European consumption took place in the territories colonized by the Spanish crown in the 16th century, especially on the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. In 1568, some 46 sugar presses were established on these two islands, most of them powered by livestock. Sugar cane planting in the Spanish Caribbean in these early years did not last long. The crown was more interested in the more lucrative lands in the viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) and the viceroyalty of Peru in South America. It was to be expected. Sugar production was too costly in comparison to the extraction of mineral riches in the continental territories. The Caribbean territories — except perhaps for Havana, because of its role as a shipyard for the fleets leaving for Spain — became peripheral territories of little economic importance for the crown.

Britain, followed by France, Holland and Denmark, took note and turned their focus and capital toward the small Caribbean islands in search of new ways to build wealth. Their incentive was the recent increase in demand for sugar in the European market, especially in Britain, and the instability of tobacco prices during the early years of the 18th century. Sugar cane production from Brazil was significant but was not sufficient to satisfy the palate of thousands of Brits and Europeans. Sugar went from being a luxury and a status symbol for the most privileged classes to become an indispensable and accessible ingredient for the rest of the British population.

The demand had to be met. On the island of Barbados, by the end of the third decade of the 17th century, growing sugar cane, because of the island’s excellent geography and climate, had become a golden opportunity for British colonists who could not compete with the quality of tobacco from Virginia and other British territories in North America. The cost, however, was significant. Growing sugar cane required huge swaths of land and substantial amounts of labor. Profitability was affected not only by natural conditions, but also by the efficiency in extracting the sugar before it decomposed. It was essential, therefore, to have sufficient capital to obtain the machinery and cheap manual labor needed to process the cane. The costs of producing sugar during the 17th and 18th centuries did not deter Britain and France from taking on the challenge. The social and economic development of the Caribbean was inextricably tied to sugar production for the European market.

The British colonists in Barbados, influenced by their experience growing cane in Brazil — in turn inspired by the Portuguese experience on the islands of Madeira and Sao Tomé — noticed the high yields of African slaves versus hired white workers. The transition from hired white workers to African slavery is one of the most terrible chapters in the history of humanity. It is estimated that more than 10 million human beings were captured and forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean to live a degrading life of hard labor on the other side of the Atlantic, on the Caribbean plantations that awaited them and would consume them.

III. The slave trade

Slavery was known in all of sub-Saharan and Mediterranean Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. It was mostly tied to domestic work and other tasks without socio-economic importance, however. Slavery in Africa was not an institution of the magnitude and importance it would come to have in the Americas. In general, slaves were prisoners of war, criminals, or were enslaved because of their debts. Though it was an intolerable deprivation for those who experienced it, slavery in Africa never resembled the deplorable conditions and mistreatment to which millions of persons were subjected in the Caribbean.

The displacement of human beings to the Caribbean plantations required logistics and organization that was unprecedented in the history of humanity. The demand for manual labor on the small but important island of Barbados in the middle of the 17th century set off a race to meet the needs of the Caribbean colony. After several failed attempts, The Royal Company of Africa was created in 1672 to supply enslaved Africans to the British colonies in the Caribbean. The demand for slaves in the colonies, however, was greater than the supply the company could provide. In 1698, the British parliament allowed the transfer of African slaves to the Americas by private companies, as long as they paid a fee to the Royal Company of Africa.

The French soon joined in. In 1664, the French government, under the orders of Finance Minister Jean-Babtiste Colbert, established the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales. Although this attempt at monopolization by the French government — against many of the owners and planters in the Americas — did not yield the expected profits, it was the prelude to a greater role by France in the slave and sugar trade during the 18th century, when the island of Saint Domingue became the world’s largest sugar exporter.

The Barbados experience was fundamental to the subsequent growth and expansion of the plantation economy throughout the Caribbean. The 18th century was one of economic growth and human exploitation. The main slave traders were the kingdoms of Britain, France and Portugal. Paul Lovejoy estimates that between 1701 and 1801 the British transported some 2,532,300 souls to the New World. Meanwhile, the slave trade by France and Portugal brought about three million Africans to the American territories. The trans-Atlantic trade during the 18th century brought slaves from various regions, depending on availability and other political and social factors in the regions. Robin Blackburn estimates that of the total of 6,132,900 slaves imported, 40% came from west-central Africa, another 40% came from the Gulfs of Benin and Biafra, and 15% from the Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone and Senegambia.

The exchange between Africans, Europeans and their Caribbean colonies was known as the triangular trade. The slave trade success by Britain, France and Portugal was tied to the availability of European consumer goods that could be exchanged on the African coasts, an efficient merchant marine that could transport the slaves to the Americas, and sugar and tropical products to return to Europe, where the cycle of triangular trade began again.

Inevitably, the human costs of the African slave trade to the Americas were incalculable. The mortality rate, especially during the trans-Atlantic journey, ranged between 8% and 18%, depending on the departure site, the health conditions on the ships, the nutritional value of the food and the length of the journey from Africa to the Americas. For economic reasons, the slave traders had to take responsibility for the health of their merchandise. But the slave ships of the first half of the 18th century continued to be the scene of deadly illnesses such as dysentery, chicken pox and measles, which took thousands of lives. Blackburn estimates that some 23 million Africans captured during the 17th and 18th centuries died before reaching American soil.

Buying slaves in Havana, 1837

Buying slaves in Havana, 1837

IV. Slave work and social stratification

The many different jobs that existed on the slave-labor plantations determined the slave’s condition or status within the plantation society. This stratification, within the limitations on freedom that were intrinsic to slavery, divided the slaves into domestic, skilled and field slaves. Occupation wasn’t the only factor that affected the hierarchy of the slaves. Skin color and phenotypes also affected slaves’ status within the society. Mixed-race people often had a greater likelihood of being freed and a level of liberty or autonomy that was not allowed to slaves recently arrived fromAfrica.

Most of the domestic slaves were mixed-race women who were responsible for the daily tasks of caring for and meeting the needs of their owners. They were usually nursemaids, cooks or washerwomen, or were given other domestic tasks by their owners. Sometimes, the relationship between the owners and domestic slaves was much closer than it was, for example, with the field slaves. The owners demanded that the domestic slaves always be available in case they were needed for any task, no matter how small. This kept them apart from other slaves, even their own families.

Skilled slaves (carpenters, bricklayers, seamstresses) were highly sought in the economy that developed based on agricultural exports. The demand for these slaves allowed them a certain level of freedom. For example, they could be contracted to other plantations or towns. They also enjoyed arrangements with their owners that allowed them to be paid for their work. In fact, on many occasions, the money they earned through these arrangements enabled them to buy their freedom, something that was impossible for field slaves.

The vast majority of Africans brought to the Caribbean worked as field slaves. They were the lowest rung in the social hierarchy and were the backbone of the Caribbean sugar plantations. Sugar cane production required meticulous organization of the slave labor. The slaves were organized in groups based on their physical strength, their experience and the plantation’s needs. The strongest and most capable often worked from sunrise to sunset cutting and transporting cane to the mills to be processed. Others were sent to cut firewood to fuel the boilers that were used to process the cane. Yet others were in charge of the livestock. The jobs and the possibilities for improvement of living conditions among the slaves, as with the rest of society, were defined in hierarchical form. Slaves born in the Americas, for example, often had fewer restrictions and were given less difficult and dangerous jobs than the slaves brought from Africa.

The plantation societies were based on an ideal order and social rigidity that were rarely achieved with success. A community of free blacks and mixed-race people arose on most of the islands, mainly as a result of the mixing between Europeans and African slaves. In demographic terms, the free black and mixed-race population varied from one Caribbean colony to the next, depending on the intensity of sugar cane production. In Jamaica, it represented 10.2% of the population at the end of the 18th century, while on Saint Domingue it was just 5.3% when the Revolution began in 1791. Despite the differences between the colonies, Franklin Knight notes, this segment of the population mainly consisted of women who lived mostly in urban areas and who differentiated themselves from the slave sector.

The privileges and limitations on blacks and mixed-race people varied from one colony to another. In Jamaica, for example, this population group was able to legally obtain nearly the same privileges that the whites enjoyed. In the French colonies, the limitations were greater. In general terms, although they were free, these people were not allowed to vote, hold public office, testify against a white member of society or serve on a jury. In the Danish islands, for example, free blacks and mixed-race people could not grow cotton if they did not own the land on which it would be planted. In Martinique, they were prohibited from participating in the gold and silver business. These limitations represented a legal and social obstacle for a group of individuals that nominally shared the same privileges as the most powerful segments of society. Not all colonies discriminated the same against this important fraction of society. Relations between free blacks and mixed-race peoples and whites varied greatly, depending on the legal or social limitations or concessions set by the latter.

Social stratification in the Caribbean Antillean societies that were based on agricultural exports gave enormous privileges to the white population. Whites were subdivided, in turn, into three or four additional levels. In descending order, there were the planters, who had the most economic and political power in the colonies. In the Spanish Caribbean they were mostly Spanish or island-born whites. In the French colonies they were called grand blancs. And in the British colonies they were called principal whites. The governors and military officers in the colonizing country’s military had a similar status. The economic and political power they held allowed them to live comfortably, whether in the colony or when they returned to their home country.

The next group consisted of the business owners, lawyers, government bureaucrats, doctors and smaller landowners. This intermediate level, especially on Saint Domingue, resented the economic and political power of the large absent landholders. Still, they sought to distance themselves from the lowest group of whites in the sugar colonies. These were the ones the French called the petits blancs and the British called the poor whites. They made up the large class of state employees, consisting of teachers, small business owners, artisans, overseers, farmers and bookkeepers. This group’s opportunities for social mobility were tied to the privileges that society granted to whites, such as the ability to own and cultivate land, to work in any job and the freedom to move or emigrate in search of a better financial situation. These were advantages the poor whites had over the huge majority of enslaved blacks.

Slaves work in the sugar cane process

Slaves work in the sugar cane process

V. The functioning of the plantation in the 18th century

Although Caribbean planters recognized the importance and profitability of slaves, that was just one of the financial commitments they had to make. The plantations they began to develop in the late 17th century were complex production systems that included both agricultural and industrial processes. Blackburn notes that the financial responsibilities included buying specialized equipment and maintaining it, buying food and provisions, and maintaining a constant flow of slave labor. On many occasions, depending on the size of the plantation, the owners had to pay salaries to overseers, sugar technicians, lawyers, accountants and doctors, as well as paying taxes to the government.

While the beginning of the sugar plantations could be foreseen in the complexes in Brazil and Barbados, the 18th century planters perfected the operation. These plantations, especially in the British and French colonies, improved production and efficiency by using new technology — such as the Jamaican train — and by meticulously organizing the entire production process. Dominican historian Frank Moya Pons indicates that in 1670 a typical mill in the British islands produced an average of 11.8 tons of sugar. A century later, the annual average had quintupled to 56.6 tons of sugar.

To keep the plantations running profitably, sufficient capital was needed to support the high costs of production. Lacking liquid capital, many planters turned to credit provided by businesses in London, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux or Marseilles that would take sugar and other tropical products in payment for debts. Payments in spices to businesses in the colonizing countries allowed them to speculate in the European market, which was very profitable. On the other hand, the planters could rely on a constant supply of credit that gave them access to new machinery, slaves, and other costs of production.

This relationship, though beneficial in many ways, tended to lead the planters into debt. Speculation by the businesses in the colonizing countries and the subsequent inability of the planters to set their own prices in the market led them to hire agents who were commissioned to sell the Caribbean sugar in the market. “Their earnings went into special accounts, against which they or their managers in the Antilles could issue drafts or letters of exchange,” said Moya Pons. Both of these forms of financing coexisted in the Caribbean throughout the 18th century.

VI. Conclusion

By all accounts, the 18th century was one of the most important and lasting social, economic and cultural foundations of the Caribbean region. Although it is important to note that not all Caribbean territories and colonies were involved in sugar production, sugar was the main player in Caribbean trade and exports to Europe in the 18th century. In the archipelago of the Bahamas, for example, sugar cane production never spread because of the arid climate and fragmented geography. The Danish island of St. Thomas, meanwhile, was mainly a free port where all nations interested in Caribbean trade could exchange slaves and merchandise.

The growth in exports of sugar and other products from the Caribbean territories in the 18th century played a central role in the development of African slavery. The slaves were not merely passive agents in the social machine of the plantation, however. Many enslaved Africans showed fierceness, temper and rebellion. Many struggled both physically and culturally against an oppressive system never before seen in the history of humanity. The 18th century closed with the largest and most significant slave rebellion ever seen anywhere in the Caribbean. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) was an extremely important milestone in the move toward the abolition of slavery and was, above all, an example for the slaves in other territories of the region to emulate. The reaction came quickly and the British and Spanish colonies cracked down in fear of a similar rebellion in their territories. They could not let the Saint Domingue experience be repeated.

Left behind were the days of glory, the luxuries of the planters who extracted huge profits from the slave trade and sugar production. The next century would be marked by economic, political and demographic instability throughout the Caribbean zone.


Author: Hugo R. Viera Vargas, Ph.D.
Published: May 02, 2012.

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