Sugar into Money

The Rise of Plantation Economies

  • The very first documents proving the existence of slavery date back to 2000 B.C.E, but about 6000 years earlier Mesopotamia paved the way for the shift from a hunter-gather based society to and agricultural one complete with urban centers. Fast-forward to 750 B.C.E and ancient Greece was in the midst of an agricultural revelation where “a small number of slaves were associated with family farms producing a mix of crops. Thus slavery became economically important as soon as farmers began producing a surplus of grain, olives, fruit, and wine that could be sold or exchanged.”As time passed society clung to the agricultural society and built upon and globally expanded the Mesopotamian and Greek systems to form a much more complex system; the plantation system.This is a concise history of the rise of plantation economies in Brazil, Barbados / St. Kitts, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico and North America.


  • In 1500, the Portuguese landed in Brazil were they discovered indigenous civilizations that had yet to adopt “broad over-arching political and social systems to mobilize larger labor reserves.” According to Klein, “the first exports from this area of Brazil was woods, from which dyes were extracted.” Ultimately the establishment of a French colony is what convinced the Portuguese to fully exploit Brazil’s resources. However, the Portuguese need to find a commodity that was much more consistent and profitable than dyewood. Sugar so happened to be the perfect crop to guarantee the existence of the newfound colony. By the 1550s Brazil was the first planation system of the New World and “by 1580 the colony was rapidly forming into the prototypical American model of the slave-based sugar plantation.” In consequence to the decision to develop Brazil into a large-scale sugar industry, slavery increased and evolved to create a full-blown slave and sugar plantation. Additionally, in 1690 mass amounts of gold and diamonds were revealed in Minas Gerais. Thus, agriculture and ranching centers began developing around the city in order to properly supply the new mining zones. Overall, by Laird W. Bergad’s opinion, “northeastern Brazil was to become the principal destination of the transatlantic slave trade later in the 17th century.” Brazil quickly became Europe’s prime supplier of sugar and so their plantations grew far larger than any system before them. The wealth gained by being Europe’s prime sugar producer allowed farmers “to construct expensive, large water-driven mills with capacities far greater than their field production.” Additionally, Brazilians created a system that “effectively increased the percentage of juice extracted from the canes, thereby greatly increasing the productivity of the mills.” Thus, by having favorable soil, advanced milling technology, and great relations with the European commercial network, Brazil became the dominate sugar producer by 1600. In the end, the mid-17th century would prove to be the height of Brazil’s dominance in the European sugar market, however, no other system would ever rival that of Brazil’s.

Barbados / St. Kitts

  • After the Portuguese reconquered their land in Northeast Brazil the Dutch settlers moved onto Barbados and St. Kitts. Prior to Dutch settlement, Barbados and St. Kitts principle exports was tobacco and indigo and both commodities were produced on small plantations. The Dutch brought “with them slaves, equipment, and a sophisticated technological knowledge of the methods of sugar production.” According to Phillip D. Curtin in The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History, the Dutch “offered to show the colonists how to plant sugarcane. They also offered to sell the equipment for sugar factories, to sell slaves from Africa to increase the available work force, and to buy the crop." Thus by the 1650s, much like the colonies surrounding it, Barbados was gradually turning into a slave and sugar colony. Nevertheless, “because of soil quality and hilly terrain Barbados had difficulty developing very large units.” However, it was because of these Dutch settlers that Barbados and St. Kitts were able to form an efficient sugar plantation system. Unfortunately, “by the last quarter of the 17th century French and English production, shipping, and marketing organization was sufficiently important to break the dependence on the Dutch.”

Saint Domingue, Haiti:

  • Saint Domingue would replace Barbados and “become one of the epicenters of Caribbean slavery and sugar production by the mid-18th century.” Initially, however, Saint Domingue was a bit slow to develop because it had to compete with already well established sugar colonies. In the early 18th century, as sugar production moved into more open spaces, larger estates began appearing. According to Klein, “the average estate began reaching over-200-acre range with about 100 slaves.” Thus, by the mid-18th century Saint Domingue became the dominant sugar-based colony in the Caribbean. Moreover, by the late 1780s Saint Domingue was globally recognized as the most efficient and productive sugar producer. In a turn for the worse, a revolt among the slaves of the sugar plantations arose in August 1791 and the result was the declaration of a free and independent Haitian government in 1804. Subsequently, “sugar production fell to one-third of its 1791 levels, and by the next decade Haiti dropped out of the sugar market altogether.” The result of the revolt ended with the elimination of Haiti from the global market and caused sugar prices to rise. On the other hand, the absence of Haiti in the global realm provided and opportunity to for more colonies to expand into slave and plantation regimes.


  • Initially, Cuba only had small production units for local and regional and was the meeting point for the Spanish fleet system that monopolized trade to and from Spanish Americas. Cuba was not converted into a slave and sugar colony until the late 18th century. Surprisingly, it was Cuba that would eventually replace Saint Domingue in the world market by the middle of the 19th century. Additionally, “it was the Cuban sugar industry that was to prove to be the most efficient and dynamic in the 19th century." Consequently, the period between the 1790s – 1820s was Cuba’s first sugar boom. According to Herbert S. Klein in African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean, this was most probable because “it was the time when the French had introduced the latest in modern techniques to then totally backward Cuban sugar industry.” As a result, Cuba would be one of the first to modernize its industry but adopting railroads. By using modern technology Cuba was able to reduce the costs of transportation, expand their plantations, and overall, produce sugar more quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, in 1868 an open revolt ensued that resulted in the Ten Years’ War. This resulted “in the physical liquidation of most of Cuba’s traditional animal-powered mills. So the result was that the region now became a center of a vibrant free colored peasant agriculture.” Thus, the late 1860s and 1870s in Cuba, saw the start of new systems of sugar production units known as, centrales. Centrales were massive factories that concentrated primarily on sugar refining and gave the duties of sugar planting to independent planters. Despite its humble beginnings, Cuba was to be one of the most dynamic plantation regimes in the 19th century and accordingly, “be defined as the quintessential sugar plantation regime.”

Puerto Rico:

  • Puerto Rico’s roots was in gold-mining but it ran out of gold deposits. As a result, in the 17th century the society primarily focused their efforts towards cattle and small peasant agriculture economy. However, Klein states that, “in the 18th century the island began to develop exports of coffee, sugar, and tobacco along with its traditional exports of hides and wood.” Puerto Rico was fortunate enough to have favorable soil and climate for sugar production therefore, the island soon became the new center of sugar production. Unlike Saint Domingue and Barbados, Puerto Rico lacked vast open spaces for extensive plantations. Instead, the most favorable areas for sugar was on narrow strips of land along the coast. This location not only placed a limit on how big a plantation could be but, also the size of the labor force. In spite of these limitations the sugar industry in Puerto Rico still grew strong. Therefore, “by the late 1820s Puerto Rico was a major world producer of both sugar and coffee, as well as a significant producer of tobacco.” However, a combination of unfortunate events occurred in the last quarter of the 19th century that ultimately led to the destruction of Puerto Rico’s sugar industry. One such factor was the increasing competition from European nations and Cuba who successively cut Puerto Rico from the European and US markets in the 1850s. In addition to their eviction, “a combination of a failure to pay the promised compensation for the slaves emancipated after 1870, and over-investment in steam, and the overproduction in the world market” led to their serious decline.

North America:

  • Tobacco plantation spread to the Chesapeake region of Virginia and it created a greater need for slave labor. North America began receiving large amounts of its first large-scale shipments of African slaves. Soon, African slaves out-numbered white plantation owners and it created a stressful environment that led to absolute control over slaves. Rice cultivation became prominent in the 1690s, In Georgia, South Carolina, and a part of Northern Carolina. According to David B. Davis in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, “rice needed to be grown on a fairly extensive farm in order to be economically viable. The labor demands of rice production led to large-scale importations.” Ralph Davis defends David B. Davis’s point in The Rise of the Atlantic Economies, by stating that “the [rice] plantations were heavily capitalized, requiring expensive irrigation works as well as big labour forces." Eventually, the production of rice and tobacco was replaced in North America by the rise of cotton. With cotton came even larger producing units. In Slavery Emancipation and Freedom, Stanley L. Engerman suggests that “the slave economy was rather adaptable to innovations in transport and production, such as the cotton gin, canals, the steamboat, and the railroad, and was able to benefit from various technical and organizational innovations.” The plantation system in North America thrived and the export of the staple crops tobacco, rice, and finally, cotton is what created the foundation of what America is built upon and is representative of everything it would become.


  • Sugar had been cultivated on all these islands from the start, however, they usually need some support from other sources. Klein gives the Dutch as an example stating that “they brought the needed credit to import the expensive machinery to get mills into successful operation.” The growth of agriculture caused a growth in the population and ultimately, the growth in the size of plantations and production output. Klein purposes that “in the period from the 1830s to the 1860s the sugar plantation regime entered a new phase due to a technological revolution. Between a mix of various factors, including force, close supervision, systematization and routinization plantations were able to increase their levels of output. Furthermore, Klein states that, “the reason for the dominance of the slave plantation model in America by the late 18th century was due to its being the most efficient means of production of commercial crops developed by Europeans prior to the Industrial Revolution.” In the end, all the sugar-based plantations went through their periods of booming economies followed by a disastrous bust that generally lasted 100 years.