A Brief History of Sugar and Sugar Production in the West Indies

A native to southern Asia, sugar cane has been nourishing man since prehistoric times. It is not known for certain what culture developed the technique of converting sugar cane juice into crystalline sugar, but as the earliest known written reference to the process appears in Sanskrit in about 500 B.C., historians have long credited northern India as the place where sugar cane juice was first rendered into a refined end-product. As with other tropical crops of Asian origin, such as bananas and mangos, sugar cane cultivation is believed to have slowly fanned outward from India into China and the Middle East over the course of many centuries. By A.D. 600 it had become well established in Persia, and within a century sugar cane had reached the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa where the first great economic sugar boom occurred.

Although Europe had long been aware of sugar as a valued commodity of the eastern trade, it was not until the Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that western Europeans first encountered sugar cane under cultivation on the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Sicily. Attempts were soon made to introduce the crop further northward, but it was found that the properties of sugar cane were adversely affected by even the slightest frost. It therefore became apparent that the Mediterranean demarcated the far northern limit of sustainable sugar cane cultivation. For the next 400 years or so, the Mediterranean region continued to hold a near monopoly on the European sugar trade. But, as the age of Atlantic exploration dawned, sugar cane was among the first crops to be introduced into Europe’ newly-acquired tropical colonies — first into the eastern Atlantic islands, and later into the West Indies and the Central and South American mainland. By 1450, sugar produced on Madeira had already begun to reach Europe, and by 1490 sugar from São Tomé (a Portuguese island possession in the Gulf of Guinea) had begun to enter northern markets as well. While the introduction of sugar cane into the eastern Atlantic islands surely had a negative impact on the long-established Mediterranean sugar trade, no single event would serve to more severely erode the Mediterranean’s dominance of the industry than the proliferation of sugar cane throughout the New World.

Having quickly perceived the possibilities for sugar cane cultivation in the West Indies, Columbus brought sugar cane to the island of Hispañiola on his second voyage in 1493. In the early sixteenth century subsequent Spanish expeditions carried the crop to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica, then on to the American continent near Vera Cruz, Mexico, where it was reportedly under cultivation as early as 1525. However, nowhere in the New World was sugar cane found to thrive better than in the humid environs of coastal Brazil. After King Manuel I of Portugal issued a royal order to introduce sugar cane cultivation into that region in 1516, the Pernambuco area quickly became the veritable epicenter of sugar production in the Americas. The long-depleted soils and drier conditions of the Mediterranean were no match for Brazil’s optimum climate for sugar cane cultivation, or for its abundance of fertile, well-watered, arable lands, and the ready availability of enslaved laborers. The era of the Mediterranean’s nearly one thousand-year dominance of the sugar industry rapidly drew to a close. By the end of the sixteenth century, the focus of sugar cane cultivation and sugar production had shifted across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas; sugar cane had become nearly exclusively a New World crop.

While Spain and Portugal were the first countries to introduce sugar cane into the Americas, it was the Dutch who were largely responsible for its proliferation throughout the Lesser Antilles. Having learned the skills of sugar production during their takeover and occupation of Pernambuco between 1629 and 1654, savvy Dutch mercantilists set out to introduce the crop into the Eastern Caribbean, most notably on Barbados. By 1680, sugar was being produced on nearly all of the British- and French-held islands of the Caribbean, and sugar cane had become the dominant crop of the region [Ligon, 1673; Galloway, 1981; Watts, 1987].

It was during this period of rapid expansion of the West Indian sugar industry that Denmark first set out to establish a New World colony. Backed heavily by Dutch capital, in 1672 the Danish West Indies Company was finally successful in establishing a tenuous foothold on the island of St. Thomas. Soon after the arrival of the first Danish settlers, the colonists were joined by a small band of displaced Dutch planters and their families, who had been expelled by the British from the neighboring island of Tortola upon the outbreak of the Third Dutch War. With them, the Dutch refugees had not only brought sugar cane slips from the plantations that they had been forced to abandon on Tortola, but also the skills of sugar cane cultivation and a firsthand knowledge of the process for converting sugar cane juice into its valuable refined end-products: sugar, molasses, and rum [Knox, 1852; Westergaard, 1917; J.O. Bro-JØrgensen, 1966].

Despite the introduction of sugar cane into St. Thomas at the very outset of the colonizing effort, a lack of suitable land and the island’s limited fresh water resources retarded the growth of the sugar industry in the Danish colony. As late as 1715, only about one-third of St. Thomas’s plantations were planted in sugar cane, and no more than thirty-two properties were reported to have sugar processing facilities [STLL, 1715]. In the hopes of expanding the Danish West Indies Company’s share in the increasingly profitable sugar trade, a decision was made to extend Denmark’s colonial holdings to the neighboring island of St. John. In 1718, when Governor Bredal first laid out a set of guidelines for the occupation of that island, one of the six requirements was that a sugarworks be erected on each plantation within five years on penalty of the confiscation of the property [BD, 1718]. While it was later realized that not all of the land holdings on St. John were suitable for sugar cane cultivation and the order was never enforced, any planter with the necessary capital and appropriate location was clearly encouraged to do so [SJLL, 1728]. It was not, however, until the turbulent decades that mark the turn of the nineteenth century that St. John’s low-yield plantations began to be merged and developed into large-scale, agro-industrial sugar estates.

David W. Knight, Sr.

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