A Bittersweet Tale

September 25, 2007

The discovery and conquest of the New World profoundly altered ecological and human balances. Such alterations had been occurring for countless millennia in Eurasia and Africa, but not in America. Only a few decades after Columbus, some of the same kinds of change––deforestation, soil exhaustion, erosion, pollution, and the spread of new diseases––were actively underway in the New World.[1] As the Conquest proceeded––first in the Antilles, Middle America and Mexico, later on the South and North American mainlands––Old World populations, domestic animals, crops, sicknesses and technologies were introduced, soon to be followed by masses of enslaved people.

Many of the large-scale ecological changes the Americas soon suffered were not haphazard occurrences. They resulted from colonial programs aimed at satisfying European objectives: the extraction of immense quantities of metallic ores, precious stones, and dyewoods; the processing of cloth and leather; and the production of spices, foods, and alcoholic beverages, all destined to be consumed in Europe.

Sugar is a good example of how changes set in motion by the introduction of new crops, new industrial plants and new peoples, got played out. First domesticated in New Guinea, first processed into a granular product in India/Iran around the start of the Christian Era, and first becoming known to the Europeans around the eighth century, the sugar cane plant reached the New World with Columbus in 1493, on his second voyage.

Coarse granular sugar was being made in Santo Domingo and shipped to Spain by 1516. Soon cane cultivation spread over vast insular and mainland areas, and the industrial plants needed to process it had been established wherever it was grown. Large populations, coerced locally or transferred by force to the New World from elsewhere, did the work. Some laborers, particularly at first, were coerced Europeans; many were (and continued to be) Native Americans; eventually Asians, too, would be added to the picture. But most of the workers were from Africa. It is no more possible to think of the African diaspora without thinking of sugar, than it is to imagine the creation of the vast New World sugar empires without enslaved African labor.[2]

From about 1520 onward, the energies of New World colonists were increasingly bent to producing this precious good. After 1650 and until the mid-nineteenth century, most of the sugar sold on the world market was produced from New World cane. Over the centuries, the American centers of production shifted from the Hispanic Caribbean (Santo Domingo and Cuba), to Portuguese Brazil, then to Dutch Guiana (Suriname), French St. Domingue (Haiti), and British Jamaica, then finally to the Hispanic Caribbean yet again. Even more sugar (though mostly for local use) was produced in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Louisiana, and elsewhere in the Americas.

Most of the caribbean islands were heavily wooded in 1492; none had been significantly altered by human occupance. Much the same was true of mainland areas where sugar was to become important. In northeast Brazil and the coastal Guianas, as well as in the Greater Antilles, all of them areas of pioneering sugar production, fresh and fertile land, plentiful water, abundant forest, and ample sunshine made their promise far greater than that of any of the Old World sugar regions.

One expert writes: “The initial response of the first sugar cane planters to this abundance of resources was to abandon the conservationist practices that were hallmarks of the industry in the Old World. There was no need to spend capital on irrigation systems, no need to build terraces, no need to manure in a land where clearing new fields was less effort than striving to maintain the fertility of the old.”[3] Though the resources (as well as the profligacy) would not endure, the initial conditions encouraged waste and, in most places, a tradition of waste.

From the early sixteenth century until the creation of the fossil-fuelled factory central nearly 400 years later, the sugar plantation was the single biggest destroyer of Caribbean forest resources. Wood was used for construction of all sorts––in the coastal Guianas, for example, there is a shortage of building stone. But it was even more important as a fuel to convert the cane juice into sugar, and the molasses into rum. By the time technical improvements in the seventeenth century had made it possible to stoke the cauldron fires with dried cane trash, many of the primeval forests of the Caribbean islands and even of substantial mainland regions had already been cut.

When steam began to supplant other power sources in the late eighteenth century, the need for wood grew greater. By the time electrically-powered central factories were grinding cane at the end of the nineteenth century, Caribbean forests were mostly gone, those in many mainland areas grievously depleted. As late as the 1920s, railroad ties were being cut from lignum vitae, mahogany, tachuelo, and other precious tropical hardwoods in Puerto Rico, where narrow-gauge railroads were established to transport cane.[4]

Watts writes that the establishment of sugar in Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century brought about the “virtual total removal of the ecologically intricate stable tropical seasonal and rainforest, along with the associated coastal scrub…The speed with which this was effected must be almost without a parallel in an agricultural area.” At least two tall tree species were made extinct, and there was “an equivalent destruction of fauna.”[5]

In tropical environments, most nutrients are stored in plant life, not win the soil. The extirpation of local biota in Barbados, together with the conversion of the land to cane planting, led within a decade to planter complaints about soil degradation. Deforestation, the killing off of local fauna, the nutrient depletion of the soil, and the intensification of island-wide surface evaporation, all came about because of the cane plantation economy. The importance of deforestation cannot be exaggerated, as much additional environmental degradation turns on it. Destruction of forest cover deprives wildlife of food and protection, soil of retention and nutrients, and, eventually, the affected region of rainfall.

In addition to wood, the sugar plantations needed water, not only for animal and human consumption and everyday purposes, but also for industrial uses (and in the early period, for grinding power). Though irrigation did not become an important aspect of plantation development in most regions until the nineteenth century, from early on water had to be controlled and managed. In British Guiana, for example, where control of subsurface water required tremendous drainage and irrigation projects, the slaves moved by hand one hundred million tons of mud to build the dams, polders, and irrigation ditches the system required.

The consequences of such alterations of the natural landscape are immense. Besides destroying the natural habitat, they contributed to the spread and virulence of particular diseases, including bilharziasis (schistosomiasis) and malaria.[6] When the south coast irrigation system was built in Puerto Rico at the turn of the century, sugar workers, especially those working in irrigation, showed sharp increases in parasitic diseases. Irrigation ditches also provided excellent breeding grounds for the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito.

In the 1940s, when I researched Puerto Rican sugar, men commonly stood barelegged in the irrigation ditches while they worked, and washed themselves off with the same water when they left work. Each such daily experience increased the probability of contracting parasitic diseases. Children normally played and swarm in the irrigation ponds scattered over the plantations, and people washed clothes in the water flowing out of them. No wonder infestation rates at times reached nearly 100%.

In other ways, as well, sugar plantation operations resulted in quite direct attacks on the natural environment. To mention but one, the mongoose was imported to Jamaica originally at the behest of plantation owners, to attack the numerous snakes in the cane. But the mongoose spread to other islands, and its predations are responsible for the extinction of at least six Antillean faunal species. The importation of domestic animals such as the horse, the donkey, and the ox, though not solely due to sugar, has also done its share to destroy the local environment, particularly (but not only) by overgrazing on substandard land. More recently, the use of herbicides and pesticides, modern additions to scientific sugar cane agriculture, contaminate the water and poison the soil.

In many American economies, the sugar industry disadvantaged alternative agrarian systems. Wherever peasant adaptations emerged (often less injurious to the environment), they did so in the face of plantation resistance. Roads, railroads, and agricultural extension services always catered to the plantations; the best alluvial flatlands were always monopolized by them. When millions of plantation workers dreamed of a peasant lifestyle on their own land, it was systematically denied them. Now that epoch has passed, and seems irretrievable. The countryside is emptying out ever more rapidly. The long-term environmental costs of the repression of a peasant way of life are incalculable.

Fopr more than a century, cane sugar was one of the most important items in world trade, and the men who organized its production and sale were movers and shakers in European politics as well as in European commerce. But after the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the plantations began a long decline. Country after country illegalized the slave trade, then abolished slavery itself. In the 1830s, commercial production of sugar from the sugar beet was perfected in Europe. Competitive sugar economics developed in other pans of the world. The mainland American sugar industries, except for Brazil, ended up producing mostly for the domestic market.

Caribbean islands, once the proud possessions of half a dozen leading European colonial powers, became little than embarrassing liabilities. By this time, however, their lands were covered with sugarcane; their streams were dammed and transformed into irrigation ditches; their ports and wharves were organized for the sugar trade; their roads and railroads serviced the plantations; their agricultural services specialized in cane growing; and their labor forces, dragged to the New World to produce sugar, were equipped to do little else. Jamaica and Martinique had become “sugar islands,” and Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil, “sugar countries.”

To this day, large areas of the Americas––in Louisiana and Florida, coastal Peru, northeast Brazil, interior Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and, of course, Cuba, among others––are still dedicated to the production of this sweet white substance, though now with less and less enthusiasm and profit. Despite its revolution, Cuba has not found ways to escape its role as sugar-producer for the developed world (first Spain, then the United States, now the Soviet Union). Though sugar has nearly vanished from Puerto Rico, nothing that grows has taken its place. In the Dominican Republic the sugar industry is in perpetual crisis, aggravated by the terrible labor conditions imposed on its migrant Haitian work force. In Brazil, the industry is kept alive mainly by heavily subsidized methyl alcohol production.

An economy once imposed on millions of people, most of them unwilling, over the course of centuries, has now become totally unworkable. In its wake, it has left tired land, disease-infested waters, treeless terrain, and untrained workers––such that nothing seems able to replace it.

The great Trinidadian historian, Eric Williams, once remarked on the irony that so sweet a substance as sugar should have caused such bitterness and bloodshed. Yet, when one looks at what sugar has done to native peoples, and natural environments, the ironies are even greater. A medicine, spice, and luxury of kings in the sixteenth century was transformed into a necessity of Europe’s toiling masses by the eighteenth. In its name land was laid waste, millions of coerced Africans and Asians shipped to the New World, and millions of Europeans encouraged to use sugar and stimulant beverages, sometimes in place of the foods they had previously eaten. In its name, courts and courtiers, slave traders and planters, refiners and confectioners grew wealthy. Now, the lands that made this wealth possible, and the descendants of the peoples who worked those lands, are much the poorer. Is there a moral? The “democratization” of consumption is now a fundamental aspect of modern life. But no one seems prepared to calculate the costs, past or present.

Sidney W. Mintz teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book isSweetness and Power (Penguin, 1986).

1. Such changes were not unknown to indigenous New World civilizations. Native Americans had altered the locales which they exploited from the time of their original entry in the Hemisphere, by hunting and fishing and gathering food, by the use of fire and by woodcutting, and, later, by plant and animal domestication, mining and metallurgy, monumental building, terracing, irrigation works, and so on. Yet in scale and in rapidity of change, the post-Columbian alterations were unprecedented.
2. All of this spectacular (and often destructive) change is more understandable in light of the vast transformation of the work, eating, and social habits of Europe itself, which was linked to the discovery of the New World.
3. J.H. Galloway, The Sugar Cane Industry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 63.
4. The writer has seen art objects curved from such ties that had been dug up after a half century underground.
5. David Watts, The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 219-223.
6. W.R. Jobin, “Sugar and Snails: The Ecology of Bilharziasis related to Agriculture in Puerto Rico,” American Journal of Tropical Medical Hygiene, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 86-94. The spread of yellow fever is believed to have been hastened by the slave trade, which was closely tied to the sugar industry. See F.D. Goodyear, “The Sugar Connection: A New Perspective on the History of Yellow Fever,” Journal of the History of Medicine, No. 52 (1978), pp. 5-21.

Tags: Sugar, plantation economy, environmental destruction, conquest

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