World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 38, September 2008

In this issue:

  1. Reviews
  2. Recent Publications


Philip P. Boucher, France and the American Tropics to 1700: Tropics of Discontent? (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), Pp.xii + 372. $44.00 (Cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-8725-3; $24.95 (Paper), ISBN 978-0-8018-8726-0.

Philip Boucher’s France and the American Tropics to 1700: Tropics of Discontent? is not about sugar: it is about French colonial societies in the Americas up to the end of the seventeenth century. Adopting a comparative approach, the author evaluates these societies in the context of “early colonial life in the Americas, of conditions in pre-1700 Europe, and … of the relevant areas of sub-Saharan West Africa” (p. 9). Boucher’s main argument is that “in many but not all ways colonial society before the triumph of the plantation complex was relatively healthier and less brutal than during the eighteenth century for most groups, with the notable exception of the declining Island Carib population” (p. 11). Among the enslaved, creoles - those born in the colonies - were more healthy and “less overtly discontented” than new arrivals from Africa, while those in urban areas “were perhaps better off” (p. 11) than those on the plantations. The author tackles these and other bold claims through a broad, comparative treatment of societies in parts of Africa, France, Canada, and the French Antilles, primarily Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Drawing heavily upon seventeenth-century missionary sources and contemporary accounts, Boucher is keenly aware of the limitation of his sources, but nevertheless hopes “to present the reader with the equivalent of a fine bottle of wine blended from a variety of good grapes” (p. x). He draws a distinction between “frontier era”- the early decades of French settlement – “pre-plantation era,” and “plantation era.” As for the plantation complex or “regime,” it is determined not by slavery itself but by the number of enslaved people vis-à-vis free people, and can be observed for example in Barbados around the 1680s as it moved to a three-to-one ratio of enslaved to free people.

Boucher’s meticulously researched book is divided into an introduction and ten chapters. At the outset, his valid contention that “the history of French activities and possessions in tropical America before 1700 is little known in continental North America” (p. 1) sets the tone, because this work seeks to tell the whole story. The first two chapters deal with French colonization and French reactions and responses to Iberian claims of ownership of the Americas. The next four chapters focus on various aspects of what the author calls “frontier society” from the 1620s to the late seventeenth century. So settlement, governance, the role played by seventeenth-century chartered firms, and the social status of ethic groupings (including white European indentured servants and captive Africans) are discussed. Chapters seven and eight examine how the French state under Louis XIV and Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert imposed royal authority on the tropical colonies, the responses of the colonists to state rule, and internal strife between planters and merchants. The most interesting parts of the work are chapters 9 and 10 on island society, which the author divides between the habitants (colonists) and the enslaved. In these chapters, Boucher argues that island society during the frontier and pre-plantation eras was significantly different from the eighteenth-century plantation complex. Since the author does not deal with the eighteenth-century plantation era, however, readers must make the comparisons with earlier periods, and this requires knowledge of the literature on slavery. Also, this argument does not take into consideration the perspectives of the enslaved - a major shortcoming in the work.

In general, the early chapters are good on the settlement and the expansion of the French colonies, as well as the role that French officials like Colbert played in their advancement. They are very informative about the imposition of royal authority in the French colonies and highlight the economic ties between the colonies and metropolitan France. They also provide a window into the gradual evolution of the French Caribbean economies toward a sugar plantation regime. In addition, they contain excellent accounts about the activities and dealings of early colonial officials, including governors like Tracy of Martinique. Indeed, the book offers excellent mini-histories of colonial characters and their role in society. Moreover, it provides details, often overwhelming, of little-known conflicts between the French and other Europeans in the Caribbean, thus illuminating rare aspects of military history. An example is the French fleet which ran aground on May 11, 1678 off Las Aves islands off Curaçao after chasing three Dutch vessels. The encounter resulted in the loss of fourteen vessels and up to 500 men, not to mention the casks of brandy and wine that washed up on shore. In concentrating on French actions, however, the author offers little by way of analysis. And the societies he attempts to reconstruct hardly come to life.

Backed by helpful statistical tables, Boucher’s comparative treatment of the French colonies highlights differences between them, and differences between the French and British islands - an intellectual approach he pursues to emphasize that history is not static. He shows that the white population in the French colonies grew at a much slower pace than in the British colonies in the four decades after 1660. The comparative picture of the development of the plantation systems in the French and British colonies is very solid, despite the over-reliance on Richard Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves (University of North Carolina Press, 1972). Boucher also broadens our understanding of the workings of the Sovereign Councils, which made the laws, and the activities of religious orders, especially the Jesuits and Dominicans. Though few in number, the profiles of creole white women in the French colonies bring to light a group that has been ignored in the historiography, and thus provide a path for others to follow.

With regard to the enslaved, they hardly come to light in Boucher’s book; indeed, the indentured servants do better. Indentureship and slavery are seen as strikingly similar, despite the acknowledgement that the condition of enslavement was permanent. To be sure, Boucher’s view of enslavement should be scrutinized. Certainly, there is no sense that slavery was “ruthlessly exploitative” and “nakedly racial” as Richard Dunn (p. 224) has indicated. The task allocation of the enslaved is well outlined, as is the nature of the agro-industrial complex that characterized the sugar business. But the toll that the manufacturing process took on the enslaved is ignored. Much is made of the fact that baptism, exposure to the catechism, legal marriage, and burial in sacred ground were the lot of a minority of the enslaved, but what of the development of syncretistic forms of religion with an African base? Given the number of baptisms and communicants among the enslaved, how they responded to enslavement is a relevant question that is not addressed. Did they view their social condition in contradictory terms?

Boucher’s attempt to present a balanced picture is admirable, but there is a lack of critical analysis of slavery throughout the work. With regard to the laws in the French Code Noir, for example, it is not enough to conclude that “we do not know to what extent the laws were enforced” (p. 288), because this area can be probed. In The French Atlantic Triangle (Duke University Press, 2008), Christopher Miller cites a case in 1698 of a slave-owner in Martinique who, “out of …compassion” rigged one of his slaves with a chain strung along his back between his neck and his foot (causing him to lose feeling in the leg after two or three years), rather than imposing the death penalty for multiple acts of marronnage as the Code Noir required. Similarly, Boucher’s claim that the enslavement in the French Caribbean “was perhaps not as unbearably grim” (p. 300) as in the English West Indies is not supported by the evidence. There are instances where Boucher bases his conclusions on very thin or non-existent evidence. For example, he rules out homosexuality among sailors who shared one hammock - a practice called matelotage - because seventeenth-century missionary sources would have condemned it had it occurred.

France and the American Tropics to 1700 is a serious, richly detailed scholarly study that has an important place in the historiography of slavery. Its main strength is its comparative approach and the wide array of sources that the author employs. Despite the lack of treatment of race and gender issues, and what many will likely view as an attack on established positions on key issues relating to Atlantic slavery, the book is perhaps most valuable as a reference guide.

Bernard Moitt
Virginia Commonwealth University

Reinaldo Funes Monzote, From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Pp. 384. Cloth $65.00, ISBN 978-0-8078-3128-1; Paper $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-5858-5.

Reinaldo Funes Monzote Monzote, one of the leading young environmental historians of Latin America, has produced a magisterial environmental history of Cuba’s forests and its sugar industry. From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba is a translation of his prize-winning book, published in Spanish in 2003. This translation by Alex Martin captures the grace and eloquence of the original. There have, of course, been many histories of the sugar industry in Cuba, but few of these histories have discussed the central role that Cuba’s environment - particularly its forests - played in the expansion of sugar. Just as Cuba’s sugar industry was based upon the ruthless exploitation of African and Afro-Cuban labour, it was also based upon the exploitation of the island’s landscapes.

Using scientific documents (both contemporary and historical), travel narratives, and other accounts, Funes Monzote painstakingly reconstructs the history of Cuba’s forests from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. When the Europeans first arrived in Cuba, they found an island covered in forests. It was not, Funes Monzote carefully points out, a “virgin” forest. The indigenous inhabitants of Cuba did clear parts of the forests, but they had little collective impact on them. Although deforestation accelerated after contact, the destruction was limited to a few leagues around Havana and the other larger settlements. The pace of deforestation accelerated during the Bourbon reforms of the late eighteenth century. In 1748, the Spanish navy opened one of the empire’s largest shipyards in Havana. To ensure a reliable supply of building materials, the crown granted the navy jurisdiction over virtually all of Cuba’s forests, which became Royal Forest Reserves. The navy and the sugar industry had irreconcilable visions of forest use. The navy saw the forest as a resource that could regenerate, if used carefully. In contrast, sugar planters treated the forest as a non-renewable resource – as if it were an “open-pit mine”, in an analogy coined by the Conde de Pozos Dulces. To balance these interests, the colonial government established a Wood Committee, which granted licenses to cut wood. The navy gradually lost control over wood use in Cuba after 1792. Cuban planters rushed to fill the shortfall in global sugar production caused by the Haitian revolution.

Over the next three chapters, Funes Monzote traces how Cuba’s sugar boom was fueled (literally) by the island’s forests. In 1815, the sugar planters decisively won their legal struggle with the Navy; the crown granted them the absolute right to clear forests on their lands. This unleashed, in Funes Monzote’s words, “a great economic, ideological, and environmental transformation” (p. 268). Sugar growers felled the forests both to clear new land for sugar plantations, and also to provide fuel for boiling the sugar. New mills would also sell the timber from the cleared lands, as a way of offsetting the costs of construction. Technical innovations in sugar processing – especially the introduction of semi-mechanized sugar mills (ingenios) and sugar factories (centrales) accelerated the pace of forest destruction even further. Over the nineteenth century some planters and naturalists - such as Ramon de la Sagra - began to worry about the problems of deforestation and soil exhaustion. Later in the century, the Spanish organized a forest administration. But neither scientific observations nor bureaucratic institutions could do much to check the eastward expansion of the sugar industry. The US intervention and Cuban independence simply accelerated the trends of the late colonial period. By the mid-1920s, where Funes Monzote ends his story, the Cuban state once again began to enact laws that restricted property owners’ right to harvest forests on their property. This decree was, however, largely symbolic since most of Cuba’s forests had already been destroyed. In a powerful conclusion, Funes Monzote describes the long-term ecological damage caused by the destruction - from loss of flora and fauna to soil exhaustion and erosion. Like the other sugar islands in the Caribbean, Cuba’s landscapes were exhausted. Unlike those islands, argues Funes Monzote, the pace and scale of destruction in Cuba was much quicker because Cuba’s sugar production was industrialized.

From Rain Forest to Cane Field is well illustrated with maps, drawings, and photographs that vividly document his story. It also contains a useful bibliographic essay, which explains in detail how his work connects to various bodies of scholarly research. In summary, this book’s comprehensive scope, original argument, and eloquent writing will make it useful both as a textbook for undergraduate and graduate courses in a wide range of areas, from Cuban history to environmental history.

Stuart McCook
University of Guelph


Humberto García Muñíz, “La plantación que no se repite: las historias azucareras de la República Dominicana y Puerto Rico, 1870-1930,” Revista de Indias, LXV:233 (2005), pp. 173-192.

Ted Henzell, Australian Agriculture: Its History and Challenges (Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO Publishers, 2007), Pp. 320. AU $79.95. ISBN 9780643993426. Chapter 5 deals with sugar cane.

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. Correspondence should be sent to Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1K7, or by e-mail to: or