Sugar Plantations

In the 17th century sugar cane was brought into British West Indies from Brazil. At that time most local farmers were growing cotton and tobacco. However, strong competition from the North American colonies meant that prices in these crops were falling. The owners of the large plantations decided to switch to growing sugar cane. The plantation owners purchased slaves to provide the labour for this work. The sugar was best grown on land that was near the coast where the soil was naturally yellow and fertile.

James Ramsay, a doctor working for several sugar plantations in St Kitts, was shocked by the way the slaves were treated by the overseers. Ramsay later recalled in his book, Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784): "At four o'clock in the morning the plantation bell rings to call the slaves into the field.... About nine o'clock they have half an hour for breakfast, which they take into the field. Again they fall to work... until eleven o'clock or noon; the bell rings and the slaves are dispersed in the neighbourhood to pick up natural grass and weeds for the horses and cattle (and to prepare and eat their own lunch)... At two o'clock, the bell summons them to deliver in their grass and to work in the fields... About half an hour before sunset they are again required to collect grass - about seven o'clock in the evening or later according to season - deliver grass as before. The slaves are then dismissed to return to their huts, picking up brushwood or dry cow dung to prepare supper and tomorrow's breakfast. They go to sleep at about midnight."

A sugar plantation in 1823
A sugar plantation in 1823

At first settlers in America imported cane sugar from the British West Indies. However, after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, plantation owners began growing sugar cane. This crop was labour intensive and large numbers of slaves were purchased to do this work. The crushed cane was used for fuel, molasses and as a base for rum. The industry grew rapidly and by 1830 New Orleans had the largest sugar refinery in the world with an annual capacity of 6,000 tons.

Francis Fredric was a slave working on a sugar plantation in Maysville, Kentucky. "When we arrived there we found a great deal of uncultivated land belonging to the farm... The neighbouring planters came and showed my master how to manage his new estate. They told the slaves how to tap the sugar-tree to let the liquid out, and to boil it down so as to get the sugar from it. The slaves built a great many log-huts; for my master, at the next slave-market, intended to purchase more slaves."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) James Ramsay, Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784)

At four o'clock in the morning the plantation bell rings to call the slaves into the field.... About nine o'clock they have half an hour for breakfast, which they take into the field. Again they fall to work... until eleven o'clock or noon; the bell rings and the slaves are dispersed in the neighbourhood to pick up natural grass and weeds for the horses and cattle (and to prepare and eat their own lunch)... At two o'clock, the bell summons them to deliver in their grass and to work in the fields... About half an hour before sunset they are again required to collect grass - about seven o'clock in the evening or later according to season - deliver grass as before. The slaves are then dismissed to return to their huts, picking up brushwood or dry cow dung to prepare supper and tomorrow's breakfast. They go to sleep at about midnight.

(2) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

From Welland we took boats to Maysville, Kentucky. My master had bought a farm in Mason County, about twenty miles from Maysville. When we arrived there we found a great deal of uncultivated land belonging to the farm. The first thing the negroes did was to clear the land of bush, and then to sow blue grass seed for the cattle to feed upon. They then fenced in the woods for what is called woodland pasture. The neighbouring planters came and showed my master how to manage his new estate. They told the slaves how to tap the sugar-tree to let the liquid out, and to boil it down so as to get the sugar from it. The slaves built a great many log-huts; for my master, at the next slave-market, intended to purchase more slaves.

I was taken into the house to learn to wait at table - a fortunate chance for me, since I had a better opportunity of getting food. I shall never forget my first day in the kitchen. I was delighted to see some bread in the pantry. I took piece after piece to skim the fat from the top of the boiling-pot, overjoyed that I could have sufficient.

(3) Gad Heuman and James Walvin, Origins and Development of Slavery in the Americas (2003)

The first African slaves had been taken to Portugal, then to Madeira and finally to Sao Tome. After 1523, however, African slaves began to move in a westerly flow - to the Americas. Once sugar had been firmly established in Brazil in the 1540s, the future direction of the slave trade was sealed. The first blacks shipped to the Americas were those already accustomed to Spain or Portugal or the Atlantic islands. Henceforth, Africans were shipped directly across the Atlantic. By the end of the sixteenth century, about 80 per cent of slaves exported from West Africa went to the Americas. This was confirmed in 1576 by the Portuguese settlement of Luanda, which quickly became their main African slave-trading base. Thereafter, Africans were shipped from a region "that was to provide America with the most slaves of any area of Africa over the next three centuries"...

In Brazil, the enslavement of native people began more slowly and lasted longer, but never proved satisfactory, especially for work in the sugar industry. Indians died, drifted away or simply failed to work as the Portuguese settlers required. But both the Spaniards and the Portuguese knew that other peoples - Africans - had already proved their worth as slaves in the sugar industry of the Atlantic islands. Though some regions of Brazil saw a survival of enslavement of native peoples, it was Africans who, in time, came to dominate the sugar industry. Africans and sugar cultivation were thus wedded together, as were slavery and Africans.

Parts of the American settlement did not require labour on such a scale, but sugar did. Whatever the legal or moral objections to slavery, both the Portuguese and the Spanish turned towards African slavery. This was especially true of the Portuguese in their Brazilian sugar industry. European immigrant labour was non-existent; they would not, or could not, uproot and migrate to the uncertainties and dangers of the Americas, and local Indian labour was inadequate for a variety of reasons. Africans, however, were readily available, courtesy of the Portuguese slaving presence on the African coast, and at what contemporaries regarded as an acceptable price.

The wealth disgorged by Spanish America (often on a fabulous scale) provided the money to buy African slaves, who poured into Mexico and Peru, where they were used in a wide range of urban occupations, such as in mining, agriculture and ranching. By the mid-seventeenth century the slave population of Mexico was 35,000 (less than 2 per cent of the population) but in Peru it stood at 100,000 (between 10 and 15 per cent of the population). However, it was in Brazil and the Caribbean that demand for African slaves took off in spectacular fashion. The sugar plantations and mills of Brazil and later the West Indies devoured Africans. By the early seventeenth century, some 170,000 Africans had been imported to Brazil and Brazilian sugar now dominated the European market. In this the Dutch were crucial, capturing key slave-trading posts from the Portuguese in Africa, gaining a temporary toehold in Brazil itself, but also providing money, financial expertise and markets."

When the Dutch were finally pushed out of Brazil, they sought new areas to develop the sugar craved by the markets served by Amsterdam. Thus, Dutch money, expertise, technology and slaves moved from Brazil to the West Indies. Dutch finance and know-how (especially their sophisticated credit arrangements) enabled British and other settlers in the islands to buy the Africans needed to work in their fledgling settlements. With this invaluable Dutch help, the English in particular were able to brush aside the fading power of Spain in the Caribbean. They were uncertain, at first, how best to develop their newly secured lands, trying a range of agricultural crops and labour systems - notably tobacco. Barbados offers the best example of what happened.

The initial settlement was on smallholdings, worked by white indentured servants from Britain. But the arrival of sugar saw the emergence of large-scale sugar plantations (the landscape was dotted with windmills used for crushing the cane) and the widespread use of African slaves. By the end of the seventeenth century, Barbados, a small island, no larger than the Isle of Wight, was home to 50,000 slaves. A similar pattern unfolded close by on the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Altogether, the Caribbean islands had, in a relatively short period, absorbed more than 450,000 Africans, Brazil 500,000 to 600,000, and Spanish America between 350,000 and 400,000.

But even these figures began to pale with the development, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, of the two islands which came to dominate the Atlantic sugar industry and consequently the slave trade: Jamaica and St Domingue (later Haiti). The English seized Jamaica in 1655 from the Spanish and, like their neighbours on the smaller islands, the pioneering settlers created a string of small-scale agricultural settlements. When the settlers turned to sugar (aided by migrants from Barbados), they developed a society characterised by large-scale plantations and large slave holdings. Much the same pattern evolved in St Domingue. Africans soon came to dominate the islands' populations, outnumbering local whites to such an extent that whites and colonial governments began to fear for social and racial tranquillity (i.e., white dominance and control). Moreover, Jamaica produced sugar on a phenomenal scale: the 500 tons of 1669 rose to 6,056 tons by 1704.16 St Domingue's rapid expansion was even more impressive. By 1780 its sugar industry was the best in the world and the slave population stood at almost half a million. Exports from the island formed a substantial slice of France's trading wealth, but it was built at a terrible price and exploded in revolutionary and racial fury in the 1790s.

The Dutch had been vital in the early English and French settlements in the Caribbean, but the commercial and military rise of those two nations (enemies from first to last) effectively displaced the Dutch in the Atlantic. The Atlantic slave trade was now dominated by English and French slave ships. Between them, in the eighteenth century, they shipped more than 4 million Africans into the Americas, the very great majority destined to work in sugar. By then, slaves were employed everywhere throughout the Atlantic economy, from the myriad domestic chores in the homes of local whites through to sailor's tasks on the Atlantic ships, but sugar dominated - in Brazil and the Caribbean - and therefore the Atlantic slave trade. It was all made possible not solely by African slave labour, but by the use of plantations. The plantation had become a critical institution in developing the Americas; it made it possible for Europeans, through their African slaves, to bring profitable cultivation to vast reaches of the Americas. What happened in North America was, however, slightly different.