World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 27, December 1998

In this issue:

  1. Review
  2. Sorghum Syrup in the USA
  3. Sugar Beet in Italy
  4. Recent Publications

This version of the World Sugar History Newsletter, Number 27, December 1998, has been edited for the purpose of on-line display. The contents remain complete.


B. J. Barickman, A Bahian Counterpoint. Sugar, Tobacco, Cassava, and Slavery in the Recôncavo, 1780-1860 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). Pp. xx + 276. Tables, figures, maps, appendix, bibliography, and index. $55.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-8047-2632-9.

In writing of Brazil's agricultural history from the late 18th century to the 1860s, B. J. Barrickman challenges traditional paradigms of analysis. The author believes that no longer can scholars employ the influential "plantationist" model (Gilberto Freyre being a famous proponent of such a viewpoint) to interpret a regional economy dependent on the production and export of a commodity like sugar. He emphasizes on the first page that "social groups and economic activities that do not fit easily into this picture have been dismissed as irrelevant to any understanding of Brazil's historical development." To address this glaring lacuna, Barickman examines the multiple and varied linkages between an expanding export sector and expanding internal markets. Although not citing Steve Stern's critique of Immanuel Wallerstein's world-economy model (Steve J. Stern, "Feudalism, capitalism, and the world-system in the perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean," American Historical Review 93:4 (Oct. 1998), he takes to heart Stern's suggestion that lots was going on in the Latin American "periphery" that can easily miss the eye of an unwary observer focused on plantations oriented solely toward international markets.

The setting for the book is the Recôncavo of the Brazilian province (now state) of Bahia, located on the northeast coast of Brazil. The Recôncavo is a fertile region of some 10,400 square kilometres surrounding the Bay of All Saints. Sugar plantations flourished in the townships on the north shore of the bay by the late 18th century. Heavy clay soils known as massapé that are conducive to the planting of sugar cane, along with ready access to water transport encouraged the establishment of sugar engenhos (a sugar plantation that included a mill to crush cane). To the west, soils of sandy loams attracted thousands of farmers to the cultivation of tobacco for export to Africa and Europe. In the south, small farmers grew cassava, also known as manioc or yucca. Transformed into flour, cassava provided a major food source for the expanding population of the Recôncavo and the city of Salvador.

Bahia experienced long-term and substantial growth in its export revenues during the eight decades from 1780 to 1860. Sugar played a key role in this increase. Responding to opportunities in inter-national markets, including disruption in trade between the Caribbean and Europe during the American war for independence in the 1770s and the downturn in production on the island of what had been St. Domingue after the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, planters planted more sugar cane throughout the Recôncavo. By the 1820s, Bahians began to build engenhos "in unprecedented numbers"; between 1807 and 1874, the number of increased from 315 to 840. Besides using thousands of slaves to cut cane, owners of these estates leased land to an average of two to four cane farmers who provided at times as much as two-thirds of all the sugar produced during a harvest.

Owners of engenhos sought to increase output and improve efficiency at their milling operations in the first half of the 19th century. Such initiatives included the introduction of Cayenne cane to replace the creole cane predominant in the Recôncavo since the 16th century, investments in steam engines (steam powered 282 mills by 1873) and horizontal crushing mills, and improvements in furnace design, which meant that fires to boil the juice derived from sugar cane could be fueled by the waste from cane stalks instead of more expensive wood. A lack of financing impeded such endeavours. Heightened competition from Cuban sugar plantations and from beet sugar producers in Europe further contributed to the demise of Bahia's sugar industry from the middle of the 1850s. What many had hoped would be a "steady march toward modernization [led instead to] a dismal decline in exports [of sugar] from the province that had, at the beginning of the century, ranked first in sugar production" (p. 177).

Tobacco also played an important role in this regional export economy. Unlike sugar, however, the trade in tobacco followed a different path. Linked closely to the traffic in slaves from Africa to Bahia, tobacco exports contributed to Bahia's agricultural renaissance at the end of the 18th century, only to go into decline after 1816. Exports of tobacco rose again in the late 1840s. International demand for Bahian tobacco products along with the emergence of a domestic cigar-making industry contributed to this mid-century upswing. Alluding to Fernando Ortiz's study of Cuban sugar and tobacco cultivation (Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar [first published in Spanish in 1940]), Barickman emphasizes the "fundamental differences" between the production of tobacco and sugar. These included landholding, labour recruitment, land use, field techniques, provisioning, and work routines. "Taken together, these differences point to the existence of distinct agrarian systems, within slave-based export agriculture" (p. 192).

In two chapters on the production and marketing of manioc flour, Barickman demonstrates that a large rural market emerged centred on the provisioning of flour derived from cassava. Rejecting the idea that Bahian sugar plantations were self-sufficient entities, he shows that owners of sugar estates purchased manioc flour in large quantities from small farmers who specialized in the cultivation of cassava. Furthermore, his evidence suggests that the output of manioc flour expanded synchronically with the regional export economy (sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton) during the six decades studied. Such a finding provides further evidence of the critical linkages between an expanding export sector and internal economic and social transformations.

In a chapter entitled "Labor," the author shows the central role of African and Brazilian-born creole slaves in all sectors of the export economy. With the existence of an "open frontier" in Bahia, even the poorest free persons often had access to land where they could cultivate crops for their own subsistence and to sell. Therefore, planters in need of cheap labour turned to the international slave trade. Some 1.2 million slaves arrived in Salvador in the holds of slave ships from the 16th century to 1852, making it the second largest slave-receiving port in the Americas (after Rio de Janeiro). In 1816-17, some 89,000 slaves lived and worked in the Recôncavo; by 1872-73, that number had only decreased to 72,000-81,000. Using a wide array of sources, Barickman analyzes patterns of slaveholding in the Recôncavo. By the middle of the 19th century, slaves made up between 85 and 98 percent of the work forces on sugar plantations (p. 130). The typical engenho had direct control of between 50 and 100 slaves. What is more striking is the assertion that "slaves generally accounted for between one-fifth and one-third of the population in the tobacco- and cassava-growing districts of the western and southern Recôncavo in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries" (p. 128). The average tobacco farm employed just under fifteen slaves. This insight "puts to rest" the long-held assumption that free families predominated in the cultivation of tobacco. Cassava farms often employed between two and eight slaves in the southern townships. Planters often mixed the cultivation of tobacco and cassava, using their slaves to cultivate both plants.

The number of slaves employed on estates and farms in the different regions is not the only distinguishing characteristic of the huge slave population of the Recôncavo. Using probate records and censuses from the 1820s and 1830s, the author shows that African-born slaves of working age (15-45) made up 70 percent of the slave population in one of the largest sugar parishes (Santiago de Iguape) on the northwest coast of the bay. In a neighbouring parish (São Gonçalo dos Campos) where tobacco flourished, African-born slaves of working age made up 23.6 percent of the slave population. In the total slave population, more than half the slaves on the sugar plantations and cane farms of Iguape were African, whereas just below one-fifth (19.1 percent) of slaves in the tobacco region had been born in Africa. Furthermore, the sex ratios tended to be far more equal on tobacco farms than on sugar estates. From such evidence, the author asserts that the slave population in the tobacco districts "may have been largely self-sustaining" (p. 159). His findings open new avenues for interpreting the complexities of a regional export economy dependent on slave labor.

This short review touches on a just a few themes addressed in this impressive book. For example, a chapter entitled "Production" will help non-specialists and experts alike to appreciate what it took to cultivate and prepare crops for sale in local and international markets. Through meticulous research of documents and records found at one of the finest state archives (Public Archive of the State of Bahia) in Latin America, B.J. Barickman has written an insightful and path-breaking monograph on economic and agricultural history.

Dale T. Graden
University of Idaho


Allen Reichert, Reference Librarian, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri, has contributed the following:

Sorghum is a grass of Old World origin grown for grain and forage. One variety, sweet sorghum (Sorghum saccharatum), yields a sweet juice. United States government interest in sweet sorghum as an alternative source of sweetener to sugar cane began in the 1850s when sorghum seeds were imported from France and South Africa. An agent of the US Patent Office in France had noticed the crop and thought it might be grown successfully in the USA. The Department of Agriculture, under the direction of the chief chemist Peter Collier (1878-1882) and his successor Harvey W. Wiley (1883-1912), conducted numerous experiments on the extraction of sucrose from sorghum and on crystallization of sorghum sugar. They also tried to improve the varieties of sorghum under cultivation. Most of this research was conducted at sorghum sugar factories in Kansas and New Jersey, where the state governments had offered bounties to support the production of sorghum sugar.

The Patent Office and members of Congress distributed seeds to farmers. The agricultural press also was supportive. From 1863 to 1870, The Sorgo Journal and Farm Machinist, published in Cincinnati, ran articles on the cultivation of sorghum. From 1879 to 1888, Coleman's Rural World, published in St. Louis with a focus on "the cultivators of the soil in the Mississippi Valley", took up the cause, maintaining a "sargo" department and devoting a front-page column to the crop. However, despite this encouragement, by the end of the century, the production of sorghum syrup had not become a commercial success.

Various factors contributed to this. Unrefined sorghum sugar was unmarketable because of its taste, while refining the sugar required skill and investment and was a very expensive process. Moreover, during the last years of the century the international price of sugar greatly declined. Government interest in sorghum continued into the 20th century but with a focus on improving sorghum syrup.

The syrup was an important sweetener for many small communities well into this century and even today is still locally important. Depending on climate and production facilities, one acre of sorghum can produce from 50 to 200 gallons of syrup. Sorghum is tolerant of a variety of climates and has been grown in all 48 mainland states. In the 1860s sorghum cultivation was concentrated in the Midwest, but by the 1890s it had become predominantly a southern crop. Production reached a peak of 24 million gallons in the 1880s and then declined over the next century in the face of competition from glucose syrups and as a result of loss of knowledge, as skilled workers died and were not replaced. In 1975 the Agricultural Census recorded only 2500 acres planted to sweet sorghum for syrup. There has in recent years been a recovery from this nadir with 25,000 to 30,000 acres planted for syrup. Today, most of these acres are in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Farmers still follow simple if not primitive methods of production.. The cut cane is left in the field to "cure", to use local terminology, which has the effect of ensuring the syrup is less likely to crystallize, thanks to the activity of natural enzymes. However, if left too long, the cane will dry out. The cane is crushed and the juice extracted in simple roller mills powered by mules or, more likely today, by gasoline engines. The juice is then boiled ("cooked" is the local terminology) in open pans and reduced to the requisite thickness, and impurities are removed by skimming. Skimming is one of the keys to good syrup: if the impurities are not removed at the right time they will boil back into the syrup, corrupting its taste. Larger producers have invested in continuous flow evaporators that give more efficient heat distribution and are less likely to scald the syrup. The syrup supplies a niche market. It has a distinctive flavour that many appreciate and its calcium, iron, and potassium content has nutritional value.

For the farmers, the "cooking" of the sorghum is a fall festive occasion, involving their families and friends. There is now a tendency for farmers no longer to make their own syrup but to take their sorghum instead to a central processor. However, the harvest celebratory tradition still continues in the numerous sorghum festivals of the South and Midwest. The largest of these is the Morgan County Sorghum Festival held at the end of September in West Liberty, Kentucky. Most of the sorghum syrup is sold locally at fairs, groceries, or specialty food stores, although some is available through mail delivery.

Sorghum did not lead the United States into sugar self-sufficiency as Collier and other 19th-century enthusiasts had envisioned. However, its wide diffusion throughout the country made it for a time a significant alternative sweetener, while the work of harvesting and processing serves as a social function in many small communities.

For more information about the current state of sorghum cultivation in the United States contact:

The National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association, Department of Food Science and Technology, P.O. Box 1071, Knoxville, TN, 37901.

Morris J. Bitzer, Editor NSSPPA Newsletter, 2049 Rebel Road, Lexington, KY, 40503. (606) 277-9017.


Harold J Abrahams, "The sorghum sugar experiment at Rio Grande," Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society 83:2 (1965), pp. 118-136.

William Lloyd Fox, "Harvey W. Wiley's Search for American sugar self-sufficiency," Agricultural History 54:4 (1980), pp. 516-526.

Homer E. Socolofsky, "The bittersweet tale of sorghum sugar," Kansas History 16:4 (1993-94), pp. 276-289.

John J. Winberry, "The sorghum syrup industry 1854-1975," Agricultural History 54:2 (1980), pp. 343-352.

Also see Eliot Wigginton (ed.), Foxfire 3 (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1975).

(Special thanks to Stan Hildebrand, Sandhill Farm Inc., Rt. 1 Box 155, Rutledge, MO 63563 for our discussion of sorghum.)


M. Elisabetta Tonizzi, Università di Genova, Dipartimento di Ricerche Europee, has provided us with an abstract of her works on the sugar beet industry of Italy. They include: "L'industria dello zucchero in Italia dal Blocco Continentale alla vigilia della Grande Guerra, 1815-1914" (The sugar industry in Italy from the continental blockade to the Great War, 1815-1914), ASSI-Annali di storia dell'impresa, 4/1988, pp. 211-278; "L'industria saccarifera dall'autarchia all'integrazione europea, 1939-1956" (The sugar industry from national self-sufficiency to European integration, 1939-1956), in P. P. D'Attorre, V. Zamagni (eds.), Distretti, imprese, classe operaia. L'industrializzazione in Emilia Romagna (Districts, enterprises, working class. Industrialization in Emilia Romagna) (Milano: F. Angeli, 1992), pp. 239-271.

The sugar industry represented a productive giant in a sector that in Italy has historically been characterized by small and medium enterprises.

Beet sugar manufacturing took off in Italy between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries in response to industrial demands. Before this period, several attempts were made to develop this type of production, but they all failed from shortages of raw material. Beet-sugar production had very disappointing results, whereas major successes were obtained in the field of refining imported raw sugar. In 1872, Genoese financiers, entrepreneurs, and businessmen established the "Ligure Lombarda" refinery in Genoa. Through political patronage they secured protection for the industry, as import duties on raw and refined sugar were considerably increased. At the end of the 1880s, the "Ligure Lombarda" experimented with growing beet, although not very successfully, in Piedmont and in the Po Valley, and managed to obtain from the State even greater protection..

Beet cultivation developed slowly. In 1890, the Italian production of raw sugar amounted to only 788 tons, while 90,000 tons were imported for refining. In the last two decades of the century, attention focussed on other important industrial crops. In the case of the Po Valley, this was hemp. However, from the mid-1890s, hemp cultivation became less profitable as cheaper textiles, such as cotton and jute, spread. Sugar beet, whose potential for industrial use was known from past experiences, quickly replaced hemp. Beet was particularly suited to the recently reclaimed soil of the Valley, while large numbers of farmhands, who could be employed in cultivation as well as in industrial processing, resided in the area. Between 1894 and 1900, the beet-growing area increased from 750 to over 20,000 hectares. In 1902 the Italian production of sugar amounted to almost 100,000 tons, and raw sugar imports dropped to about 16,000 tons. In 1902, 33 sugar factories and refineries were operating (half of them in the Po Valley), run by nineteen different joint-stock companies. Following a well-established investment policy, the financing of the sugar companies was provided by Genoese entrepreneurs, who were also involved in the steel industry, shipbuilding, and shipping activities (all sectors that enjoyed strong state protection). In addition, there was foreign, especially Belgian capital, as investors were attracted by the high customs protection. In 1902, after the Brussels Convention, protection declined considerably in the other European sugar producing countries, but Italy, although agreeing with the Convention, managed to maintain the duties. In 1904 it established a cartel of Italian sugar producers called the "Unione Zuccheri". Italy obtained this preferential treatment because its skilled negotiators were able to demonstrate that the industry was too recent to face foreign competition. Italy also bound itself not to export its production.

In the years before the First World War, the sugar industry developed significantly. On the eve of the war, 39 factories were operating (the vast majority of them located in Emilia Romagna and the Veneto). They employed over 16,000 workers, and in 1913 sugar production amounted to over 300,000 tons, greatly exceeding domestic consumption which amounted to less than 180,000 tons. Italian sugar consumption was among the lowest in Europe at that time, partly due to the population's eating habits - sugar intake was mainly tied to wine and fruit - and to the high price caused by customs protection. As a result, sugar in Italy was more expensive than elsewhere in Europe.

During the first decade of the century, a lively debate developed among sugar entrepreneurs and free-trade economists who emphasized that industry success rested on state protection. This, however, did not lead to any reduction in duties, but rather contributed to the sector's negative reputation. The Italian sugar industry was characterized by - besides a total lack of internal and external competition because of the "Unione Zuccheri" cartel and the high custom duties - strong financial and productive concentration. In 1914, there were three large companies, "Ligure Lombarda", "Eridania", and "Società italiana per l'industria dello zucchero indigeno", all controlled by Genoese entrepreneurs who produced 75 percent of domestic sugar. It should be noted that the sugar industry, besides negatively affecting the consumers, did not produce any spin-offs for the production system of the country, as all factories and refinery machinery and equipment were imported from abroad, especially from Germany and Bohemia.

Between 1939 and 1956 the major characteristics of the industry - customs protection (causing high prices), lack of internal competition due to the cartel, high productive and financial concentration, and lobbying - remained basically unchanged. From a quantitative point of view, this period showed a further growth: in 1956 sugar production amounted to almost 900,000 tons and 75 sugar factories were operating. The industry was still in the hands of the Genoese entrepreneurs, even though businessmen from other regions began to make themselves known.

1957, the year in which the European Common Market was established, marked the beginning of a new era for the Italian sugar industry. But this topic has yet to be examined historically.


A recent issue of Op.Cit. Revista del Centro de Investigaciones Históricas No. 10, (1998) contains the following papers on various aspects of sugar history:
Pablo Maríñez, "Cuando reinaba su majestad el azúcar, entrevista con Roland T. Ely," pp. 61-74.
Juan A. Giusto Cordero, "Hacia otro 98: el 'grupo español' en Puerto Rico, 1890-1930 (azúcar, banca, y política)," pp. 75-124.
Fancisco Moscoso, "Oro y azúcar en Puerto Rico: Gonzalo de Santa Olalla, 1500-1550," pp. 201-236.
Fancisco Moscoso, "Ingenios, producción y comercio del azúcar: Andalucía, el Atlántico, el Caribe y Brasil. Bibliografía general," pp. 237-268.
Op. Cit. Revista del Centro de Investigaciones Históricas is published by the Facultad de Humanidades, Departamento de Historia, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Pedras.

Michelle Harrison, King Sugar: Jamaica, the Caribbean, and the World Sugar Industry (Montréal: Black Rose Books). 180 pp. Cloth and paperback $48.99 and $19.99. ISBN 1-55164-125-9 and ISBN 1-55164-124-0.

Samuel Martínez, "From hidden hand to heavy hand: Sugar, the state, and migrant labor in Haiti and the Dominican Republic," Latin American Research Review 34:1 (1999), pp. 57-84.

Humberto García Muñiz and José Lee Borges, "U.S. consular activism in the Caribbean, 1783-1903, with special reference to St. Kitts-Nevis' sugar depression, labor turmoil and its proposed acquisition by the United States," Revista Mexicana del Caribe, 5 (1998), pp. 32-79.

Sucheta Mazumdar, Sugar and Society in China: Peasants, Technology and the World Market (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998). US$49.50/£32.95. ISBN 0-674-85408-X.

Rebecca Scott, "Race, labor, and citizenship in Cuba: A view from the sugar district of Cienfuegos, 1886-1909," Hispanic American Historical Review, 78:4 (November 1998), pp. 687-728.

William Kelleher Storey, Science and Power in Colonial Mauritius (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997). 248 pp. US$52.00. ISBN 1-58046-015-1. Storey examines the politics of the introduction of new varieties of sugar cane.

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. Correspondence should be sent to Jock Galloway or Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen's Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1K7. E-mail: mailto:galloway@geog.utoronto.caor Back issues of the Newsletter can be found at our website: