World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 13, December 1988

In this issue:

  1. Obituary: Peter Eisenberg
  2. Book Reviews
  3. Conference Report
  4. Announcement No.2: Sugar Conference

This version of the World Sugar History Newsletter, Number 13, December 1988, has been edited for the purpose of on-line display. The contents remain complete.


[Peter L. Eisenberg died of a heart attack in Campinas, Brazil, on January 4, 1988. The following is an edited version of a tribute to Peter given on March 20 by his friend and colleague Robert W. Slenes at a formal meeting, presided over by the rector, at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP).]

Peter Eisenberg played a formative role in the life of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences almost from the time that UNICAMP was founded. He also made an important contribution to Brazilian historiography, through his researeh and through his interaction with scholars at this and at other universities. Peter was one of those rare individuals of whom one can say that private and professional life were cut from the same cloth; the charaeteristics that his friends and colleagues recognized in him as a human being -- integrity, idealism, generosity, fairness -- can be seen in equal measure in his as a historian.

Peter was born in New York in 1940. As a student he had a distinguished career, attending first Yale, then Stanford and finally completing his PhD at Columbia in 1969. After a number of years teaching in the U.S., he and his wife, Rosa, settled permanently in Brazil in 1975.

The themes that Peter focused on in his thesis and his first book, a classic in Brazilian historiography, The Sugar Industry in Pernambuco: Modernization without Change, 1910-1940, (1974), and the type of historical approach he emphasized in that study continued to define his intellectual work. In his book Peter made a devastating critique of the theory of "modernization" then in vogue in the United States, showing that the improvements in the techniques of sugar production and the reorganization of labour in the industry (the abolition of slavery and the adoption of forms of free labour) did not bring profound social change to the Brazilian Northeast. The owners of sugar mills, from the basis of their economic power and through their domination of politics, successfully defended their privileged social position (despite the economic crisis which hit the sugar industry at the end of the nineteenth century), and kept their workers -- those who had been born free as well as the ex-slaves -- in a state of misery. Peter was not the first person to formulate this thesis; but, he certainly was the first to document it in a detailed and definitive way. And, he did this through a meticulous study that is a model of research in economic and social history. Placing his work within an international and comparative context (drawing on his impressive knowledge of the bibliography on the social history of sugar in other parts of the hemisphere), Peter immersed himself in the documentation at the local level in Pernambuco.

After coming to Brazil Peter continued his work on the social history of the Northeast, but also began other important projects. He wrote on the coffee planters in nineteenth century Rio and Sao Paulo, on the free workers during the era of slavery, and on the social history of the rise of the sugar economy in Campinas during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The project on Campinas, based on the county's manuscript census records and on notarial records, as well as other sources, was ambitious and certainly would have resulted in an innovative book of the same methodological and historiographiecimportance as his study of Pernambuco. Peter died when he was just beginning to analyze the enormous amount of material that he had gathered in his research.

During the last eight years Peter's health was precarious and his perspectives for the future were uncertain. Despite this, I never once saw him complain about his situation, much less use his heart condition -- although extremely serious -- as a pretext to reduce his activities at the university. He faced life with optimism and determination. And he continued his research and his teaching. He did not give up his intellectual work. In his affirmation of life and of the importance of the vocation of teacher and historian, Peter leaves us an example of dignity and courage. He believed that what he was doing was worth the trouble. Indeed, it was.

Robert V. Slenes
Department of History
Universidade Estadual de Campinas


Thomas J. Heston, Sweet Subsidy: The Economic and Diplomatic Effects of the U.S. Sugar Acts 1934-1974 (New York: Garland, 1987). $80.00. ISBN 0824 08084X.

From its modern New World genesis during the era of merchant capitalism, sugar has always been the most political of commodities. As the old colonial empires broke up or gave way to the new in the nineteenth century many established cane sugar producers found themselves sacrificed on the altar of Free Trade. But, at the same time, and as part of the revolutionary transition to industrial capitalism in Europe, a new international political equation for sugar was developed. Beet sugar producers were able to secure increasingly comprehensive forms of government support, including tariffs and export bounties. It was only in this way that they could compete with the more cheaply produced cane sugar. By the 1880s a greater proportion of the world's supply of sugar was being grown in Europe than in tropical areas. Although some of the worst excesses of the bounty system were brought under control by the Brussels Agreement in 1903, it was too late to significantly roll back beet production. Internationally, relative overproduction and low prices continued. In the post-war years protection and subsidies re-emerged more strongly as part of the narrowing of world markets and growing economic nationalism of the period.

An understanding of the political economy of sugar has, therefore, always been of great importance to any analysis of the development of sugar production. However, it can be argued that in the twentieth century, and especially from the 1930s, it has become the single most important consideration. Of course, sugar industries cannot survive without constant technical innovation, but this in itself is not enough. It is the political support in terms of tariffs, subsidies, or trade agreements which has become the key factor for sugar producers throughout the world. Without this kind of support even the most technically efficient producers are unable to survive.

Survival for many cane sugar exporters, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, was dependent on access to the large U.S. market. With the restriction of world markets from 1920 and more dramatically after the Crash, this dependence grew more pronounced. One of the major contributions of Heston's detailed and lucid study is to offer us a comprehensive analysis of the political and economic forces which shaped U.S. sugar policies. His stated aims are to set out exactly what these policies were, what interest groups were most influential in formulating them, who benefited, and how the sugar acts were used as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

In the first chapter he sets the scene by offering a brief account of the sugar industries in the U.S. and its insular dependencies. The failure of the tariff to regulate production and prices is investigated in the next chapter. After considering the genesis of the Sugar Act of 1934 under the New Deal, he devotes successive chapters to different sectors of the industry: the mainland producers, the refiners, the insular producers, labour, and finally the consumers. A chapter is devoted to Cuban-U.S. relations and another to the wider use of the sugar acts in relations with foreign countries.

Heston's conclusions as to the overall effects of U.S. sugar policies are well supported, but not too aurprising. "The United States sugar program promoted the monopolistic expansion of a relatively small and inefficient domestic industry." "The Sugar Acts were complex laws which benefited a few at the expense of the many." In this case the few were domestic beet producers and refiners and foreign growers. The many were the US consumers. However, his analysis of the foreign policy implications are not as straightforward. Although the sugar acts served to enforce the economic and political domination of Cuba, because they were formulated by congressmen and lobbyists concerned essentially with domestic problems, overall sugar policy was never an effective tool of U.S. foreign policy. When seen looking up the barrel of the gun, as by sugar growers in Peru or Cuba, the Philippines or the Dominican Republic, the U.S. sugar program often seemed an extremely powerful weapon. And, of course, it was. What Heston's study shows is how unwieldy this weapon was, at least in terms of achieving particular foreign policy aims. In fact, the author argues that on balance: "The sugar program solved few, if any, international problems: it caused more than its share."

This is an immensely valuable work. Not only does it provide a solid, informative acoount of the political economy of the U.S. domestic industry, but also by detailing the complex and often conflicting factors which influenced sugar policies it adds greatly to our understanding of policies which have had such a major impact on cane producing countries. Given the importance of Heston's study it is a pity that its price will greatly restrict its purchase and general availability.

Bill Albert
University of East Anglia

J. R. Ward, British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834. The Process of Amelioration (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). Pp. xii + 320.

As its title suggests, Dr. Ward's book is a study of West Indies slavery rather than of the sugar business. A great deal of interesting detail, nonetheless, is offered on the crop, its cultivation, its processing, and its markets, much of it in precise tabular and graphical form. The broad purpose, according to the Introduction, is to explore "the potential for economic development in slavebased societies" in the light of Fogel and Engerman's North American conclusions and new evidence on Caribbean improvement. Planters, he wishes to argue, "showed a serious concern for innovation, with significant results." They were not as "negligent and benighted" as has been supposed. Given advances in slave efficiency and welfare, "liberal assumptions seem inapposite and abolitionist strictures unfair: slave regimes could be reformed."

Unfortunately, these objectives do not launch any clear-sighted argument. First, Dr. Ward uses "amelioration" as a catch-all synonym for reform, letting it embrace an awkwardly wide range of considerations. Second, the conclusions are less than a resounding endorsement of the initial reform proposition. Third, the findings are not, in the end, related to the U.S. work cited. Fourth, universals are sacrificed to the fine specifics of economic and demographic experience in different islands between 1750 and abolition. Fifth, there is surprisingly little British context: of absentee planters, parliamentary lobbies, slave-trade legislation, and abolitionism.

The first two points need some enlargement. Ward's use of "amelioration" will be perplexing to readers unfamiliar with Caribbean historiography. Definition is book-long, cumulative, and not always consistent. Conceptually pertinent issues include capital investment, food production, livestock rearing, manuring, scale economies, labour quality, and work schedules; as well as the morals, punishment, clothing, diet, medical treatment, fertility, and mortality of slaves. The "new regime" was put into operation by planters' agents, working according to the aspirations of their employers and the British government. It ran from 1760 to 1834. Economic factors included a desire for better profits, worries over deteriorating land, concern at periodically low sugar prices, and the aim of plantation self-sufficiency. The accompanying wish to improve slave conditions is attributed to humanitarian sentiment, fear of abolitionism, a sense of past brutalities and their partial dispensability, the ending of easy labour replacement through the slave trade, and the hope that better treatment would increase fertility, decrease mortality, and raise productivity. The number of related categories, motives, and motivators proves problematical without systematised explanation of the patterns of interplay.

Secondly, although the author notes "long-term processes of innovation," and a 35 per cent slave-productivity rise on Jamaican sugar plantations between 1750 and 1830, he has to acknowledge that, by abolition, "amelioration had become 'discredited." Absenteeism remained habitual, and the nineteenth-century case against it is not one that he has much success in dislodging. The problems were seen to lie in expense, mediocrity, and fraud. Ward accepts the first; acknowledges plausibility for the second; and disputes the third only by a raising of the stakes: "Persistent, wholesale breach of trust may have become exceptional . . . ." Jamaica, despite its productivity record, managed its slave system with "exceptional severity" -- thus casting doubt on the alleged link between slave welfare and plantation efficiency. Demographically, there was a "complete failure" of amelioration to raise fertility; and decreases in mortality were more the consequence of epidemic control than of material circumstances. With revenues also falling, amelioration "disappointed the planters almost completely." There were, finally, the decisive failures of rebellion in 1832 and abolition in 1834.

Dr. Ward tries to moderate this poor record by suggesting that some negative features were just the products of contemporary subjectivities. People were prejudiced against absenteeism as it conflicted with the assumed virtues of landlord-controlled regimes in Britain. Agricultural improvement was thought to be unreal if it excluded new crops and parliamentary enclosure. Pre-abolition economic setbacks were only "perceived." Changes were judged by "outward appearances." Ameliorators had to contend with an anti-slavery "consensus" in Britain. The institution had "come to be seen" as wasteful, ineffieient, and barbarous. Such points, however, cannot be left as mere conjecture. Have biassed, ignorant notions really spoiled the evidence?

Using a mass of primary and secondary sources, Ward has assembled sufficient data and observation to permit a marginal modification of the bleaker traditional assessments of British West Indian sugar under slavery. Partialness and pessimism, however, pervade the book, alongside the uncertainties of conceptualisation. Accurate, alternative subtitles might be "Occasional Processes of Amelioration" or "The Comparative Inconsequence of Reform."

W. H. Mathew
University of East Anglia

David Watts, The West Indies. Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

The pattern of islands which arcs its way from the Florida coast to the South American mainland consists of a complexity of societies; an amazing mix of languages, economies, political and cultural forms, and a remarkable diversity of human types. The West Indies was, for the best part of four centuries, the crossroads of European westward expansion. In addition to the indigenous peoples, who were quickly reduced to pathetic and marginal groups, people poured into the islands from most regions of Europe and vast tracts of Africa. In the 19th century newcomers were deposited in the region from India and from China.

The rate and pace of settlement of these outsiders differed greatly from island to island. But everywhere, the conquering Europeans transformed the human face of the islands. They conquered, then fought each other for the islands because they were the source and occasion of great wealth. The tropical staples which the islands produced (though many were relatively barren and unyielding) needed labour, more labour than Europe itself could provide; hence the growing addiction to black, enslaved, later Indian and Chinese "coolie" labour.

These "gardens of the Indies" yielded untold wealth to their European owners; they were a by-word for wealth and for beauty alike. But they were also, for much of the period until the late 19th century, the scenes of terrible ailments, mortality, and suffering. The contrast between the staggering beauty of the region and its deadly environment was infamous. Most immigrants -- the slaves -- had little say in the matter. And they and their owners died and suffered for the material betterment of European societies.

This image of the Caribbean, real in itself, is of course fissured by the remarkably diverse nature of the islands themselves: some small, flat, waterless and relatively barren, many little more than sandy specks in the ocean; still others mountainous and lush, fringed by fertile plains and indented by luxuriant valleys. The bigger islands -- Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica -- were capable of sustaining a variety of economic developments in their varied geography; other islands could never hope to yield more than a sparse competence to their conquerors and settlers. But in all cases it was the particular variant of the tropical environment which enabled master and man to transform the environment into a political and economic system which survives to this day -- for good and ill.

In this remarkable book -- the most comprehensive, detailed, and superbly executed volume of its kind on the region -- David Watts succeeds as no one has before in outlining the mix of man and nature, over a long historical span, in shaping the modern West Indies. His range is vast -- in geography and history -- and yet his touch is sure throughout. Although the book pays relatively less attention to the 20th century, it is by far the best book of its kind in English. The work of a geographer, Watt's book is a major contribution to history. The author is familiar and at ease with a vast range of literature and imposes on it a disciplined argument and arrangement which allows the reader to progress easily through a densely-argued case.

The core of the book is, inevitably, concerned with sugar; with that myriad of plantations, some massive, some a mere toehold on marginal land, which formed the rationale and engine behind much of the region's development and history. Yet sugar was only the most dominant of a range of tropical crops. Equally, the plantations were not the only social and economic settlements and Watts provides a useful synthesis of the social and economic diversity generated by the broader sugar economy. The book is, at once, both a general history of the Caribbean region and an excellent history of the sugar economy.

It is inevitable in a book of this kind, so thoroughly rooted in economic, geographic and demographic data, that the text in places is densely crowded with detail. Yet it is the book's great strength that the detail never crowds out a sharply defined argument.

Watt's efforts in the field have resulted in a book which is of prime importance to all students of the history of sugar. He has also made himself indispensable to all students of the Caribbean, for this is by far the best book avaliable on the history of the region. It deserves to be widely read.

James Walvin
University of York


"Changing sugar technology and the labour nexus: the Caribbean 1750-1900"

Under this title a seminar was held during the 46th International Congress of Americanists in Amsterdam, 4-8 July 1988. The seminar was organized by Peter Boomgaard (Free University, Amsterdam), Gert Oostindie (Royal Institute of Linguisties and Anthropology, Leiden), and Alex van Stipriaan (Erasmus University, Rotterdam).

In the historiography on the Caribbean two major schools of thought have formulated explicit ideas on the relationship between technological development and changing labour relations in the Caribbean between 1750 and 1900. The first to be mentioned is the Abolitionist argument that slavery was an obstacle to efficient production, because the availability of cheap labour had rendered the application of new, labour-saving techniques unnecessary. Slavery, therefore, had created a tradition-oriented class of planters. Secondly, Marxist historians often have argued that an advanced technology and the existence of slavery are incompatible. Complicated modern factories cannot be operated with slave labour; slavery, therefore, so the argument runs, had to vanish before the sugar industry could become thoroughly modernized.

In a position paper by Boomgaard and Oostindie ("Sugar technology and the labour nexus; the Caribbean, 1750-1900"), forwarded to all participants to the seminar, a number of arguments have been formulated, largely based on recent research, that seems to refute important elements of the older ideas mentioned above.

In the following papers a number of these issues have been taken up:

Michiel Baud, "Sugar and unfree labour: reflections on labour recruiting in the Dominican Republic, 1870-1940."
L. Alan Eyre, "Technology, investment, and labour in the Jamaican sugar industry, 1750-1900."
Rosemarijn Hoefte, "Plantation labor after the abolition of slavery. Suriname, 1880-1950."
O. D. Lara, I. Fisher-Blanchet, and N. Schmidt, "La proto-industrialisation dans le processus de destruction du systeme esclavagiste aux Caraibes francophones: centres de decision et paradoxes."
F. A. Scarano, "Peasants, bureaucrats, and the failure of labor control in Puerto Rico, 1750-1820."
Richard B. Sheridan, "Changing sugar technology and the labor nexus in the British Caribbean, 1750-1900, with special reference to Barbados and Jamaica."
Alex van Stipriaan, "Changing sugar technology and the labor nexus, Suriname 1750-1900."
D. Tomich, "Sugar technology and slave labour in Martinique, 1840-1848."
J. R. Ward, "The Amelioration of British West Indian slavery, 1750-1834: technical change and the plough."

Michael Craton and Piet Emmer participated in the seminar as discussants. A selection of the papers will be published in a special issue of the Nieuwe West-Indische Gids/New West-Indian Guide.

Peter Boomgaard



This is the second call for papers for an international conference, to be held in Edinburgh in September 1990 on the development of sugar industries in the post-war period. We welcome papers dealing with current conditions and issues, but would like the authors to consider these within the context of historical change in the post-war period.

Please send titles of proposed papers to:
Bill Albert, School of Economic & Social Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ.

World Sugar History Newsletter compiled by: Bill Albert, School of Economic & Social Studies, UEA, Norwich. Adrian Graves, Department of Economic & Social History, University of Edinburgh. All correspondence to Bill Albert, School of Economic & Social Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, U.K.