As we have seen in recent SNN articles, the introduction of sugarcane into the Caribbean region in the mid-1600s completely changed the course of history in northern South America, the Caribbean and the Lower South. It was the Dutch and Brazilian Jews who took sugarcane and the plantation system from northern Brazil to the Lesser Antilles, where they flourished. On the small island of Barbados, in particular, the two came together and rapidly created an entirely new kind of society based on African slave labour and agro-industry which was the the model that was soon spread throughout the English and French islands of the Caribbean. This model reached the mainland in 1670 when Barbadian settlers established the colony of Carolina at Charleston. The plantation system flourished on the North American mainland and created great wealth as it had in northern Brazil and most especially in the Lesser Antilles. That system and the culture to which it gave birth spread across the northern Gulf of Mexico and into the Upper North where the land and climate were suitable.
The story of how sugarcane came to the Caribbean is as fascinating as is how it combined with the plantation system and spread throughout the region and made it to the mainland, greatly altering entire societies along the way. William D Phillips, Jr’s article ‘Sugar and Slavery in the Mediterranean’ (which appears as chapter four in The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its People, edited by Stephan Palmie and Francisco Scarano) provides us with the highlights of its roughly westward march, which can be divided into three phases based on geography and culture: the Middle East, Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic islands. The information below is based on Phillips’ article unless otherwise noted.
SUGARCANE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Scientists believe that sugarcane, a perennial true grass, was native to southeastern Asia in different varieties. It appeared in ancient India, where it was discovered by the Persians and later the Greeks. In fact, one of the names for sugar was ‘Persian reed.’ Arabs brought sugarcane to the Mediterranean. Phillips says that Muslims found it under cultivation in the area north of the Persian Gulf and once they had conquered this region they brought in East Africans to work the fields. From there, it spread north to Baghdad, which became a major sugar refining centre. From Baghdad, sugarcane continued moving westward to Egypt, where it flourished and became quite famous. Egyptians sold sugar throughout the Mediterranean area to Christians and Muslims alike. From Egypt, sugarcane was spread to Syria, Yemen, across north Africa to Morocco and onto the island of Sicily.
SUGARCANE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN
In the eleventh century sugarcane was brought to Spain. In the south of that country it was able to be grown fairly well, though irrigation was always an issue. Indeed, the Mediterranean in general is not ideally suited for sugarcane growing because of the arid conditions and thus the plant yield was low. Another issue was the lack of firewood, which had to be burned to boil the cane juice. In Spain that refining method (which required a water or animal-powered mill) was further developed but never able to reach its full potential due to natural limitations.
By this time, sugar was being exported throughout the Mediterranean area and into southern Europe. Before sugar’s appearance, Europeans had used fruit juice and honey as sweeteners. As they became aware of sugar though, demand for it continued to rise. The crusades as well as other internal issues in the Islamic world interrupted sugar production, which fell in Egypt during the period. However, the crusades also had the effect of greatly expanding European knowledge of sugarcane and creating much more demand for the refined sugar. Phillips writes:
The crusaders found sugarcane under cultivation and production in the areas they conquered. After they reached Jerusalem and conquered it in 1099, the crusaders maintained the cultivation of sugarcane in the states they established. This afforded them immediate revenues and, more important in the long run, created additional demand in the West, as returning crusaders and pilgrims took home samples of cane sugar and thus helped to spread the taste for it. …Sugar plantations were controlled by the king of Jerusalem, by corporate groups such as the military orders and the Italian cities, and by individuals.
Driven from Palestine by the Muslims, Europeans began to grow sugarcane on Cyprus, where they brought in skilled Syrian workers. When the Normans conquered Sicily they gained the sugarcane fields there, which declined in production under the rule of the inexperienced Normans. Later, under the rule of Alfonso V of Aragon, Sicilian sugarcane production again prospered. There were attempts to grow it in central Italy, but it did not flourished that far north. In eastern Spain, Valencian farmers grew it alongside other crops and sold the cane. As sugarcane production was expanded in Valencia in the early 1400s it began to fall off in the eastern Mediterranean due to the chaos caused by the Ottoman conquests.
SUGARCANE IN THE EASTERN ATLANTIC
As demand continued to grow for refined sugar in Europe, the Portuguese and Spanish began to explore the islands of the eastern Atlantic off the coast of north Africa. Sugarcane was brought to the uninhabited, fertile island of Madeira after the vegetation was burned off (and thus adding a rich layer of ash to the soil), canals were dug and terracing was constructed. By the mid-1400s there were profitable sugar plantations on the Portuguese island. A mixed-labour system was employed that was dominated by free Portuguese workers but also included slaves from the Canary Islands as well as Berber and Black slaves from the African mainland.
While the Portuguese were building sugarcane plantations on Madeira, the Spanish were conquering the Canary Islands and building sugarcane plantations there. The Canaries, unlike Madeira, were populated and had to be subdued. Some of the natives were used as slaves but many others married into Spanish families. Portuguese and Spanish workers laboured on the plantations and were augmented by a limited number of north African and Black slaves. Once the Americas were discovered, a few Indian slaves were also brought back to the Canaries. From these Portuguese and Spanish islands refined sugar was taken and sold at major European markets.
ON TO THE AMERICAS
On Madeira and the Canaries vast fortunes were made and sugar production was greatly expanded. Still, the ‘sugar and slavery’ model that would eventually re-make northern Brazil, the Caribbean and the Lower South did not yet exist. As Phillips points out, the farms on the eastern Atlantic islands tended to be much smaller and have far fewer workers than would be used in the Caribbean. However, the right conditions were coming together and these islands formed a ‘staging area from which sugar cultivation and refining would reach Hispaniola, the island where sugarcane was first planted in the Caribbean,’ Phillips writes. Christopher Columbus stopped at Madeira for supplies on his second trip to the Caribbean. There he took on refined sugar as well as cuttings of sugarcane, which he attempted to plant at his failed colony on Hispaniola. Columbus might not have made a success of bringing sugarcane production to the New World, but it was clear that others would try. Little more than a decade later, in the early 1600s (just a century and a half before the ‘sugar revolution’ of the mid-seventeenth century in the Lesser Antilles), sugarcane was successfully planted on Hispaniola and the first sugar mills were built there. Sugarcane had arrived in the Caribbean, where it would take root and go on to change the course of world history.