World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 34, July 2004

In this issue:

  1. Reviews
  2. Brief Notices
  3. Recent Publications
  4. Danish Virgin Islands

This version of the World Sugar History Newsletter, No. 34, July 2004, has been edited for the purpose of on-line display. The contents remain complete.


Michael S. Billig, Barons, Brokers and Buyers: The Institutions and Cultures of Philippine Sugar (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003). Pp. xiv + 320. US$ 47.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-8248-2561-6.

Sugar production is a very useful, albeit incomplete, prism to understand the economic, social, and political history of the Philippines. In a nutshell, under Spanish rule, sugar cane came to be cultivated for export in the 1830s on the central island of Luzon where sugar-mill owners tended to lease land from farmers. Production started later in the under-populated islands of Cebu and Negros where Chinese-Filipino and a few Spanish entrepreneurs started large sugar estates. Tenant farmers leased land from the large landholders to produce cane, and the landholders generally had a stake in the mills. A socio-economic elite of sugar producers cum landowners emerged who extended their influence into politics.

Colonization by the USA after 1901 led to a favourable access to the US markets, bolstering sugar production and the prominent position of the elite in the process. US investment in the modernization of the sugar mills promoted a steady increase in sugar production and exports following World War I. Preferential access to the US market enabled the Filipino sugar producers to weather the 1930s crisis of low prices. Following the devastation of World War II, sugar exports recovered quickly, again on the basis of US investments and preferential access to the US market. The social and political elite continued to enjoy its privileges, aligning itself in the process with the autocratic Marcos regime. The strength of the alliance crumbled in the late 1970s and 1980s when Philippine sugar gradually lost its favourable access to the US market. Production and profitability declined as producers were unable to adjust to falling international prices.

This is the historical backdrop to Billig’s book. It is elaborated with more detail in chapter 2. However, the book’s focus is not the past but the multi-dimensional process of the declining role of sugar in the economy, society, and politics of the Philippines during the 1990s when Billig conducted his field work. The substance of the book is in chapters 3-6 that are organized by theme. Chapter 3 discusses the organization of sugar production in the Philippines, as well as finance, marketing, and the consequences of the commitment of the Philippine government to trade liberalization for the sugar sector. Chapter 4 is about the key stakeholders in the process: the sugar barons, brokers, and buyers, and the dilemmas each group faced. Chapter 5 focuses on the biggest dilemma of the 1990s: most sugar producers in the Philippines were not competitive, either internationally or even against imported sugar which was increasingly required to meet growing domestic demand. This pitches the importers of sugar, manufacturers who use sugar as an input, and their political backers against the old elite sectors of planters, millers, traders, and rural politicians who owed their position to the domestic sugar industry. Chapter 6 draws attention to the restructuring of sugar production, the dwindling role of the old sugar elite and the growing and re-invigorating role that ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs are now playing.

Billig is not an historian. He is an eminent anthropologist at Franklin and Marshall College in the USA, with a keen interest in observing the multi-dimensional direct and indirect effects of the current decline of sugar in the Philippines. Chapter 2 is the only historical chapter, containing useful background description for this book, but it has little to add to the studies of McCoy, Larkin, Aguilar, Quirino, and others on which Billig extensively draws. In the other chapters, Billig makes extensive use of a large number of interviews and a wide variety of sources but seems uncertain about his methodology. In the Introduction and elsewhere in the book, he tends to agonize explicitly over his sources, over his own role in acquiring, selecting, and ordering the information, and over the perceptions he brings to these processes. He agonizes also over his “neo-Weberian” approach to analyzing the erosion of the economic and political power of the old rural, sugar-based elite and the rise of the new urban-based, industrial, commercial, and financial elite. In addition, Billig likes his readers to know that he established a rapport with several of his informants, which led him to avoid taking sides, demonstrating empathy both with workers and owners of sugar factories. Readers interested in a big picture story may find the agonizing and the observing style of writing a bit tedious after a while.

Despite these comments, I recommend the book for the fact that it provides a unique multi-dimensional understanding of the re-definition of sugar’s role in the society and economy of the Philippines during the 1990s.

Pierre van der Eng,
The Australian National University

José Alvarez and Lázaro Peña Castellanos, Cuba’s Sugar Industry (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001). Pp. 161. $55. ISBN 0-8130-2075-1.

Cuba’s Sugar Industry is an impressive example of what can be achieved when North Americans and Cubans cooperate. A practical study of all aspects of the contemporary Cuban sugar industry, the book draws from a five-year joint research project undertaken by José Alvarez, an economics professor at the University of Florida’s Everglades Research and Education Center, and Lázaro Peña Castellanos, head of the Macroeconomics Department at the University of Havana’s Centre for Research on the International Economy. The authors acknowledge the help of Florida sugarcane growers “who had the vision to support this endeavor when others did not,” and “the multitude of farmers, specialists, and so many other friends in Cuba who made the acquisition of knowledge for this task a very enjoyable experience” (p. xviii). These contributions are evident in the authors’ detailed discussion of everything from the timing of planting and harvesting to the types of soil, fertilizer, and financing to be used when producing sugar. This aspect of the study makes it a useful guidebook for economists, politicians, cane planters, and producers of sugar.

Although the authors offer a brief discussion of the incentives the Cuban government has introduced in order to try to attract more workers to the sugar industry, the social historian may be left desirous of more discussion of the human side of sugar production. This is particularly true of the first, background chapter regarding the period from 1959 to 1980, for example, when the authors state that sugar was grown in “Sugar Cooperatives” in 1959, then “Sugar Cane Farms” or “People’s Farms” in 1962, then “State Farms” in 1963, “Sugarcane Plans (District)” in 1968, etc., etc. without specifying what changed, other than the names. With regard to the post-1990 “Special Period”, during which Cuba had to make drastic reforms in order to deal with the end of the Soviet bloc, we get tastes of information that invite larger intellectual consideration. For example, based on the success of an experimental organizational system called an “Agricultural Production Cooperative” in the province of Havana, where from fifty to seventy percent of the net returns were given to workers as incentives, the Cuban government redistributed almost the entire national sugar farming system into Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs) through a 1993 reform. This was a monumental change because it broke the state monopoly on land by distributing previous state farms among the new cooperatives. One of the most common themes that came out of questionnaires and surveys about the problems these new UBPCs faced was “[the challenge to develop] a broad-based appreciation for the concepts of property and ownership . . . to convert the workers into self-managed owners,” which required countering “the strong traditional forces within a paternalistic state” (p. 59). Since collective versus individual motivation is such a contentious issue in the socialism versus capitalism debate, this opens lots of questions for the reader regarding what the 1993 land reforms have meant, philosophically, to the Cuban Revolution. But the authors’ silence is certainly better than either right-wing smugness or left-wing apologies, and perhaps it should be seen as a strength rather than a weakness of the book that they leave the debate untouched.

The unbiased, realistic assessment of the world sugar market and Cuba’s position within it in view of the United States’ current Cuba policy is Cuba's Sugar Industry’s greatest strength. The authors admit that “after years of struggling with divergent views on the words ‘embargo’ and ‘blockade,’ we all agreed to use the expression ‘the U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba,’” and it is this kind of practicality that makes their collaborative effort possible and useful. The U.S. and Cuban academics offer an accurate presentation of Cuban and world sugar production from 1980 to late 1990 through extensive use of graphs and tables, and the writing, though sometimes a little dry and choppy, is very concise and accessible to non-economists.

The final chapter offers practical suggestions for Cuba to follow while U.S. sanctions remain in place. These include more efficient use of less cane land and re-allocation of cane land to plantings of food for domestic consumption – to counter food imports that use scarce hard currency, and to plantings of increasingly popular “organic” food for export – to gain more hard currency.

The study offers a very hopeful conclusion for the day when trade is opened with the United States: “Economic – and non-political – analyses suggest that the sugar agro-industries of the United States, especially Florida, and Cuba could become partners in several areas” (p. 121). Finally, the authors caution against the dichotomy, tourism/nickel versus sugar, and call for “a diversified multisectoral integration” (p. 122). In other words, they offer detailed, concrete suggestions for Cuba to fulfill its age-old quest for economic diversification.

Gillian McGillivray,
Brock University

Cane transport, Cabo, Pernambuco, 1963


Oscar A. Echevarria, ed., Captains of Industry. Builders of Wealth. Miguel Angel Falla. The Cuban Sugar Industry (Miami: New House Publishers Inc., 2002). Pp. xvii + 118, in English, followed by the Spanish translation, pp. xiv + 82. ISBN 0-9725547-0-X.

This book is the first in what is to be a series of studies of Cubans who were major figures in the business life of the island before 1959. The series is intended to show how these businessmen created wealth in and for Cuba. At the same time, it is intended to carry a reassurance that this talent will re-emerge for the benefit of Cuba in the generations that follow the fall of Castroism. In other words, the series is to be a work of appreciation and promise. The short laudatory biography of Miguel Angel Falla, a prominent manager of sugar companies who went into exile in the USA, is supported by several letters of reminiscence from friends and associates. This is not a scholarly work, but it could be of interest to students of the Cuban diaspora.

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Peter Macinnis, Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar (Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2002). Pp. 190. A$24.95 (paper). ISBN 1 86508 657 6. USA orders from the Independent Publishers Group, 814 North Franklin Street, Chicago, IL 60610. US$14.95.

In this history of the sugar-cane industry from its origins to the present day, the author has followed the standard chronology from New Guinea to Asia, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic islands, and on to the sugar colonies in America. Brief chapters cover the 19th-century topics of abolition, new forms of labour, new technology, competition from beet, and the beginnings of cane breeding. The chapter on the 20th century is limited to a few paragraphs on sugar consumption and health, sugar as a source of ethanol, and alternative sweeteners. High fructose corn syrup does not rate a mention. Surprisingly, in view of the place of publication and the author’s Australian nationality, there is no chapter on the history of the sugar industry in Australia. Queensland is only noticed in the discussion of Kanaka labour.

This is not a scholarly work. The author relies entirely on the secondary sources listed in the bibliography. He has provided neither footnotes nor endnotes. Some of the definitions in the brief glossary could be sharper. The language, in places, verges on the folksy. The book is presumably aimed at a school and general interest readership. It is a less than thorough introduction to the history of sugar, but may stimulate some of its readers to search more widely in the literature.


Lisa Brennan and Malcolm Wegener, “An evolutionary economic perspective on technical change and adjustment in cane harvesting systems in the Australian sugar industry,” The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 47:3 (2003), pp. 367-388.

Peter Griggs, “Improving agricultural practices. Science and the Australian sugarcane grower, 1864-1915,” Agricultural History, 78:1 (2004), pp. 1-33.

Walton Look Lai, Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). 400 pp. US$22.95. ISBN 0-8018-7746-6. This is a paperback edition of a book published in 1993 and reviewed in WSHN, No. 21, December 1995.

Laura Mason, Sugar Plums and Sherbet. The Prehistory of Sweets (Totnes, England: Prospect Books, 2004). Pp. 250. £15, US$24.95. ISBN 1903018-285. This is a paperback edition of a book published in 1998, and noticed in WSHN, No. 26, June 1998. It is distributed by Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London, U.K. E9 5LN.

Suzanne Moon, “Empirical knowledge, scientific authority, and native development: The controversy over sugar/rice ecology in the Netherlands East Indies, 1905-1914,” Environment and History, 10 (2004), pp. 59-81.

Hans-Heinrich Müller, unter Mitwirkung von Corne J. Aertssens, and Jürgen Wilke, Franz Carl Achard 1753-1821: Biographie (Berlin: Bartens, 2002). Pp. xv + 688. ISBN 38704008870. This is an important book and we are still hoping to publish a full review. We apologize to the publisher for the delay.

Graciela de Souza Oliver & Tamás Szmrecsányi, “A estaçâo experimental de Piracicaba e a modernização tecnológica da agroindústria canavieira (1920 a 1940),” Revista Brasileira de História, 23:46 (2003), pp. 37-60.

Barbara Pini, “The question of ‘the Italians’ and women’s representation in leadership in the Australian sugar industry,” Australian Geographer, 34:2 (2003), pp. 211-222.

Bonham C. Richardson, Igniting the Caribbean’s Past. Fire in British West Indian History (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Pp. xi + 233. US$59.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8078-2854-8. US$19.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8078-5523-5. Sugar historians will find the chapter “Sugarcane Fires” of particular interest.


Those with an interest in the sugar industry of the Danish Virgin Islands, in particular the island of St. Croix, will find the following aids to research helpful:

The Danish National Archives has established a website for the history of the Danish West Indies, 1670-1917: The address of the Archives is Danish National Archives, Rigsdagsgaarden 9, Dk-1218, Copenhagen K. Tel (+45) 33 92 23 86.

Erik Gøbel, A Guide to the Sources for the History of the Danish West Indies (US Virgin Islands), 1671-1917 (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2002). Pp. 349. 250 Danish Kroner. ISBN 8778387213. The North American distributor is International Specialized Book Services of Portland, Oregon. The American price is $27.

On the United States era, see Jeannette Allis Bastian, Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost its Archives and Found its History (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2003). Pp. 106. ISBN 031332008X.

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