Trade Goods > Sugar
The trade good of sugar is one of the main economic reasons that drove the process of colonization of the Americas. It was a highly coveted item in Europe where it was considered a "fine spice" and was very expensive and difficult to obtain. Sugar is extracted from the sugar cane plant and was previously thought to only be harvested in India and Southeast Asia.
The domestication, cultivation and extraction of sugar began in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago. The manufacturing of sugar cane granules from juice in India began a little over two thousand years ago with slight improvements over time. Eventually the cultivation and manufacturing of sugar cane was picked up by the Islamic world in the Medieval times who improved production techniques. However, due to the lack of trade routes that existed between Europe and India following the Muslim takeover of the region, Europeans had to turn to another source to get sugar.
Following the discovery of the New World by the explorer Christopher Columbus the new world of the West Indies opened up for sugar cane cultivation. This would become the most profitable industry in the region beginning in the 16th century and saw the development of the plantation economy which would last until the 19th century.
Through its cultivation in the New World sugar became not just a luxury item for the rich and power but a commodity for households across Europe. Through the invention of the Trans-Atlantic Triangular Trade the cultivation and manufacturing of sugar would really take off and influence the development of the entire New World.
Connection to Piracy
The Portuguese took sugar to Brazil. By 1540, there were 800 cane sugar mills in Santa Catarina Island and there were another 2,000 on the north coast of Brazil, Demarara, and Surinam. The first sugar harvest happened in Hispaniola in 1501; and, many sugar mills had been constructed in Cuba and Jamaica by the 1520s.
The approximately 3,000 small sugar mills that were built before 1550 in the New World created an unprecedented demand for cast iron gears, levers, axles and other implements. Specialist trades in mold-making and iron casting developed in Europe due to the expansion of sugar production. Sugar mill construction developed technological skills needed for a nascent industrial revolution in the early 17th century.
After 1625, the Dutch carried sugarcane from South America to the Caribbean islands, where it was grown from Barbados to the Virgin Islands. Contemporaries often compared the worth of sugar with valuable commodities including musk, pearls, and spices. Sugar prices declined slowly as its production became multi-sourced, especially through British colonial policy. Formerly an indulgence of only the rich, the consumption of sugar also became increasingly common among the poor too. Sugar production increased in mainland North American colonies, in Cuba, and in Brazil. The labour force at first included European indentured servants and local Native American slaves. However, European diseases such as smallpox and African ones such as malaria and yellow fever soon reduced the numbers of local Native Americans). Europeans were also very susceptible to malaria and yellow fever, and the supply of indentured servants was limited. African slaves became the dominant source of plantation workers because they were more resistant to malaria and yellow fever, and because the supply of slaves was abundant on the African coast.
During the 18th century, sugar became enormously popular. Britain, for example, consumed five times as much sugar in 1770 as in 1710. By 1750 sugar surpassed grain as "the most valuable commodity in European trade — it made up a fifth of all European imports and in the last decades of the century four-fifths of the sugar came from the British and French colonies in the West Indies." The sugar market went through a series of booms. The heightened demand and production of sugar came about to a large extent due to a great change in the eating habits of many Europeans. For example, they began consuming jams, candy, tea, coffee, cocoa, processed foods, and other sweet victuals in much greater numbers. Reacting to this increasing craze, the islands took advantage of the situation and set about producing still more sugar. In fact, they produced up to ninety percent of the sugar that the western Europeans consumed. Some islands proved more successful than others when it came to producing the product. In Barbados and the British Leeward Islands sugar provided 93% and 97% respectively of exports.
Planters later began developing ways to boost production even more. For example, they began using more manure when growing their crops. They also developed more advanced mills and began using better types of sugarcane. In the eighteenth century "the French colonies were the most successful, especially Saint-Domingue, where better irrigation, water-power and machinery, together with concentration on newer types of sugar, increased profits." Despite these and other improvements, the price of sugar reached soaring heights, especially during events such as the revolt against the Dutch and the Napoleonic Wars. Sugar remained in high demand, and the islands' planters knew exactly how to take advantage of the situation.
A 19th-century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation. On right is "white officer", the European overseer. Slave workers toil during the harvest. To the left is a flat-bottomed vessel for cane transportation.
As Europeans established sugar plantations on the larger Caribbean islands, prices fell, especially in Britain. By the 18th century all levels of society had become common consumers of the former luxury product. At first most sugar in Britain went into tea, but later confectionery and chocolates became extremely popular. Many Britons (especially children) also ate jams. Suppliers commonly sold sugar in the form of a sugarloaf and consumers required sugar nips, a pliers-like tool, to break off pieces.
Sugarcane quickly exhausts the soil in which it grows, and planters pressed larger islands with fresher soil into production in the nineteenth century as demand for sugar in Europe continued to increase: "average consumption in Britain rose from four pounds per head in 1700 to eighteen pounds in 1800, thirty-six pounds by 1850 and over one hundred pounds by the twentieth century." In the 19th century Cuba rose to become the richest land in the Caribbean (with sugar as its dominant crop) because it formed the only major island landmass free of mountainous terrain. Instead, nearly three-quarters of its land formed a rolling plain — ideal for planting crops. Cuba also prospered above other islands because Cubans used better methods when harvesting the sugar crops: they adopted modern milling methods such as watermills, enclosed furnaces, steam engines, and vacuum pans. All these technologies increased productivity. Cuba also retained slavery longer than the most of the rest of the Caribbean islands.
After the Haitian Revolution established the independent state of Haiti, sugar production in that country declined and Cuba replaced Saint-Domingue as the world's largest producer.
Hacienda La Fortuna. A sugar mill complex in Puerto Rico, painted by Francisco Oller in 1885. Brooklyn Museum
Long established in Brazil, sugar production spread to other parts of South America, as well as to newer European colonies in Africa and in the Pacific, where it became especially important in Fiji. Mauritius, Natal and Queensland in Australia started growing sugar. The older and newer sugar production areas now tended to use indentured labour rather than slaves, with workers "shipped across the world ... [and] ... held in conditions of near slavery for up to ten years... In the second half of the nineteenth century over 450,000 indentured labourers went from India to the British West Indies, others went to Natal, Mauritius and Fiji (where they became a majority of the population). In Queensland workers from the Pacific islands were moved in. On Hawaii, they came from China and Japan. The Dutch transferred large numbers of people from Java to Surinam." It is said that the sugar plantations would not have thrived without the aid of the African slaves. In Colombia, the planting of sugar started very early on, and entrepreneurs imported many African slaves to cultivate the fields. The industrialization of the Colombian industry started in 1901 with the establishment of Manuelita, the first steam-powered sugar mill in South America, by Latvian Jewish immigrant James Martin Eder.
While no longer grown and processed by slaves, sugar from developing countries has an ongoing association with workers earning minimal wages and living in extreme poverty.