World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 35, February 2006

In this issue:

  1. Reviews
  2. Recent Publications
  3. Conferences
  4. From the Editors

This version of the World Sugar History Newsletter, Number 35, February 2006, has been edited for the purpose of on-line display. The contents remain complete.


Bernard Moitt, (ed.), Sugar, Slavery, and Society: Perspectives on the Caribbean, India, the Mascarenes, and the United States (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004). 224 pp. Tables, notes, references, index. $65.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-8130-2779-9.

This collection of eight essays and an introduction was born from a symposium on sugar and society held at the University of Toronto in 1989. To the credit of the contributors, all of the essays (some of them solicited after the conference) have been updated since then. Nevertheless, readers of the Newsletter will find this study to be of limited utility. With contributions by historians, sociologists, and literary scholars and covering the seventeenth century to the present, it is a wide-ranging and rather eclectic combination that lacks overall coherence. With a single chapter on India, another on the U.S. South, and the Mascarenes included for comparative purposes in a third chapter, the book focuses primarily on the Caribbean. Few of the papers, however, are based on original archival research, and little effort is made to draw analytical comparisons between them. While the collection certainly shows “that sugar has had a multidimensional and widespread impact on society over a long period of time” (p. 9), readers familiar with the history of sugar and slavery in the Caribbean will not find a significant amount of new material here.

In the opening chapter, B. S. Baviskar provides a brief overview of the sugar industry in contemporary India which serves as a counterpoint to the primarily Caribbean case studies that appear later in the collection. The Indian sugar industry, the largest in the world yet geared primarily towards domestic consumption, has experienced steady growth since independence in 1947. The majority of cane is produced by peasants organized into sugar cooperatives, which prompts Baviskar to challenge the argument within dependency theory that commercialization of agriculture inevitably results in the increasing exploitation of small farmers and subordination to international capitalist forces. The success of the cooperative movement in this case seems to be linked to widespread government regulation of the sugar industry (through licensing, price controls, taxation, wage levels, finance capital, and export/import controls), a point which is implied but not made explicit in Baviskar’s analysis.

Two of the next three chapters contain the literary analyses in Sugar, Slavery, and Society. In the first, Sada Niang compares the representations of sugarcane in four works of literature, looking at the poem The Sugar Cane, by eighteenth-century British author James Grainger, before jumping to three works by twentieth-century Caribbean authors (Selvon’s “Cane is bitter,” Moutoussamy’s Aurore, and Julia’s Les gens de Bonne-Espérance). In the next, Joyce Leung examines a number of works from the Caribbean as well as the Mascarenes. She highlights their portrayal of the dehumanizing nature of the plantation system, but also the self-empowerment, resistance, and solidarity displayed by protagonists in these stories.

Between these two chapters on sugar-cane literature, an essay by Bernard Moitt approaches the topic of resistance by examining marronage in the French Caribbean from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. He argues that marronage was widespread throughout the entire period, that authorities passed laws and used repressive measures to keep maroons in check, and that slaves continued to run away from plantations anyway. Of particular interest is his analysis of laws passed prior to the Code Noir of 1685, which he uses to demonstrate that the planter elite, caught in a bind between a desire to punish recalcitrant slaves and the fear of losing potentially productive labourers, shifted from especially harsh to more lenient (but not exactly humane) treatment of captured runaways during the eighteenth century.

In another chapter, Moitt and Horace Henriques provide one of the more analytically intriguing pieces in the collection, as they attempt to refute the notion that the plantation societies of Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo (and, after 1803, British Guiana) were “total institutions” of the type described by Best and Beckford. They stress the slaves’ ability to assert agency through marronage and rebellion, and, more importantly, the social stratification (along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and especially internal class differences) that divided white elites from one another and black slaves and their descendants from each other as well. Their work tackles a widely debated topic in the field of Caribbean studies; yet, based largely on secondary sources (especially Goslinga, Viotti da Costa, and Craton), it is mostly suggestive and points in the direction of future archival research.

The final two historical chapters shift their sights toward the Spanish Caribbean and the United States. Anton Allahar’s discussion of the politics of the Cuban planter elite during the middle of the nineteenth century departs from the other essays in this collection, all of which deal to some degree with slaves, indentured labourers, and other sugar workers. His essay would be strengthened through engagement with more recent scholarship on the history of Cuba during this time. While focusing primarily on the issue of annexation to the United States, for instance, he overlooks works by Chaffin, Martínez-Fernández, Paquette, Poyo, and others that cover similar ground. Similarly, although he cites Rebecca Scott for other purposes, he takes for granted Moreno Fraginal’s argument that Cuban slavery was doomed due to the incompatibility of slave labour and technology, thus ignoring Scott’s powerful challenge to this thesis.

The contribution by Richard Follett and Rick Halpern, meanwhile, offers a detailed, nuanced analysis of the transition from slavery to free labour in the Louisiana sugar industry. Engaging closely with recent scholarship, the authors demonstrate that abolition did not represent a sharp break with the past, but that plantation owners and their workers, whether slave or freed, continued to engage in coercion and negotiation, accommodation and resistance before and after the Civil War. “By tailoring the labor market and influencing wages, cane workers contested the terms of postbellum agriculture,” they conclude, “though like their enslaved predecessors who negotiated over customary rights and overwork, Louisiana’s sugar workers ceded their independence to the wage and agro-industrial order that exploited them” (pp. 145-46).

While the individual essays in Sugar, Slavery, and Society may be valuable to scholars of sugar depending upon their particular interests, the collection misses the opportunity to explore more fully the comparative dimensions of the issues raised here, whether within the Caribbean itself or between the region and the wider world. Taken together, the studies in this book have much to say about continuity versus change in the plantation systems of the Caribbean. But while the introduction provides a basic overview of the history of sugar as well as synopses (indeed, much more detailed than can be included in this review) of each essay, it does not draw connections between them or attempt to synthesize their findings. Similarly, the final chapter by Paget Henry offers an interesting discussion of the “shadows” or legacies of plantation agriculture in the Caribbean (specifically, planter hegemony, plantation racism, and the tendency toward economic and political crises), but does not serve the purpose of bringing together the various contributions to this collection in any type of comparative analytical sense. In view of these concerns, as well as the fact that the book is only available in cloth cover and does not contain a bibliography or any illustrations or maps, its potential for teaching purposes will be limited as well.

Marc McLeod
Seattle University

Sanjida O’Connell, Sugar. The Grass that Changed the World (London: Virgin Books, 2004). Pp. x + 244. Cloth £20.00. ISBN 1 85227 034 9.

The author of this history of the sugar cane industry is a journalist, novelist, and documentary producer who had no previous knowledge of the subject when starting to write this book. Her method has been to read widely in the standard literature, as her bibliography attests, to digest this material, and then to set down her own account of the industry from its origins to the present. The text has a journalistic flair to it, particularly noticeable in the chapter titles that are worded to attract attention. The result is a popularizing of a complex topic for the general reader. Certainly, there is need for such books. The question then becomes: How well has O’Connell accomplished her task?

The answer, in brief, must be “not very well”, at least as far as the first chapters are concerned. The later chapters deserve a better report. In the early pages there are far too many factual errors for comfort. They begin on page 1 with the incorrect statement that Amerindians brought sugar cane to Barbados and continue through much of the first half of the book. Barbados did not become independent in 1868, as O’Connell subsequently indicates, when she provides the correct year, 1966. On page 22 São Tomé is spelt incorrectly, a minor blemish, perhaps, compared to the description on the same page of the Cornaros as a “not atypical” Venetian family, when, in fact, they were major sugar producers on Cyprus; indeed, the last Queen of the island was a Cornaro. Cabral landed in Brazil in 1500, not 1501. And Bougainville was not “the first navigator to sail around the world” (p. 73). More care in note taking and some careful proof reading would surely have caught these errors.

These early chapters are largely narrative, with the telling of anecdotes rather than an analysis of how the system worked. There is very little on the technology of the industry and, very surprising in a book aimed at a popular market, no maps, diagrams, or illustrations of any kind.

O’Connell’s command of her material improves as she goes along, but rather than following a continuous line of development, she jumps from topic to topic. The abolition of slavery is the dominant theme in chapter 5. Chapter 6 is a brief description of the beginnings of cane-breeding in Barbados. The history of Tate and Lyle, the main topic in chapters 7 and 8, provides an opportunity to discuss sugar refining and the politics of sugar production in Britain between the world wars. Sugar and health is the theme of chapter 9. Chapter 10 is a brief review of research on alternative sweeteners to sugar. Chapter 11 contains two diverse topics: a discussion of the politics of sugar production in the Europe and the USA followed by a brief examination of the environmental impact of the cane sugar industry, with Barbados, Australia, and Florida providing the examples. In the final chapter O’Connell returns to the origins of sugar cane in New Guinea and to current research on the subject.

The early chapters are certainly disappointing, but the general reader may well find the later chapters of interest.

J. H. Galloway
University of Toronto


José Alvares, Cuba’s Agricultural Sector (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004). Pp. 306. $75.00. ISBN 0-8130-2754-3. A discussion of Cuban agriculture from colonial times to the present.

Justo Germán Cantero, Los Ingenios. Colección de vistas de los principales ingenios de azúcar de la isla de Cuba (Aranjuez, España: La Editorial Doce Calles, 2005).

David Carr, Candymaking in Canada. The History and Business of Canada’s Confectionary Industry (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2003). Pp. 124. Cdn$28.99. ISBN 1-55002-395-0.

Leida Fernandez Prieto, Cuba agricola: mito y tradición, 1878-1920 (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Colección Tierra Nueva e Cielo Nuevo, no. 52, 2005). Pp. 359. €49. ISBN 84-9744.048-X.

Luis A. Figueroa, Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in 19th-Century Puerto Rico (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Pp. 304. $55 (cloth). ISBN 0-8078-2949-8. $19.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8078-5610-X.

Richard Follett, The Sugar Masters. Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005). Pp. 304. $54.95. ISBN 0-8071-3038-9.

J. H. Galloway, “The modernization of sugar production in Southeast Asia, 1880-1940,” The Geographical Review, 95:1 (2005), pp. 1-23.

J. H. Galloway, The Sugar Cane Industry. An Historical Geography from its Origins to 1914 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Pp. xiii + 266. $43/£23.99. ISBN 10-0-521-02219-3. A digital re-print paperback of the 1989 edition.

Pedro A. González Vélez, “Azúcar y religión: la simbiosis misionero-centralista en el proceso de americanización 1900-1910,” Exégesis. Revista de la Universidade de Puerto Rico en Humacao, 17:51 (2004), pp. 15-23.

B. W. Higman, Plantation Jamaica, 1750-1850. Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy (Mona, Jamaica: The University of the West Indies Press, 2005). Pp. 450. $65.00. ISBN 9-7664-0156-9.

Maria Emilia Prado, Em busca de progresso, 1875-1910: Os engenhos centrais e a moderniçâo das unidades açúcareiras no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Papel Virtual Editôra, 2000). Pp. 127. ISBN 857-4931-1268.

Antonio Santamaría García, Historia económica y social de Puerto Rico (1750-1902): Bibliografía, fuentes publicadas (1745-2002) y balance (Madrid: Fundación Mapfre Tavera. Colección Documentos Tavera, No. 19, 2005). Pp. 379. €12. ISBN 84-8479-061-4. This is an annotated bibliography which includes a chapter on the sugar industry.

Antonio Santamaría García and Alejandro García Álvarez, Economía y colonia. La economía cubana y la relación con España, 1765-1902 (Madrid: Colección Tierra Nueva e Cielo Nuevo, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2004). Pp. 500.

Antonio Santamaría García and Alejandro García Álvarez, eds., “Sugar industry in America,” Revista de Indias, LVX:233 (2005). Pp. 290. €21. The papers cover most countries, ranging in time from early Brazil to the present day.

Stuart B. Schwartz, ed., Tropical Babylons. Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Pp. 346. $59.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8078-2875-0. $22.50 (paper). ISBN 0-8078-5538-3.

Of related interest for historians of the Caribbean sugar industry:
Michelle M. Terrell, The Jewish Community of Early Colonial Nevis. A Historical Archaeological Study (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005). Pp. xii + 182. $59.95. ISBN 0-8130-2786-1.


4th Seminário Internacional de História do Açúcar, Funchal, Madeira. April 25-29, 2006.
Theme: Sugar prices, weights and measures, and fiscal controls.
Special session: Cities of the sugar trade.
Sponsored by the Centro de Estudos da História do Atlântico, Funchal, Madeira.

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Santo Domingo, July 24-29, 2006.
International seminar with the theme, “El Azúcar Antes y Después de Colón”.
Organized by the Academia Dominicana de la Historia and the Asociación Internacional de la Historia del Azúcar.
Contact Genaro Rodríguez Morel, Seville, at or Alberto Vieira, Madeira, at avieira@

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20th International Congress of Historical Sciences, Sydney, July 3-9, 2005. For the publication of the proceedings of the session on “The Impact of Sugar Cane Expansion on Five Continents”, contact Professor Tamás Szmrecsányi, Unicamp, São Paulo, Brazil. E-mail: dpct@


This issue marks the last “hard copy” of the Newsletter. We have decided that publishing on-line is a more efficient way of reaching those interested in the subject of the history of sugar. As readers are aware, back issues of the Newsletter have been available on-line for several years, attracting numerous queries as well as new readers. We shall add the remaining backlog of past issues as quickly as possible and in the future publish the same mix of reviews, conferences, recent publications, and everything else relevant to the study of the history of sugar. To that end, we, as always, welcome any related information that you may have. Publications, as in the recent past, are likely to be irregular, so we would ask that interested readers forward their e-mail addresses. We can then send out announcements as new issues are about to appear.

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: or Back issues of the WSHN can be found on its website at