The History of Cane Sugar

During the middle ages, Venetian merchants imported sugar from ports in the Levant, such as Alexandria. Prices for sugar were high, and demand seemingly insatiable. So experiments were undertaken to grow sugar on plantations, by the Venetians on Cyprus, by the Spanish on Sicily, by the Portuguese on MADEIRA, which became a major sugar supplier of western Europe. Here the sugar plantation, which was to become a major source of revenue of early colonial economy, was developed, and the first slaves from the African coast nearby employed. With the progress of the Portuguese discoverers along Africa's west coast, the focus of sugar production moved to SAO TOME (settled by the Portuguese in 1483), only to shift again a few years later to BRAZIL, which from the 1530es onward became the world's major supplier of sugar. This industry contributed heavy to the development of the Transatlantic trade in African slaves - Brazil's east coast was, before the arrival of the Portuguese, mostly covered by jungle and sparsely populated; labour demand could not be met by the local population. Madeirans contributed considerably to the numbers of the immigrants, bringing with them the knowhow necessary to run sugar plantations. Another important group were Portuguese Jews.
In 1580, Portugal and Spain were joined as a dynastic union; while Portugal remained technically independent, the Spanish inquisition was introduced; Portugal's Jews were forced to convert to christianity or to emigrate. In 1630 a Dutch fleet conquered Brazil's northeast - the sugar growing provinces. The Dutch practised religious toleration; many of the plantation-owning, only recently converted Jews returned to their old faith. When the Dutch were expelled by the Brazilian Portuguese in 1654, they left the country, settling down on non-Spanish islands located in the Caribbean, and beginning a sugar plantation economy there. The Caribbean islands (BARBADOS, MARTINIQUE, GUADELOUPE, SAINT-DOMINGUE (Haiti) etc.) soon eclipsed Brazil as the world's foremost sugar producer, the French colonies being most productive.
Sugar cane plantations were labour-intensive, and the Caribbean climate very unhealthy. White immigration had been abandoned in the early 17th century, due to a high mortality rate; the industry depended on African slave labour. As losses in human life were frequent, a constant resupply from Africa was necessary. Treatment of the plantation slaves was extremely harsh; slaves ran away where they could. The wealth produced by the sugar plantations did rarely manifest itself in the Caribbean (other than in plantation owners' houses and in fortresses guarding the island harbour); most of it was collected and spent in Europe. Among the most famous offsprings of a sugar estate was JOSEPHINE, Napoleon's first wife.
Sugar plantations were regarded such profitable possessions that in negotiations leading to the Peace of Breda (1667), when the English offered to return Nieuw Amsterdam (taken in 1664) to the Dutch if the Dutch return SURINAME, which they took from the English in 1665, the Dutch politely declined - sugar-producing Suriname was much more profitable than what was to become New York State.
The desire to produce it's own sugar drove the Swedes to purchase the island of ST. BARTHELEMY from France in 1784.
SAINT-DOMINGUE (Haiti) developed into a side-show of the French Revolution; the white population element was massacred or forced to flee. The plantation economy virtually was destroyed - which used to supply the world with 40 % of it's sugar.
The sugar plantation economy faced a quick decline. BEET SUGAR INDUSTRY emerged on the European continent, because Napoleon's CONTINENTAL BLOCKADE stopped legitimate sugar imports (there was, of course, smuggling). The abolition of slave trade (Britain : 1807) and of Slavery (Britain : 1834, France : 1848, Netherlands : 1863) contributed further. Sugar plantations depended on the availability of cheap labour; INDENTURED LABOURERS were brought in from Madeira, India, China to replace the outgoing slaves, but also they were not willing to stay. By the end of the 19th century, only a few sugar plantations were left, much less profitable than they once had been.

A by-product of sugar was RUM, which became a favourite drink among sailors.

Students' Paper : Lim, Seung Hwan, History of Sugar Plantations (Sept. 2008)

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on February 16th 2002, last revised on October 3rd 2008

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