Slaves and Their Brutal Work

The Brutality of Sugar Production


When it was still an acceptable practice, was so brutal to so many people that tensions still run rampant into today’s world. The only real materials that are present today that gives people at least a taste of the atrocities committed are what people see in pop culture and then of course in textbooks. These forms of literature cannot even come close to giving us a true representation because people cannot fathom the sense of scale that this was happening. According to the graphic from “Inhuman Bondage” by David Brion Davis, there were a little over 9 million slaves imported to North and South America from Africa (Davis). This is a number that can only be thought about when thinking about a large city like New York or adding together the population of Portland fifteen times. Many of these slaves were subjected to brutal jobs, the types of jobs that one might see on the show “Dirty Jobs,” but each one worse based on the racist tendencies of slave-owners. The most brutal jobs of them all were associated with sugar production and most jobs given to slaves were in this line of work based on the rapidly increasing demand for sugar. They were so bad because of the hard manual labor and the danger involved based on the climate, the machines, and the long work days. Hopefully this flyer can give a little more insight to just how rough the daily work of slaves really was.

The attached image can be found on pg. 106 in "Inhuman Bondage" by David Brion Davis

Manual Labor

“Sugar gradually became one of the first luxuries consumed by the masses in Western societies (along with slave-produced coffee, tobacco, and eventually chocolate), it also became the principle incentive for transporting millions of Africans to the New World” (Davis, 106). This quote from Davis is the tragedy of sugar production in a nutshell. It might not seem like a tragic statement, but the work the slaves had to do for sugar to be consumed by the masses is what makes the statement tragic. The manual labor required outside was unparalleled in its physical demand. There were a couple of steps involved in the outdoors work. First, trenches were built. These trenches were about a foot in depth and three by three feet square (Davis). The image below helps visualize this better. This kind of work might not sound too demanding right away, but it gets worse and worse when considering that these fields were not only massive, but most plantations owners incorporated these fields. It only gets worse when the topography and climate are taken into account. Just looking at the map above, most of the main slave settlement areas are around the equator meaning there was a very hot climate throughout the year and much of the time, the trenches had to be dug in heavy soils and hardened by the heat and longevity of exposure to the sun. At this point in time, in the eighteenth century, ploughs were still seldom used so the slaves had to do the work by hand with hoes making it an even more time consuming task (Davis). Even though this might seem more arduous than it could be, it only got worse for the slaves.

When sugar production first started, farmers were not fully aware of soil erosion and the use of fertilizer for their crop. As the planters learned more about these two aspects of sugar agriculture, fertilizer was now a need. In many places including the Caribbean, the slaves resorted to carrying baskets of up to eighty pounds manure on their heads for trench fertilization. This was made even worse as the Caribbean has very hilly terrain so they had to trek up sometimes steep hillsides (Davis). Again, the images below help visualize what kind of terrain the slaves had to work with, at least in the Caribbean sugar fields. What the below image does not convey though, is how many slaves were working. Sugar plantations usually had 100 slaves, but had a range of 50 slaves in the Spanish mainland to 200 slaves in Jamaica. According to "African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean by Herbert S. Klein and Ben Vinson III, this translates to close to 1.5 million slaves in America on sugar plantations and many, many more elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Brazil (Klein & Vinson). These numbers put it more in perspective as to how many slaves participated in this sort of manual labor.

Below is a representation of the slaves digging the trenches of the sugarcane fields. More information can be found here in the article, "Caribbean Trade" by Andrew Douglas,Cheryl Neifert, Amy Sanderson, and Kristen Toskes -'s.html

Big image
The images below help show the terrain that the slaves had to deal with.

Dangers of Sugar Production

Along with the danger of the overwhelming heat outside on the sugar plantations, there was much more danger in other production jobs. It was after the sugarcane had been cut and brought to the mill where the job got truly dangerous. There were usually seven to eight people working in the mill, but up to thirty slave men and women were known to work at a time on some plantations (Davis). According to the book “The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States” by Laird Bergad, “Tropical sugar plantation agriculture has long been associated with the highest death rates of all the slave-based economic activities.” His reasons include tropical diseases, but it is Davis that goes on to explain why it was so dangerous to work in the mill.

In the mill, the cane was either passed by hand “piece by piece, through three vertical rollers to squeeze out the juice" (Davis, 108). This is represented in the image below called "Animal-Powered Sugar Mill, Martinique, 1835." It can be found here -

Big image
Others conducted the liquid through a series of heated vats and cauldrons until repeated skimming purified a substance that could be poured into molds and eventually dried and crated as sugar” (Davis, 108). Scenes of these types of mills are below.
It might not have been as dangerous as it was if the slaves had better work shift times. They were given shifts of sixteen to eighteen hours, which included work at night. When tired as they were at this time, “there was considerable danger…of a worker catching his or her fingers in the vertical rollers” (Davis, 108). There was always a hatchet on hand to sever the arm in case it got caught. However, this would ruin the sugar, as the arm would get drawn into the sugar juice, which meant punishment for at least the watchman (Davis). This danger contributed a common sight of slaves with missing arms, especially Northeastern Brazilian slave women according to Davis. Bergard also agrees with the long work days as being a main factor in the high death rates by saying, “Subjecting slaves to horrendous living conditions and excruciatingly long workdays during the harvest season…were additional factors accounting for the higher death rates” (Bergard, 103). A representation of the living conditions is below.
Diving deeper, the normal workday on a sugar plantation began around 5am with two breaks for food, a half-hour breakfast and an hour for a midday meal. Then the slaves would head back to their cabins at dusk, unless it was time for the milling and boiling of the cane. This required them to work throughout the night and sometimes only sleeping every other night. In Brazil alone, the harvest season went on for about nine months and planting lasted two or more months (Davis). In Louisiana, according to “Routine on a Louisiana Sugar Plantation under the Slavery Regime” by Walter Prichard, the work lasted the whole year through and if the crop did not need attention due to weather or other factors, there was plenty of other work to be done on the plantation (Prichard). All of this contributes to tired workers who in a moment of ignorance, hunger, or exhaustion could lose their lives.


The sugar plantations were where some of the most brutal work for slaves took place. There is still no possible way people could actually fathom the amount of people enslaved on these plantations and the great amounts of exhausting and extremely dangerous work that the slaves had to partake in. They were subjected to hard manual labor in blistering heat amongst tropical diseases while planting and harvesting many times working from 5am until dusk. Then when the sugarcane was ready to mill, they sometimes worked around the clock to get the tasks done creating very dangerous situations for themselves in which some people lost arms in the process of rolling out the sugar juice from the cane and possibly dying from the traumatic event. The work was unlike any other that slaves had to undertake in this terrible time in the history of mankind. “The tremendous work pressure driving the sugar harvest far exceeded anything that slaves encountered when cultivating tobacco, cotton, rice, or indigo” (Davis, 108). I hope that this flyer was able to give at least a little more insight into the life of a sugar plantation slave and gives more perspective on the brutal work they had to do. After researching this, I have an even greater respect for anyone who went through this, as I am not entirely sure that I personally would have been able to persevere through something like this.

Works Cited

Bergad, Laird W. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Klein, Herbert S. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Second ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Prichard, Walter. Routine on a Louisiana Sugar Plantation under the Slavery Régime. United States: Organization of American Historians, 1927. Print.