Few plants in the history of humanity have caused such an impact as Saccharum officinarum, typically known as sugar cane. This plant, originally from Southeast Asia, south China and eastern India, was planted around the world thanks to Muslim expansion. It was the people of the Iberian Peninsula, however, who brought it later to the Canary Islands and the islands of Madeira, the Azores and São Tomé. They later brought it to the Americas in the second half of the 16th century. Conquistadors, merchants, priests and sailors, among others, were responsible for crossing the Atlantic with the plant.
In Puerto Rico, there is evidence of a strong decline, beginning in the third decade of the 16th century, in the gold deposits that had been the main economic activity during the early years of colonization. After the conquest of the Aztec territory in Mesoamerica and the Incan territory in the South American Andes, the island quickly depopulated due to the scarcity of gold and the news of the enormous wealth on the continents. This led to fewer and ever poorer Spanish settlers remaining in Puerto Rico and concentrating more on agriculture. That industry, which until then had served the basic function of providing supplies, became an agrarian economy based on exports. Sugar cane and ginger were the crops that offered the best prospects. Sugar cane drew the interest of the wealthy and ginger was grown by the less well off, mainly because of the lower investment it required.
Cane arrived to Puerto Rico in the 16th century from Hispaniola. The banks of the Toa River, and later La Plata River, were the first sites for the plant, on an experimental farm owned by royalty don Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile. In the beginning, the cane was squeezed in a rudimentary machine called a trapiche, which in general was operated by slaves or beasts of burden. The trapiche was a machine consisting of three grooved rollers that pressed the sugar cane, which had already been stripped, to extract its juice. This juice was concentrated and cooked to crystallize it into sugar.
The first trapiche installed on the island was in the 1520s in what is today the municipality of Añasco. Businessmen Tomás de Castellón and Blas de Villasante were pioneers in establishing this kind of agrarian industry. Though their small and incipient industry did not prosper, the example of the success in the neighboring island of Hispaniola was enough to convince more colonists to try the business. While it required a significant investment, it promised a fortune. Later, in the 1540s, because of the good prospects offered by the business, various residents of the island invested in the promising industry. Instructions written in 1534 by the City of Puerto Rico Council to its representative in the Spanish Cortes reflected the need to stimulate and promote the establishment not just of simple trapiches, but of more complex and specialized units for cultivating and producing sugar cane: sugar mills. The document clearly calls for help for the island residents:
[We plea] your Majesty, whereas there is no other profitable industry on the island other than gold, and that is declining; and whereas this industry is not of a quality to provide for those who have use of your lands; and on this island we live, so indebted and without the means to be able to pay without totally losing the land; it appears that your Majesty would be helpful in loaning to certain residents of the city, married and vouched for, who are without debts, two thousand pesos in gold each so that each one can build a mill to grind sugar… (Murga Sanz, pp. 323-324)
The introduction of sugar marked the beginning of the economic transformation of the island from a mining economy — based on extracting gold for export — to one that was essentially agrarian. In a relatively short period, a surprising transformation in the economic, social and cultural profile of Puerto Rico took place. The economic transformation went hand in hand with a process that would lead to important changes in the nature and social structure of the island: the forced arrival of African slaves to Puerto Rico. Sugar and slavery were inseparable.
The establishment of a sugar mill, however, was not an easy job. The project required large investments and, therefore, big risks. First it required land, which was abundant and fertile, but the right of usufruct had to be obtained from the crown or its representatives in the Americas. Additionally, it was essential to obtain machinery imported from Europe. And finally, there was the unfortunate situation of hundreds of thousands of humans who were brought in chains from Africa as slaves to do the labor of cultivating the cane and producing sugar. The fate of the sugar industry in Puerto Rico, and in general, the Antilles, depended in large part on them.
Capital was always a problem for the incipient industry. That’s why, in light of the significant investment required by the sugar industry, numerous government requests for loans from public funds were sent by those who tried the new and promising industry. Rodrigo Franquez, for example, asked the colonial government for help in finishing the construction of a mill on the banks of the Loíza River. He eventually had a total of 19 slaves. The project prospered and led other Spaniards to go into the business. Because of these and other investors, the first sugar period arose in Puerto Rico (1540-1550). In this period, at least 10 mills were founded. Between 1550 and 1625, island’s exports were mostly sugar, followed by ginger and hides.
A combination of factors made possible the flourishing sugar industry on the island during the early years of the colonization. Despite its risks, sugar production prospered enough to meet the expectations of Spaniards who were eager to become rich. The introduction of sugar cane reverberated in a series of changes that forged the future of Puerto Rico. Sugar, in these early years, not only sweetened the European palate, but also contributed to transforming the economic, racial and cultural profile of the island forever.
Author: Víctor Colón Zayas
Published: November 05, 2015.
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