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Sugar History: The Americas

sugar industry Americas
Figure 1.--The Americas becanme the center of world sugar production--Brazil and the Caribbean. Fortunes were made. Haiti became the most valuable colony. The French decided that two small Caribbean islands were more valuable than Canada. Spain for some reason did not participte in this bonanza in the 18th century, but in the 19th century Cuba, still a Spanish colony, became the major producer. Here we see a scene on a sugar plantation, we think in Cuba during the late-19th century.

The European voyages of discovery led by the Portuguese had emense economic consequences. The ability of the Arabs to dominate the sugar trade when Bartholomeu Dias reached the tip of southern Africa (1486) and Columbus withoug knowing it discovered he Americas (1492). This mean that the Europeans has direct access to trade with the East (India, Indonesia, and China). Even more importantly, the Europeans now had access to tropical lands where sugarcane could be grown in quantity. Columbus recordedly brought sugar cane to grow in the new lands he had discovered (1493). The first cane harvest was reported in Hispaniola (1501). [Benitez-Rojo, p. 93.] Even so, a sugar industry did not immediately develop in the Spanish-controlled Caribbean--The Spanish Main. It was a virtual Spanish lake. The Spanish enslaved the Ameri-Indian population as a labor force, but they began dieing and the Spanish did not have the sugar technology possessed by the Portuguse. Ultimately The Spanish were more interested in gold and silver than agriculture and thus the thrust of empire moved west to the great Amer-Induian empires, and founded colonies in Mexico and Peru. Spanish Caribbean agriculture focused primarily on supplying ships sailing back and forth to Spain through the Spanish Main and eventually, ilicitly other European maritime powers. The Spanish had poor sugar refining technology and in addotion had largely wiped out the Native American populations, meaning workers were not available to operate plantations. This was a major problem because sugar cane is such a labor intensive crop. It was in Portuguese Brazil that sugar cane cultivation first began in a big way. There are rumors that the Portuguese discovered the Americas (Brazil) before Columbus) made his discovery and kept it a secret. Whetgher that is true or not, the Portuguese brought sugarcane and sugar processing technology to Brazil. [Deerr, pp. 102-04.] Not finding gold in large quantiities like the Spanish, the Portuguese gradually began founding plantations along the Brazilian coast. Sugar was the first of Brazil's great 'booms'. 8 The Portuguese soon had 800 sugar cane mills operating in the south (Santa Catarina Island) and amother 2,000 mills in the north. [Benitez-Rojo, p. 93.] Like the Spanish, the Prtuguese largly eradicated the Native Amer-Indfian popultion. But unlike the Spanish, they had ready sccess to a replacement labor force. . As part of the series of voyages south along the African coast, the Portuguese set up trading posts. One of the commodities traded was captive Africans sold as slaves. At first the number of Africans traded was relativly small. But as plantations began to be established in Brazil, the demand for slaves increased exponentially. And the value of sugar gave the planters the ability to buy slaves in large numbers. This was the birth of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Sugar Boom. The Portuguese at first largely controled the slave trade. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the forced union with the Spanish crown led them into the Dutch-Portuguese War. This affected theur ability to control the slave trade and the Dutch even occupied northeastern Brazil for several decades. When the Portuguese finally expelled the Dutch from Brazil, Dutch planters brought needed sugar technology to the Caribbean (1658). [Deerr, p. 208.] And labor in the form of African slaves was also now available in large numbers. The climate in the Caribbean like that of Brazil was perfect for sugar cane. Thus the Brazilian planters now had competion. The European sweet tooth made tiny Caribbean islands some of the most valuable realestate in the world. The Caribbean sugar islands became the most valuable realestate in the world. Fotrtunes were made. Sugar became a primary Europen import--about 20 percent (18th century), almost all of it came from Brazil and the Caribbean. [Ponting, p.17.] The Spanish weere not a major factor and had lost many of the islands to the British and French. The most valubale colony in the Caribben was Haiti (western Hispniola). The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Sugar Boom became two sides of a trianglar trade that became central to the colonial maritime economy--sugar (often shipped as molasses) and other raw materials to Euope, manufactured goods to Africa, and slaves to the Americas. Planters in Brazil ad the Caribbean shipped sugar to Europe or New England. Much of it was distilled into rum. Some of the profits were then used to purchase manufactured goods that were then shipped to West Africa and used to bartered for slaves. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic to Brazilian and Caribbean sugar planters. This enabled the planters to produce more sugar to continue the trianguar trade. The basic pattern aws somewhat complicated by colonial trade regulations and the developing North American colonial economy. Developments on two islands would ultimately play a major role in bringing an end to slavery snd much of the Csribben sugar industry. . Residatnce on the smaller islkands were futile. There was no way to run away to. Thre klarger islands were different. Cuba and eastern Hispaniola) had not yet been developed as a sugar islands by the Spanish, but western Hispaniola and Jamaica were by French and Brtish. Slaves in Haiti/St. Dominque (western Hispaniola) revolted (1791). The French were never able to regain control. Escaped slaves on British Jamaica built Maroon colonies in the interior. American and British action to end the Atlantic skave trade hassone impact (1807). The cost of rooting out these communities combined with a vibrant Abolitionist movement, convinced the British to emancipate the slaves (1835). This began a shift of production fron cane to beets. After British emancipation, sugar production in the Cribbean shited to Cuba and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico. These were the last two Spanish colonies in the Americas and slavery ws still legal ihere. On the other sugar islands, the freed slaves genrally refused to return to the plantaions and work for the wages offered. But with slavery still exusting and with large areas of flat terraine and an ideal climate, Cuba was soon producing huge qantities of sugar (mid-19th century). Spain finally effectively banned slavery in Cuba and Puerto Rico (1886).

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Created: 5:25 AM 10/1/2012
Last updated: 2:05 PM 10/24/2014