Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Slavery and Sugar

Slavery and Sugar

Sugar planting, harvesting, and processing is tiring, hot, dangerous work and requires a large number of workers whose work habits must be intensely coordinated and controlled. From the very beginning of sugar cultivation in the New World, there were not enough European settlers to satisfy the labor requirements for profitable sugar plantations. Native Americans were enslaved to work on the earliest sugar plantations, especially in Brazil. Those who could, escaped from the fields, but many more died due to European diseases, such as smallpox and scarlet fever, and the harsh working conditions on the sugar plantations. A Catholic priest named Bartolomé de las Casas asked King Ferdinand of Spain to protect the Taino Indians of the Caribbean by importing African slaves instead. So, around 1505, enslaved Africans were first brought to the New World. For the next three and a half centuries, slaves of African origin provided most of the labor for the sugar industry in the Americas.

A healthy, adult slave was expected to be able to plow, plant, and harvest five acres of sugar. Sugar planting was back-breaking work. Lines of slaves, men, women and children, moved across the fields, row by row, hand-planting thousands of seed-cane stems. Between 5,000 and 8,000 pieces had to be planted to produce one acre of sugar cane. Workdays in the fields typically lasted from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a noon-time break of perhaps two hours.

During harvest, field slaves worked even longer hours, especially in Louisiana where workers raced against the weather to collect the harvest before the first frost and attacks by insects. Mature sugar cane's exterior skin is so hard that workers had to cut through the stem with cutlasses or machetes. They also had to stoop to cut the cane at ground level because the most sugary section of the cane is the lower stem. Harvesting cane was as backbreaking work as planting cane, and cuts from the sharp tools were common. Once the cane stalk was cut, slaves stripped any remaining leaves and stacked the cane. It then would be tied into bundles and loaded onto donkeys, wagons, or two-wheeled carts to be carried to the sugar mill. Throughout their work, overseers with whips supervised the field slaves.

Once the harvest began, it was essential to process the cane immediately. Slaves ran the sugar mills, feeding the stalks between giant rollers. Up to a dozen boys and men typically worked around the clock to process sugar, working with the stench of rotting cane in intense heat. As machinery grew more complex, with conveyor belts, Rillieux's sugar processing evaporator and centrifuges, the slaves working the sugar houses became increasingly skilled mechanics. Yet, it was not unusual for slaves to be injured or crushed when trapped and pulled into the rollers as they fed stalks into the mill or tried to untangle stalks from flywheels and gears.

Slaves also boiled the cane juice, ladling scum from the surface of the scalding liquid and then transferring it from kettle to kettle, reducing the syrup to crystals. Slaves routinely suffered burns during this process, often referred to as the "Jamaica Train," and the heat in the sugar houses was so intense that slaves were rotated out after four hours, their limbs swollen from the heat and humidity. Once the crystals formed, there was still heavy labor ahead. The harder the solid cakes of sugar were, the better the sugar quality, but the pieces had to broken up with shovels, picks and crowbars. Finally, sugar was shoveled into hogsheads (wooden barrels) and packed solidly before the barrel holes were plugged with a piece of sugarcane. The sugarcane plug helped to siphon out the remaining molasses from the sugar in the hogshead; the molasses dripped onto a floor angled so it would drain into a trough or cistern. Then, the slaves would scoop molasses into barrels by hand. By the 1850s, the expected yield from each slave's labor was five hogsheads of sugar and 250 gallons of molasses.

During harvest, slaves worked day and night, especially in the mills and sugarhouses, so that there would be no bottlenecks in production. Shifts lasted up to 18 hours. Sugar production paused only as slaves cleaned out fireboxes or other equipment. Although some planters provided extra food and drink during the harvest and others encouraged competitions to boost production, sugar production was the result of coercion. Slaves in the sugar fields and mills were controlled by both the threat and use of deadly force. (source:

Philip Morgan: The African Slave Trade, 1500-1800 from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.


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