Sugar plantations in the Caribbean
The sugar cane plant was the main crop produced on the numerous plantations throughout the Caribbean through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, as almost every island was covered with sugar plantations and mills for refining the cane for its sweet properties. The main source of labor until the abolition of slavery was African slaves. These plantations produced 80 to 90 percent of the sugar consumed in Western Europe. In the 19th century sugar dominated Martinique, Grenada, Saint Croix, Jamaica, Barbados, Leeward Islands, Saint Domingue, Cuba, Guyana and many other islands that were run by French or British owners. During the late 19th and 20th centuries the sugarcane industry came to dominate Puerto Rico's economy, both under the colonial rule of Spain and the United States of America.
Sugar was the most important crop throughout the Caribbean, although other crops such as coffee, indigo, and rice were also grown. The sugar was best grown on relatively flat land that was near the coast where the soil was naturally yellow and fertile, so mountainous parts of the islands were less likely to be used for sugar.
In the mid-17th century sugar cane was brought into the British West Indies by the Dutch from Brazil. Upon landing in Barbados and other islands, they quickly urged local farmers to change their main crops from cotton and tobacco to sugar cane. With depressed prices of cotton and tobacco due mainly to stiff competition from the North American colonies, the farmers switched, leading to a boom in the Caribbean economies. Sugar was quickly snapped up by the British who used the sugar for cakes, and sweetener in teas.
During the colonial period, the arrival of sugar culture deeply impacted society and economy in the Caribbean. It not only dramatically increased the ratio of slaves to free men, but also the average size of slave plantations. Early sugar plantations made extensive use of slaves because sugar was considered a cash crop that exhibited economies of scale in cultivation; it was most efficiently grown on large plantations with many workers. As a result, slaves were imported from Africa to work on the plantations. For example, before 1650 more than three-quarters of the island’s population was white. In 1680, the median size of a plantation in Barbados had increased to about 60 slaves. Over the decades, the sugar plantations became larger and larger. In 1832, the median plantation in Jamaica had about 150 slaves, and nearly one of every four bondsmen lived on units that had at least 250 slaves.
For about the next 100 years Barbados remained the richest of all the European colonies in the Caribbean region. The colony's prosperity remained regionally unmatched until sugar cane production grew in geographically larger countries such as Saint-Domingue, Jamaica and elsewhere. As part of the mass sugar production, the process gave rise to other related commodities such as rum, molasses, and Falernum.
The West India Interest was formed in the 1740s when the British merchants joined with the West Indian sugar planters. The British and West Indies shared profits and needs. This organization was the first sugar trading organization which had a large voice in parliament.
In the 1740s, Jamaica and Saint-Domingue (Haiti) became the world’s main sugar producers. They increased the production by using an irrigation system that French engineers built. The engineers also built reservoirs, diversion dams, levees, aqueducts and canals. In addition, they improved their mills and used varieties of cane and grasses.
After the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue as a result of the Haitian Revolution, Cuba became the most substantial sugar plantation colony in the Caribbean, outperforming the British islands.
After slavery, sugar plantations used a variety of forms of labour including workers imported from India under contracts of indenture. In the 20th century, large-scale sugar production using wage labour continued in many parts of the region.
By the early 21st century many Caribbean islands were no longer producing sugar. However, sugar is still grown in Jamaica and Cuba, among other countries.