How Sugar Was Made on St. John during the Danish Colonial Period

Sugar cane was cut by hand in the fields and conveyed to sugar mills by various means. In some cases, wooden channels were used to “shoot” the sugar cane downhill from fields in the upland areas of a plantation, and in others, a “windlass” was used to hoist sugar cane up to the factory from fields below. But, in most cases, sugar cane was hauled to the mills in animal-driven carts. Image of animal-driven sugar mill Once near the mill the cane stalks were cut short, bundled, and carried by hand to the grinders. All canes were passed through the mill’s grinding machinery twice to extract the juices, after which the spent stalks, called magass, were carried away to a drying shed for later use as fuel for the furnaces of the boiling house (sugar factory). Juice from the crushed cane ran out of the bottom of the grinders into a tank known as the receiver. When fresh juice was needed in the factory, it was released from the receiver into a runnel that led to a tank in the factory known as a clarifier. The clarifier, which generally held between 300 and 400 gallons, was situated on the boiling bench in a position where its contents were heated but never boiled. To the juice in the clarifier was added a temper, such as lime powder, a vegetable alkali, or the ashes of certain woods, and as the mixture warmed impurities attached to the temper and rose to the surface as scum. This scum was often skimmed off and made into slop for animal feed. The cane juice remained in the clarifier for approximately an hour while impurities collected on top. Once ready for boiling, the juice was let out of the clarifier by way of a valve or siphoned into a large boiling pot known as the grand copper. As the juice in the grand copper boiled, a thick frothy scum formed on the top. This residue was used in the same manner as the scum from the clarifier, while skimmings from the final stages of the process were taken off and placed in a channel that ran into fermentation butts to make sugar’s primary byproduct, rum. When the contents of the grand copper had been reduced through evaporation by roughly half, the now somewhat thicker juice was quickly ladled into successively hotter and smaller kettles, and the grand copper was refilled from the clarifier. Image of loading sugar barrels As boiling and skimming continued the juice became increasingly condensed. At this stage, it was often necessary to add lime-water to the kettles in order to facilitate further tempering and dilute the juice’s thickness. Finally, the thickened juice was ladled into the smallest and hottest kettle called the teache, where the final stage of evaporation was carried out. By this point the juice had become reduced to heavy syrup and a small amount was tested in a vile of cold water for coagulation. When deemed ready, the syrup was rapidly ladled into shallow, lead-lined boxes called cooling pans. The act of removing the juice from the teache at the proper moment before the sugar burned, but after the point when it would crystallize upon cooling, was called striking, and it was amongst the most critical procedures in the sugar production process. Cooling pans were usually about 7 feet long by 5 feet wide and held roughly 1,600 pounds of sugar. Once in the cooling pan the cane syrup gradually hardened into a coarse mass of crystals in a thick brown residue called molasses. As the crystals formed, they were constantly raked in order to separate the grains and prevent the sugar from clumping. Once the sugar was sufficiently cooled, it was transported to the curing house where the process of draining off the molasses was carried out. Dark-brown sugar produced in this manner was called muscovado. The refining of muscovado into white sugar was not allowed in the Danish West Indies. That right was reserved for the large and powerful sugar refineries in Denmark. Rum and molasses, which were byproducts of the sugar production process, were the only truly refined end-products exported from St. John’s sugar factories during the colonial period.


David W. Knight, Sr.

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