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The History of Sugar Plantations

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lim, Seung Hwan
Term Paper, AP European History Class, September 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Early Sugar Plantations
III. The Portuguese : Sugar Plantations on the West African Coast
IV. The Portuguese : Sugar Plantations in Brazil
V. Fleeing the Portuguese : Sugar Plantations on Caribbean Islands
VI. Today's Sugar Plantations
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Modern consumers regard sugar as one of the most common products. We can buy sugar in any supermarket with cheap price. However, sugar was once a very valuable product desired by many noblemen. It was very profitable product with high price and profit, and this gave Europeans a strong incentive to begin sugar plantations in their colonies.
            This paper will deal with the history of sugar plantation mainly done by Europeans in diver colonies. Also, unique history of sugar plantation will show the close relationship between economy and other factors.
            Actually, sugar can be extracted from two crops: sugarcane, and sugar beet. Yet, this paper will mainly deal with sugarcane because of its longer history and historical significance. Thus, the term ¡°sugar plantation¡± in this paper refers to "sugarcane plantation".

II. Early Sugar Cultivation
            Sugarcane was originated from the Southeast Asia, India and New Guinea. At first, people did not know how to crystallize sugar from sugarcane, and chewed the cane to extract sweat juice. About A.D 350, during the Gupta dynasty, Indian people figure out how to crystallize sugar (1). When Persians invaded India in 642, Persians learned how to grow sugarcane and how to make sugar from it (2). During the Muslim agriculture revolution from 8th to 13th century, Arabians turned sugar production into a large-scale industry; actually, Arabs were the first people who set up large scale sugar mills, refineries, and other facilities related to sugar production (3). As Arabians expanded territory, sugar was introduced into Egypt, North Africa, Spain and part of Mediterranean.

Map : Cultivation of Sugarcane until 1500 (4)

            Venetians imported sugar from ports in the Levant, such as Alexandria (5) and introduced sugar to Europe. Sugar was highly demanded, and its price was also very high. Thus, experiments were done to build sugar plantation: Venetians in Cyprus, Spanish in Sicily, and Portuguese in Madeira. Crusade in 11th century made sugar more popular in Western Europe. After their return to home, crusaders talked about this new species and how pleasant it was; as a result, price went up. For example, it is recorded that in 1319 London, sugar was as expensive as "two shilling a pound", which means about 100 present-day US dollars per kilogram (6).
            Mediterranean sugar plantation was mainly done in Cyprus and Sicily, but it produced relatively small quantity and failed to meet the demand. It declined because of plague and warfare, and disappeared as sugar plantation was done in African coast and Brazil in 16th century. However, it functioned as school for sugar producers in African coast, and tropical America.
            Sugar was also transferred to China from India in 7th century. During the reign of Harsha over North India and Emperor Taizong over Tang China, Indian sugar makers traveled with Buddhist monks to China, and taught Chinese people how to cultivate sugarcane and make sugar (7). However, because we cannot figure out if there was sugar ¡®plantation¡¯ in China, this paper will just focus on sugarcane plantation done by western people in diverse areas.

III. The Portuguese : Sugar Plantations on the West African Coast
            Sugar was definitely highly popular and profitable product in Europe during the closing Middle Ages. The Portuguese started to cultivate sugarcane in its West African coast colonies, mainly on Madeira and Sao Tome.
            Even if it was mentioned on an Italian map from 1351, Madeira Islands were not inhabited when the Portuguese found it accidentally in 1418. In 1420, Prince Henry the Navigator initiated Portuguese settlement. The first crop grown in Madeira was wheat (8). However, due to decrease in grain production, Henry introduced sugar in 1425 to past ensuring crisis. Sugarcane generated great amount of profit, and economy of Madeira Islands prospered. In 1452, African slaves first came, and this made the industry more profitable. Yet, distribution problem prevented sugar plantation in Madeira from further development. Also, as the sugar plantation was built in Sao Tome in the early 16th century and Brazil later, sugar plantations on and the economy of Madeira declined. After the climax of sugar plantation, Madeira's main product became wine.
            The Portuguese first discovered Islands of Sao Tome in 1471 and started settlement in 1483. Because it was located on the sea route to India, it soon gained its importance as trading post since 1498. The first settlers in this region were undesirables sent for Portugal such as Jews. They found volcanic soil in this region was suitable for sugar plantation and started to grow sugarcane. As the sugar plantation started to be built in early 16th century, Sao Tome gained fame as the largest sugar producer in the world and its economy went through great prosperity. Sugar plantation was a labor-intensive process and Portuguese began to import large numbers of African slaves. By the mid-1500s the Portuguese settlers had turned the islands into Africa's foremost exporter of sugar. However, sugar plantation in Sao Tome faced various problems. Large slave population cause many problems in islands and Portuguese government in mainland did not provide further investment. Moreover, humid atmosphere of Sao Tome was unsuitable for drying sugar.
            Sugar plantation in West African coast declined as Jews and New Christians, who worked as manager and technicians moved to Brazil. Political unrest, natural disasters, and strengthened inquisition drove many people to falsely accused not only Jews but also New Christians, Jewish converters to Catholics, of various crimes and rights of them were often violated. For example, in 1564, New Christians were prohibited from practicing medicine. Also, as Portugal and Spain became a dynastic union in 1580, intense inquisition against Jews in Spain moved to Portugal. Great number of African slaves and unfavorable weather condition also prohibited further development of sugar plantations. These unfavorable factors led Jews, who learned how to cultivate sugar in Madeira and Portugal, to move to Brazil.

IV. The Portuguese : Sugar Plantations in Brazil
            Sugar plantation in Brazil began as Jews and New Christians in Portuguese West African coast colonies moved to Brazil because of social oppression and unfavorable climate. Because of political unrest, natural disasters, many people falsely accused Jews, and religious inquisition became more intensified as Portugal and Spain united as a dynastic union. These unfriendly conditions made Jews and New Christians to move to Brazil, which was under less influence of these oppressions.
            In contrast to early colonies, which were merely trading post to facilitate commerce in the products of some region, Brazil originally had no specialized items, so new settlers in Brazil started to cultivate profitable sugar in Brazil. The first engenho(sugar mill) was built in Pernambuco in 1516; at the middle of the century, 5 engenhos were in operation and by 1600, there were 120. Because sugar plantation was extremely profitable, Portuguese government also promoted it by building royal government in Brazil and giving tax exemption to owners of sugar plantation for certain time period. As a result, sugar plantation economy in Brazil greatly prospered during the last half of 16th century and the first half of 17th century. Prosperity in sugar plantation coincided with the end of free trade in Portugal in 1571 and gave great profit to Portugal.
            Two center of sugar plantation in Brazil were Pernambuco and Bahia. They had futile soil, adequate rain fall, and geographical advantage: proximity to major ports like Salvador and Recife. Because there was no sugar refineries in Brazil during the colonial period, people used clay to refine sugar. This method made Brazilian white sugar to be called barreado, which means "clayish". However, this did not mean that its quality was poor. White sugar from Brazil was highly priced in Europe. Mascavo, brown sugar, was also produced in Brazil, but its price was lower than barreado's because of its inferior quality.
            Sugar plantation was very profitable but very costly industry, so diverse groups were engaged in this industry: investors, managers, and slaves. Portuguese were main owners of sugar plantation, but Flemings and Italians also invested their money. As times goes by, investment from religious institutions and foreign merchants became much more important. Foreign importers from Amsterdam, London, Hamburg and Genoa invested lots of money, and often received sugar instead of their credit. Their influence on setting the price and other processes was very significant. New Christian and other Jews were managers, artisans, controllers of trade and technicians. They were the ones who actually ran the sugar plantation. Some of them were owners, and had political, economical, and social influence on Brazil. Sometimes, these Jews got the title of nobility, but their position was not hereditary because sugar industry was quite unstable. Slaves were the main suppliers of the labor. Actually, sugar plantation caused the gradual passage from Indian to African slavery (9). At first, most slaves in sugar plantation were local Indians; between 1550 and 1570, there was practically no African slave and in 1574, Africans made up only 7% of the slaves. In 1591, they grew into 37% and around 1638, African and Afro-Brazilians made up entire labor force (10). Slaves were very harshly treated: they suffered from burns, loss of arms and hands, and harsh punishment after the rebellion. Yet, some skillful slaves rose in the hierarchy and became bankers or masters, who were responsible for the final stages in sugar production.
            Even if sugar was a profitable product, it was not grown in all parts of Brazil. Sugar plantation was mainly done in the northeastern areas of Brazil. Because of this, northeastern Brazil became the center of Brazilian economy. In case of southern Brazil, there were some sugar mills in Sao Vincente captaincy, but its main product was white rum and cachaca.
            Prosperity of sugar plantation in Brazil ended as the war between Portugal and Dutch began. Dutch invaded African coast in 1595 and Salvador in 1604 to control slave trade and sugar plantation. Invaders occupied Salvador in 1624, and began to attack Pernambuco in 1630. At first, Dutch did very well, and they came to control 7 captaincies of 14; 1641, Dutch and Portuguese agreed on 10 years of truce. During this truce, Dutch exercised religious toleration, and New Christians, who secretly believe Judaism, also practiced their own religion. In 1651, the truce ended, and in 1654, re-conquest of Portugal was completed as the back-up army from Portugal reached Brazil. After the war is finished, religious pressure on New Christians, managers of sugar plantation became heavier, and many of them moved to Caribbean island with Dutch. These flee of Jews enabled sugar plantation in Caribbean islands with more favorable weather condition. Great expansion in sugar production between 1675 and 1715 by Northern powers such as France, England and Netherland lowered sugar price in European market, and increased slave price for plantation. This made sugar plantation in Brazil not as profitable as before, and many farms changed their product from sugar to tobacco or wine. During the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) begun in 1791, sugar plantations in Brazil became temporally profitable, but this did not mean the complete revival of sugar plantation in Brazil.

V Fleeing the Portuguese : Sugar Plantations on Caribbean Islands
            Sugar plantation in Caribbean island had begun since 1493, when Spanish King encouraged farmers to move to new territory. By 1520, it was a profitable industry with a least twenty eight sugar mills operating on Hispaniola. It was greatly expanded when Jew and New Christians, managers and technicians of sugar plantation moved, moved from Portuguese Brazil to Caribbean islands, such as Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue. Sugar production in these islands soon surpassed that in Brazil and became the largest sugar producers in the world; especially, French colonies were most productive.
            Barbados was originally known by Spanish since ca. 1500 but they show little interest in this island. Barbados was claimed for England by Oliver Blossom in 1605. When Jews from Brazil immigrated to Brazil, sugar plantation was introduced and it quickly replaced tobacco plantation. Consequently, African slaves were transported into Barbados. Between 1663 and 1838, the Barbadians had to pay additional 4.5% of tax; therefore, when Northern American merchant who originally traded with Barbados started trade with French sugar producing colonies, the price went down. After Molasses Act of passed, North American colonies levied taxes on sugar from non-British colonies, and price went up again.
            Martinique was discovered by Columbus in 1493, but Spanish did not care about it. The first European settlers were French Compagnie d'isles d'amerique, under Pierre Belain D'Esnambuc, in 1635. In 1636, Jacques du Parquet bought island and established a plantation economy and military leadership in the wars with natives. In 1654, he allowed 250 Jews from Brazil to introduce sugarcane, and it soon became the greatest export. Like other sugar producing colonies, slaves from Africa moved to Martinique and became the major labor force. Actually, only 16% of population was white people; the rest was African slaves.
            Guadeloupe was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, and fist settled by Spanish people. In 1635, French people led by L'Olive and Duplessis settled there. African slaves were first introduced in 1650. Guadeloupe was one of the most important colonies in France due to its sugar and cocoa plantation. St. Barthelemy was discovered in 1496 and first settled in 1648-60 by French. Sweden, which wanted to produce sugar in its own territory, bought it in 1784. After decades of prosperity, holding of this island became very costly, and Swede sold it to France in 1878. After this ever, St.Barthelemy was placed under administration of Gudeloupe. Because of its large profit, Guadeloupe was sometimes attacked by foreigners like the British or Dutch.
            Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and settled by Spanish people in 1511. They built many towns such as Havana and Santiago, and started sugar plantation, which was very inefficient at the beginning. At first, they forced native Arawaks to work, but hard labor and diseases finally eliminated local population. Thus, they brought African slaves for labor force. During the Seven Years War, British navy under Lord Albemarle and Admiral Pocock took Havana from 1762 to 1763. British rule of Cuba greatly influenced the economy: the period of Cuban isolation from non-Spanish trade was ended (11). Other favorable conditions such as increasing slaves, currency reform, termination of old monopolies, and appearance of new market like United States caused the emergence of wealthy plantation owners. These wealthy owners brought French sugar management skill and English machinery and further developed Cuban sugar plantation economy. Revolution of Haiti from 1791 caused great influx of French sugar plantation owners to Cuba and eliminated its major competitor. This also developed the Cuban sugar plantation. Yet, because Cuba was the colony of Spain, the ally of France, Cuban sugar plantation was damaged during the continental blockade.
            In 1629, Spain attacked French and English settlement in St. Christopher. Some of escaped French people settled down in an island called Tortuga, off the northeast coast of Hispaniola, and built their first settlement in 1659. From Tortuga, further settlement was done on Hispaniola's western coast, neglected area by Spanish; in 1697, Spain finally admitted Saint-Domingue, modern Haiti, as a French territory. French established sugar plantation in Haiti, and it resulted in great success: during 18th century, it produced 40 % of world¡¯s sugar. However, large profit generated was not used for the welfare of natives and huge number of African slaves; it was held in France. It was the Haiti Revolution in 1791 which terminated sugar plantation in Saint-Domingue. Under the military leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, slaves succeeded to defeat French and English armies, and finally gain autonomy and gradually independence. In this process, many Europeans who worked for sugar plantation left the islands or died; consequently, sugar plantation was almost destroyed in Saint-Domingue.
            Jamaica was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1494, and conquered by Spain in 1509. Spanish built the capitals such as Spanish town and Port Royal and introduced African slaves in this region. In 1655, English fleet, under Sit William Penn, which originally planned to take Hispaniola, changed its plan because it was well defended, and took Jamaica instead. In 1870, Spain recognized the situation and signed Treaty of Madrid, which admitted British rule of Jamaica. British introduced sugar into Jamaica and the number of slaves increased very much, consequently. They formed Maroon communities and fought against British until 1730. After overcoming these rebellions, Jamaica turned into one of the largest sugar producer in the world and competed with Saint-Domingue. However, decline in sugar price in 1830s and abolition of slavery in British territory damaged sugar plantation economy in Jamaica. Moreover, protective sugar tariff was abolished in 1846. Many free black people with no constant income rebelled, and this political instability accelerated the decline of sugar plantation in Jamaica
            Sugar plantations were cultivated in diverse regions, and their eras for prosperity are very different. New Christians first came to British colonies such as Barbados in the mid 1600s, and English in Barbados and other islands quickly adopted sugar plantation. For about next 100 years, Barbados was the largest sugar producer in the world. Yet, because of limit in land size, Barbados was surpassed by other areas like Hispaniola and Jamaica. In 1740s, Jamaica and Saint-Domingue became the largest sugar producers in the world. They adopted diverse effective irrigation systems designed by French engineers and this contributed to the increase in sugar production.
            Sugar plantations required a great amount of labor (labor-intensive), and these labor power mainly came from that of African slaves. However, climate in Caribbean islands was extremely harmful to these slaves. Also, because most profit from sugar plantation went to Europe, so welfare of African slaves was often neglected and they were often harshly treated. These resulted in frequent slave rebellion in Caribbean islands such as slave revolt in Guadeloupe in 1656, slave rebellions in Barbados in the 17th century and the Haiti Revolution in 1791. This cycle of exploitation of African slaves and their protest continued until the slavery was abolished in Caribbean island. These African slaves are ancestors of black population in Caribbean islands today.
            Yet, the abolition of slavery (Britain: 1834, France: 1848, Netherlands: 1863) and slave trade (Britain: 1807) made African cheap labor for sugar plantation unavailable and contributed to the fall of sugar plantation. To substitute slaves, they brought workers from Madeira, India, and China, but these workers were not willing to stay for a long time: thus, fall of sugar plantation became nearly obvious. Napoleon¡¯s continental blockade is an earlier reason responsible for the fall of sugar plantation, mainly in French and French ally¡¯s colonies such as Cuba. Continental blockade stopped legal import of sugar made from sugarcane in Caribbean islands, and this cause the rise of beet sugar industry in Europe which would compete with sugar cane industry. In some areas, sugar tariff was abolished, and this also caused great damage. These elements lowered sugar price and make circumstance worse. However, this did not mean the severe decrease in worldwide sugar production. In many areas, amount of sugar produced remained constant, and in some areas, it even increased. It seems that because protective tariff was abolished, many countries who had not export sugar much started to export greater amount of sugar. Also, because the price had been very high, some areas may still had an incentive to produce sugar even if its price was declined.

VI Today's Sugar Plantations
            Today, about 200 countries grow that sugarcane to produce 1,324.6 tons, which is six times larger than the amount of sugar extracted from sugar beet. Sugar is still consumed a lot, but it is not as expensive or rare as in the past and its consumption is expanding at a rate of 2 million tons per year. As times goes by the usage of sugarcane has been also diversified: sugar production, of course mainly, falernum, molasses, rum, soda, cachaca, and even ethanol for fuel. The bagasse that remains is also used for fuel and raw material for paper and cardboard. These days, Brazil, European Unions and India are three main sugar producers.
            Like sugar plantation in Brazil and Caribbean islands in the past, today¡¯s sugar industry is also very close with government policies. For example, sugar price in EU is heavily subsidized by government that over 5 million tons of white beet sugar is exported while a million tons of raw cane sugar is imported from former colonies.

VII Conclusion
            At first, sugar was as valuable as gold, and the high value of sugar motivated Europeans to start sugar plantation in their diverse colonies such as West African cost, Brazil and Caribbean islands. Sugar plantation brought great economic prosperity to countries like Portugal, Netherland, France, and Britain, but it also caused a lot of political problems such as war between European powers to get colonies such as one occurred between Netherland and Portugal over Brazil and slave rebellions. Also, sugar plantation has been closely related to religious problem because it was Jews and New Christians who mainly managed sugar plantation. Religious toleration or inquisition greatly influenced not only the move of these people but also the move of center of sugar plantation. Sugar plantation finally declined because of Napoleon's diplomatic policy, continental blockade, and abolition of the slavery. Even today, sugar plantation is very closely related to government policies and heavily subsidized by governments. Sugar plantation also affected the worldwide distribution of population. Because sugar plantation required much labor force, African slaves were brought from Africa to Brazil and Caribbean island; today, they are regarded as the ancestors of black population in these regions.
            It is a common mistake to separate religion, politics, distribution of population and economy and to think they exist by themselves; however, these factors are actually mutually dependent and often influence each other very much. Sugar plantation is an excellent example showing the close relationship among religion, politics, population and economy: political and religious problems influence an industry, and that industry influences political and religious problems in return. Also, economic problems caused great inter-continent immigrations, which changed the worldwide racial distribution. Thus, it is valid to argue that the history sugar plantation clearly shows us the profound relationships between these factors.


(1)      Article : Sugar, from Wikipedia
(2)      SKIL
(3)      Article : Sugar, from Wikipedia
(4)      from Wikipedia, after Andrew Watson 2008
(5)      Article : Sugarcane, from WHKMLA
(6)      SKIL
(7)      Article : Sugarcane, from Wikipedia
(8)      Article : Madeira pre 1660, from WHKMLA
(9)      Fausto 1999, p.36
(10)      Fausto 1999, p.37
(11)      Article : Cuba 1762-1815, from WHKMLA


Note : websites quoted below were visited at the end of June 2008.
1.      Worcester, Donald E; "Brazil: from Colony to World Power"; NY: Charles Scribner¡¯s Sons; 1973
2.      Arbell, Mordechai; "The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas"; Jerusalem: Gefen Books; 2002
3.      Bethell, Leslie; "Cuba: A Short History"; Cambridge : UP; 1993
4.      Birmingham, David; "A Concise History of Portugal"; Cambridge : UP, 1993
5.      Fausto, Boris; "A Concise History of Brazil"; Cambridge : UP, 1999
6.      Burns, E. Bradford; "Latin America: A Concise Interpretive History" 6th edition; New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1994
7.      Mitchell, B.R; "International Historical Statistic: The Americas, 1750~2000"; NY : Palgrave Macmillan, 5th edition 2003
8.      Galloway, J.H; "The Mediterranean Sugar Industry": 1977; American Geographical Society
9.      Article : Sugar, from Wikipedia
10.      Article :Sugarcane : History, from Wikipedia,
11.      from Wikipedia, digitized after a map by Andrew Watson, Andrew; "Agriculture innovation in the early Islamic World", 2008,
12.      Article : Plantation : Sugar, from Wikipedia
13.      Article : Sugar Plantations in the Caribbean, from Wikipedia
14.      Article : 1791, from Wikipedia
15.      Article : Muslim Agriculture Revolution, from Wikipedia
16.      Article : Madeira, from Wikipedia
17.      Article : Sao Tome and Principe, from Wikipedia
18.      Article : Barbados, from Wikipedia
19.      Article : Molasses Act, from Wikipedia
20.      Article : History of Martinique, from Wikipedia
21.      Article : Haiti, from Wikipedia
22.      How Sugar is Made ? the History, from SKIL
23.      History of Sugar, from Essortment
24.      A Brief History of Sugar, from Irish Sugar Educational Website, September 18 1998
25.      History of Jamaica; from WHKMLA
26.      Saint Domingue French, (1659) 1697-1789; from WHKMLA
27.      St. Barthelemy, 1784-1878; from WHKMLA
28.      Guadeloupe, 1635-1789; from WHKMLA
29.      Martinique, 1635-1789; from WHKMLA
30.      Barbados, 1625-1814; from WHKMLA
31.      Sao Tome 1471-1641; from WHKMLA
32.      Madeira until 1660; from WHKMLA
33.      The History of Cane Sugar; from WHKMLA
34.      Article : Cuba 1762-1815, from WHKMLA,

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