World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 33, October 2003

In this issue:

  1. Book Reviews
  2. Recent Publications
  3. Conference Report
  4. Forthcoming Conference

This version of the World Sugar History Newsletter, Number 33, October 2003, has been edited for the purpose of on-line display. The contents remain complete.


Richard Lee Turits, Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime, and Modernity in Dominican History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). Pp. x + 384. $65. ISBN 0-8047-4353-3.

Professor Turits’ richly detailed book is not specifically about the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic, yet it touches frequently on the subject in explaining the relationship between the country’s peasantry and its long-time dictator, Rafael Trujillo. In the process, he broadens our understanding of the Dominican sugar industry during the Trujillo years and complements the discussion of the subject that has appeared recently in other published works, most notably Michael Hall’s Sugar and Power in the Dominican Republic: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Trujillos (Greenwood Press, 2000).

Turits’ aim is to show that Trujillo’s dictatorship (1930-1961) rested on more than brute force, that he won over significant sections of the population – in this case, the peasantry – through a modernizing agrarian programme that was designed to transform the largely independent population into a sedentary one by giving them access to land. Among the sectors affected by this policy was the country’s sugar producers. Having virtually disappeared in the sixteenth century, the sugar industry only began to regain importance in the 1870s, largely in response to the arrival of Cuban emigrants fleeing warfare in their homeland. Located in the eastern part of the country, the industry flourished briefly and then stagnated because of falling international prices. This provided American investors with an opportunity to step in and assume control of the industry over the following decade. Taking over pastoral land, cacao farms, and banana plantations, they transformed sugar into the country’s most important export by the early twentieth century, although only a small proportion of the country’s land was devoted to cane production. The expansion, however, aroused nationalist criticism, as it was seen as occurring at the expense of the peasant sector, blocking their traditional access to land, and in the process challenging their very way of life. Linked to this were charges that the industry was fueling unemployment and fostering food shortages.

The controversy supplied a platform for populist politicians, of whom the most effective was Trujillo. He won support by calling for an agrarian reform programme that included land distribution to benefit the peasant population. A sharp contrast with the movement toward commercial agriculture that was evident elsewhere in Latin America, the programme was relatively successful. But it occurred outside those areas under the control of American sugar companies whose property titles proved stronger even than Trujillo’s populist gestures, indicated by his failure to prevent continuing peasant evictions in the sugar-producing regions. Nevertheless, the occurrences were limited and by winning modest compensation for evicted peasants, he secured their personal loyalty. At the same time, he appeared to have the foreign sugar companies on the defensive, as he compelled them to pay higher taxes that provided much of the state’s income and made a vital contribution to the economy. It was, in fact, largely smoke and mirrors, as companies like the American-owned Central Romana remained a powerful force in the country because of their size, their contribution to the national revenues, and their access to American governmental support.

In the 1950s Trujillo’s strategy with regard to the sugar industry shifted dramatically, with far more negative effects on the peasantry and fatal ones for the dictator himself. In response to the nation’s economic growth, fostered largely by the sugar industry, he, his personal representatives, and the state began forcibly purchasing the foreign companies. It may have seemed like a nationalistic gesture, but it undermined his popularity among the rural masses as it identified the Trujillo state with the resented sugar plantations. Moreover, under his direction the sugar plantations began to grow, with new mills being set up, often at the expense of peasant land access and in contrast to his previous developmental policy based on small farming. The result was a doubling of the area under sugar in the 1950s while production almost tripled. However, the nationalization policy provided fewer benefits to the country than expected, as the expansion occurred just as the world market began to contract. Trujillo did not suffer financially from the contraction, having sold his own estates earlier to the state for a vast sum and then a few years later as the market declined, buying them back on generous terms. But politically it had profound repercussions. The peasant dispossession was now firmly placed at his door, weakening the links that he had so patiently and successfully developed over the previous decades. Thus, as internal and external opposition grew to the regime, provoking increasingly brutal repression, Trujillo no longer could depend on his peasant supporters. His enemies became increasingly emboldened, leading to his assassination on 31 May 1961.

This description of the sugar industry constitutes but a few chapters in a book that examines the transformation of peasants into sedentary agriculturalists. Turits deals with a variety of other aspects of rural policy during these years, including the brutal massacre of the Haitians in 1937-38 and Trujillo’s largely unsuccessful immigration schemes. He relies extensively on personal interviews that provide an interesting and very colourful insiders’ view of the Trujillo state. That state was a far cry from the developmental model that was introduced after Trujillo’s death. The latter transformed this previously self-sufficient, protected, and somewhat isolated nation into a predominantly urban country that has become increasingly reliant on its powerful neighbour to the north over the following decade, much to the detriment of various sectors of the population.

Peter Blanchard,
University of Toronto

Wendy A. Woloson, Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). $44.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8018-6876-9.

In modern America, one would have to make a very conscious and somewhat laborious effort to get through an entire day without allowing any sugar to pass one’s lips. It is so ubiquitous that we barely notice its presence. Sugar and its sweet derivative products are today variously seen as a treat, a demonstration of love or gratitude, a celebration, a symbol of weak will, or the cause of a host of insidious illnesses. Either way, the omnipresence of sugar is taken for granted as an abundant staple that is engrained in our consumer culture.

However, as little as two hundred years ago, sugar’s availability and significance were dramatically different. In Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America, Wendy A. Woloson takes us through the socio-cultural journey that sugar has taken from its earliest appearance in America. Focussing on the nineteenth century, she defines the growth of sugar from its not-so-humble beginnings as a rare luxury to a widely available commodity, in fact, a necessity, as some came to see it.

But Woloson’s tale is not merely a historical account of the rise of sugar as a commodity. She examines sugar and confections – objects with tangible, material properties – as laden with significance. In the days when sugar was more precious, it was associated with things and matters masculine: power, wealth, and the conquest of resources, nature, and manpower. Sugar and its by-products soon became a symbol and reinforcer of class and gender differences: a poor boy spending hours choosing carefully how to spend his pennies, compared to a rich child receiving beautifully packaged goodies; the use of the word “sweet” to describe, if not slightly patronizingly, a woman.

Woloson demonstrates how, during the nineteenth century, sugar was transformed as a signifier of wealth and power of the social elite. It permeated American culture as culture itself transformed. The technological advances made throughout society were seen also in the sugar industry. The increasing awareness of democratic process was seen in the availability of confections, while literature and advertising were used heavily by the sweet makers. So, as sugar products became more accessible and affordable, the significance of sugar shifted from the male to the female domain. No longer associated with wealth and power, the ubiquity of sugar in its various forms – sweets, ice cream, chocolates, cakes, and home baking – became linked to femininity and female consumerism. Thus, sugar encapsulated and emulated the transformation of nineteenth-century American social and gender issues as well as the emergence of consumer culture.

Woloson herself refers to the “inter-disciplinary nature” of the book, which illustrates its far-reaching scope. It is a mine of information that will appeal as much to the historian as to the “foodie”, to the social anthropologist as to the pastry chef. The impeccable research and analysis with which Woloson unravels the sugar story stems from a clearly intellectual angle. Her “other life” as a fine artist shines through in the attention to detail with which she observes and conveys when describing the physical aspect of the confections and their symbolism. The historical, cultural, and social significance of the different types of confections is offset by the charming, detailed descriptions of the products, their marketing, and their meaning. Readers will never again see a wedding cake as merely the sweet finale of a slap-up celebratory meal. Rather, it will appear as a symbol of the personality and wealth of the couple and the ornamental showpiece that is the bride herself, who, in a traditionally oblique Victorian suggestion, was “cut” on her wedding day!

While the book is clearly a fine document of social history, much of it feels as relevant and pertinent today as ever. Woloson writes: “our contemporary responses to and uses of confections would strike familiar chords in the nineteenth-century psyche”. Perhaps all that has changed regarding sugar’s significance is that it is even more present than ever and, as a commodity, more precious to manufacturers than consumers, appearing as it does in the most unlikely yet common products, such as tomato ketchup. Thus, Woloson’s analysis has a resounding relevance to modern society, demonstrating that sugar and sweets have always been, and probably always will be, an excellent marker for social and cultural historians.

Natalie Savona,
Cornwall, U.K.

Muriel McAvoy, Sugar Baron: Manuel Rionda and the Fortunes of Pre-Castro Cuba (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.) Pp. 352. $27.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8130-2613-X.

Cuba’s sugar industry went through an unprecedented period of expansion, consolidation, and technological innovation in the decades following the Spanish-American war. This story has often been told in terms of economic imperialism, as large North American sugar corporations assumed a dominant role in Cuba’s sugar industry, swamping smaller Cuban sugar interests. Sugar Baron helps to complicate this traditional narrative of sugar in Cuba, showing how some Cuban sugar interests not only shared in the post-war prosperity and growth, but also helped shape its course. Through a biography of one of Cuba's leading sugar merchants, Manuel Rionda (1854-1943), Muriel McAvoy gives a detailed picture of the Cuban sugar industry from the inside.

Even large corporations ultimately consist of individuals embedded in networks of cultural, social, and kinship ties, each with their own dynamics of power. McAvoy’s biography navigates fluidly between the personal and the institutional levels, showing the interconnections between the two. Drawing on Rionda’s extensive personal and business papers in the Braga Brothers collection at the University of Florida, McAvoy reconstructs Rionda’s life in painstaking detail. The only work to match Sugar Baron for detail is E. F. Atkins’ classic autobiography Sixty Years in Cuba.

For several generations – from the late nineteenth century until the Cuban Revolution – the Rionda family played a leading role in Cuba’s sugar industry. Rionda’s parents emigrated from Spain to Cuba in 1870, when he was a teenager. Over the next several decades, they acquired land and sugar mills, and began selling sugar to refineries in the U.S. Manuel’s family sent him to high school in Maine, so that he could learn English and build connections with Americans. After graduation, he moved to the family’s New York office to purchase equipment for the family mills, raise capital, and sell sugar.

The Rionda family prospered during the pre-World War I sugar boom, when world markets could easily absorb all the sugar that the island could produce. In the early 1900s, the Rionda family established two large sugar mills – the Francisco and the Tuinucú. During these years, Manuel remained in New York, where he had joined the New York office of the British firm Czarnikow, McDougall, & Company, then the world’s largest sugar brokers. By 1908, Manuel was a full partner in the office, renamed Czarnikow-Rionda. By 1914, the brokerage sold 40 percent of Cuba’s sugar production. During World War I, Rionda formed the Cuba Cane Sugar Corporation, consolidating the operations of seventeen sugar mills under one corporate umbrella in order to manage production and marketing better.

As the global sugar markets contracted during World War I, the Riondas found it increasingly difficult to compete against the vertically integrated U.S. sugar corporations. Cuba Cane’s profits did not meet shareholder expectations, and, faced with an internal investigation that found his management of Cuba Cane inadequate, Manuel withdrew from managing the corporation in 1919. From then onwards, he devoted most of his time to the Czarnikow-Rionda brokerage – which by then was losing market share to its North American competitors – and to his family’s interests. In the uncertain sugar markets during the 1920s and 1930s, he tried to mediate between Cuban sugar producers, North American investors, and the governments of both countries. His efforts to find a broad solution to the crisis of overproduction, to create a “League of Nations of Sugar”, however, did not enjoy any lasting success. In spite of his failure on the international scale, the family business continued to prosper even after his death in 1943. At the time of the Revolution in 1959, the Rionda Group was one of the two largest landholding companies on the island, owning some 500,000 acres.

Through this detailed study of power, McAvoy shows the intimate – and sometimes tense – ties between sugar interests in Cuba and the United States. The Riondas, like many members of Cuba’s elites, profited from U.S. hegemony on the island, and helped deepen the island’s dependence on the sugar industry. Furthermore, McAvoy argues that simplistic national categories such as “Cuban” or “American” often do not adequately characterize either the individuals or the organizations involved in the sugar trade. Rionda, for example, retained his Spanish citizenship until the 1930s, but his primary allegiance was divided between Cuba and the United States. Likewise, the Rionda’s sugar mill Francisco was listed as “American” in directories of the day because its head office was in New York. Sometimes, such broader historiographic points get obscured in McAvoy’s attention to the minutiae of the Rionda business. Nonetheless, this book will be essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the role of Cubans in the pre-Revolutionary sugar industry.

Stuart McCook,
University of Guelph


Tatiana Brito de Araujo, Os engenhos centrais e a produçâo acucareira no Recôncavo Baiano, 1875-1909 (Salvador: FIEB, 2002). Pp. 167. ISBN 8586125040.

J. H. Galloway, “The role of the Dutch in the early American sugar industry,” de Halve Maen. Journal of the Holland Society of New York, 74:2 (2003), pp. 25-32.

Peter Griggs, “Australian scientists, sugar cane growers, and the search for new gummosis-resistant and sucrose-rich varieties of sugar-cane, 1890-1920,” Historical Records of Australian Science, 14 (2003), pp. 293-313.

John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes, 1862-1880 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001). Pp. 224. US$ 49.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8071-2656-X. US$ 19.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8071-2728-0.

Martin A. Rogers, Sugar Mills of Cuba and their Railway Systems. An Historical View (Privately published by Martin A Rogers, Box 20-P, Bowen Island, B.C., Canada V0N 1G0. Email: US$100, plus $10 postage). Order from Mr. Rogers. This is an extraordinary work of a very special kind. Mr. Rogers’ aim is to provide a record of the steam railway era on the Cuban sugar estates. He has compiled an inventory of railway locomotives of the Cuban mills. The book is organized by mill. Mr. Rogers gives a brief history of the ownership of each mill, records the rail system, and lists details of the rolling stock. There are numerous, excellent photographs. The book will interest primarily enthusiasts of sugar-industry railways, but historians of the Cuban sugar industry may well find it a useful reference.

Enrico Maria Santi, Fernando Ortiz: Contrapunteo y transculturación (Madrid: Colibrí, 2002). Pp. 299. ISBN 84-932311-2-6. This is a study of Fernando Ortiz’s classic, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (New York: Knopf, 1947).

Oscar Zanetti Lecuona, Hernán Venegas Delgado, y Humberto García Muñiz, “Noël Deerr en la Guayana Británica, Cuba y Puerto Rico (1897-1921). Memorándum para la historia del azúcar en el Caribe,” Revista Mexicana del Caribe, 6:11 (2001), pp. 58-154.


Alberto Vieira, ed., História do açúcar. Rotas e mercados (Madeira, Portugal: Centro de Estudos de História do Atlántico, 2002). Pp. 666. ISBN 972-8263-34-1.

This volume contains 26 papers presented at a conference in Madeira in the spring of 2002. The papers are published in the languages in which they were delivered: Spanish, Portuguese, and one each in English and Italian. The themes of the conference were the markets for sugar and the trade routes by which the sugar reached them, with the focus of interest strictly on sugar in the Atlantic world. Papers on the Mediterranean, Madeira, and the Canaries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries form the largest group. Other favourite periods and places are colonial Brazil, nineteenth-century Argentina, and the Spanish Caribbean in the early twentieth century. There are some unexpected contributions: the beet sugar industry in Spain, the role of the English Hinton sugar company in Madeira as seen by a local humorous magazine, and a discussion of sugar in Flemish and Dutch painting and literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The editor has not attempted to provide an overview of the Atlantic sugar industry. Rather, he has allowed the contributors to choose their own topics, with the result that their papers reflect in a very useful way the range of research now underway. A concluding paper setting this industry in the context of sugar production world-wide would have been useful.

This volume is the latest in a series of proceedings of conferences on the sugar industry organized by Alberto Vieira and held under the auspices of the Institute of Atlantic History in Madeira. Taken together, these conferences and their published proceedings have made a very significant contribution to the history of sugar. Copies of this volume are available from CEHA, Rua dos Ferreiros, 165, 9004-520, Funchal, Madeira, Portugal.


The 20th International Congress of Historical Science will be meeting in Sydney, Australia, 3-9 July, 2005. One of the special themes is: “The Impact of Sugar Cane Expansion on Five Continents”. The organizer is Professor Tamás Szmrecsányi of the University of Campinas, Brazil. He can be contacted at or fax 55 11 3032 1985.

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. The subscription rate is $15 for two years (four issues). The number listed on the address sticker indicates the subscription expiration. Personal cheques made out to World Sugar History Newsletter and drawn on Canadian or American banks are acceptable. Correspondence and subscriptions 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: or Back issues of the WSHN can be found on its website at