In this issue:
Lucy B. Wayne, Sweet Cane: The Architecture of the Sugar Works of East Florida (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2010). 176 pp. Illustrations, references, index. $22.50 (paper). ISBN 978-0-8173-5592-8.
From the late eighteenth century to the outbreak of the Second Seminole War, the sugar industry rose and fell in East Florida, the region that the English, Spanish, and Americans defined as the territory east of the Suwannee River. The short-lived industry that produced sugar, molasses, and rum brought temporary prosperity to the area. At least twenty-two large and small plantations have been documented. In present-day Flagler and Volusia Counties the remains of eight of the largest operations stand as testament to this once lucrative industry that linked East Florida with the global sugar nexus in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Professional archaeologist Lucy B. Wayne, in a finely executed work, brings together many secondary historical works and the most recent archaeological studies of the remains of these East Florida sugar plantations. The result is a highly readable and well-illustrated study that will be popular with specialists and general readers alike.
Wayne contends that the “sites themselves present a fascinating remnant to what was once an important regional industry, as well as examples of masonry construction and early industrial engineering. This study,” she declares, “is an effort to open the door on these fascinating ruins and tell their stories as reflected in their architecture. It is above all an architectural history. It is not a regional history or a socioeconomic history, nor is it an attempt to look at the New World sugar industry as a whole” (p. 5). Wayne’s purpose is to study the masonry works that remain today and not the plantations themselves, the owners, or the slave labour that enriched the owners. Even so, Wayne is clearly aware of the economic influences that shaped the design of the mills. She also explores the Caribbean influences on the construction and design of the mills. And she recognizes that Coastal Georgia and South Carolina planters exerted influence on the plantations’ design and construction as well.
All of the plantations lie in a roughly fifty-mile line within fifteen miles of the east coast of Florida. They are either on the St. Johns River or close to estuarine rivers draining into the Atlantic Ocean. The sites were also close to the Kings Road, a north-south road first constructed by the British linking New Smyrna with the St. Marys River.
In an excellently crafted chapter entitled “Sweet Cane,” Wayne uses period literature, images of the various works, and insight gained through the archaeological work to explain the complex process of producing sugar, molasses, and rum. In a subsequent chapter, Wayne recounts the introduction of sugar in East Florida, beginning with the first Spanish planting of the crop on a small scale immediately after the establishment of St. Augustine. But it was not until the British acquired East and West Florida after the Great War for Empire in 1763 that substantial development of sugar production began with the British government’s granting of large tracts to investors. A few major efforts went forward but compared to the huge successful operations in the West Indies, East Florida provided only a spoonful. After the American Revolution the British transferred East Florida back to Spain and stuttering efforts continued. Only when the Americans acquired Florida did sugar production become substantial, with the peak of production occurring between 1819 and 1835. East Florida producers faced many obstacles, including stiff competition from Louisiana and the Caribbean and a shortage of capital. But it was the Second Seminole War that sent the industry over the brink. The physical destruction of the plantations and mills and the scattering of slave labor were the shocks from which the industry never recovered. Despite efforts to rebuild the destroyed plantations after 1842 and move operations into other areas of Florida, falling prices and stiff competition from other sources induced East Florida entrepreneurs to seek alternative fields for their capital. Thus, only two of the eight properties described in the study were initiated after this time frame.
Not surprisingly, many of the planters and the overseers they hired came to East Florida from the British West Indies. For example, William Forbes, employed by Andrew Turnbull, was a Jamaica planter. Planter Robert McHardy was from the Bahamas. Thomas Dummett was from Barbados and John Bunch was from Nassau. Thus, the sugar works of East Florida closely resembled those in the West Indies. To a lesser extent, East Florida sugar operations were also influenced by Georgia and South Carolina antecedents. Charles and John Bulow and Orlando Rees were from South Carolina and Thomas Spalding was from coastal Georgia where similar sugar operations flourished.
Part II takes up the main purpose of the book, an exploration of the architecture of the East Florida sugar plantations. Wayne first describes the architectural influences of the East Florida plantations and then groups plantations in chapters based on similarities in architectural features and level of technology. For example, Chapter 6 examines the Oswald/Yonge Three Chimney and McHardy sites because of their original use of the Spanish Train boiler system. The first system utilized by Florida planters, the Spanish Train method had a separate furnace for each boiler. Later, a more sophisticated Jamaica Train was adopted in which one furnace fired all the kettles. Diagrams of the Jamaica and the Spanish Train furnaces are provided, as are period engravings of the mills and machinery.
Chapter 7 focuses on the Dummett and Spring Garden operations, which Wayne categorizes as Adaptive Sugar Works. Finally, Wayne explores the remaining plantations in a chapter entitled “The Fully Evolved Sugar Works: Bulow, Macrae, Crugar-DePeyster, and Dunlawton”. Wayne contends that close examination of the architecture supports the view that adapting new technologies made sugar more profitable. “The crucial adaptations were the Jamaica train with its single flue and chimney; the horizontal crusher with a higher capacity and production; and the steam engine, which provided greater, more reliable power along with around-the-clock capability. These adaptations, in turn, led to changes in the buildings themselves. Sugar works went from simple, probably open shelters, to large masonry edifices. With the adaptation of more complex and expensive crushers and engines, there was a shift to enclosing the machinery in the buildings rather than simply sheltering it under a post-supported roof” (p. 148).
In a concluding chapter, Wayne summarizes what caused the end of the industry: the destruction caused by the Second Seminole War and the falling sugar prices, which discouraged rebuilding. The industry re-emerged temporarily in Marion County and then along the southwest Gulf coast up to the Civil War, but was in no way comparable to the quantity of the pre-1836 years. Of course, with the opening up of the Everglades to farming in the late nineteenth century, sugar production shifted almost entirely to Florida’s southernmost sections, where it thrives today.
This book has many strengths. First, it is well-written and accessible to non-specialists. Particularly well done are the brief historical passages on each of the eight plantation sites. Next, the book has many fine illustrations and figures (82 in all) that show images referred to in the text. Current photographs of the ruins, contemporary engravings, and archaeological renditions are also included. Finally, in shedding light on this slice of time and place, Wayne has contributed significantly to our understanding of Florida’s first truly industrial enterprise.
Thomas Rogers, The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeastern Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). 302 pp. $25.95 (paper). ISBN 978-0-8078-7167-6.
Thomas Rogers’ multi-dimensional study of sugar in northeastern Brazil cogently analyzes the interrelated processes of sugar production, labour mobilization, and environmental change. Put simply, The Deepest Wounds contends that sugar cultivation and labour practices invariably had environmental consequences, which, in turn, influenced subsequent production and labour relations. As Rogers writes: “Few sugar planters or workers saw a clear distinction between agricultural change and social change; they assumed that changing cultivation techniques or innovations implied changes in work responsibilities and demands” (p. 9).
The sophisticated (and clear) set of labour-agro/environmental relationships set forth in the book capture important issues pertaining to sugar cultivation, state intervention, and worker organizing in Pernambuco, the focus of the case study and one of the oldest sugar regions in the Americas. Interestingly, as Rogers notes in the conclusion, after nearly five hundred years of sugar production, “the most dramatic environmental change in the region during the twentieth century was the expansion of cane” (p. 203). Far from a story about sugar’s “decline,” this book conveys the continuing centrality of the crop’s place within Pernambuco’s labour, cultural, political, and environmental history.
The book follows a three-part structure, and contains seven chapters plus an Introduction and Conclusion. Organized chronologically, ranging largely from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the different sections delineate distinct phases in production, labour patterns, and environmental change. Rogers draws on a variety of sources, including government and industry records, social-scientific studies from the mid-twentieth century, labour court cases, travelogues, recently opened files from the military era (1964-85), and “forty-nine interviews with sugar workers and foremen, mill managers and owners, union officials, agronomists, and environmentalists” (p. 14). These documents yield wide perspectives on the differing implications that discourses and strategies of “modernization” and “rationalization” had on sugar production, the environment, and workers’ lives. The interviews, in particular, illuminate the entrenched sense of “place” that Rogers is keen to convey.
The first part of the book situates cane cultivation in a longer perspective, tracking trends in production and the corresponding environmental impact from the sixteenth through the late nineteenth century. Pernambucan sugar first appeared in the Lisbon customhouse in 1526, and through its golden age in the seventeenth century, the expansion of cane cultivation necessarily implied increased deforestation. The benchmarks Rogers utilizes to illustrate these interrelated processes are staggering: “for each kilogram of sugar produced, about fifteen kilograms of wood were burned, leading to the logging of 210,000 tons of wood each year” (p. 32). Not surprisingly, by the early twentieth century, only thirty-four percent of the Atlantic forest that once covered the sugar region remained. By the late nineteenth century, however, although production continued to increase, Pernambucan sugar lost its place as a leading national export and a significant portion of its international market share. A series of state-led industrialization proposals, nevertheless, transformed the nature of the industry, fomenting the rise of mill-centred production and turning dozens, if not hundreds, of former planters into suppliers.
Section One continues with two chapters that deal with the construction of discourses about land and labour, articulated from the planter and worker viewpoints respectively. Planters, Rogers argues, saw a labouring landscape as they peered across their vast domains, “a space that they commanded into material and symbolic productivity” (p. 45). “Those who wielded power,” Rogers continues, “did not simply own but rather controlled land and labor, or better put, they commanded the laboring landscape” (italics in the original, p. 50). The formulation of a class-based discourse of authority emerges, then, in connection with the planters’ sense of control over the land. This idea crystallized precisely in the midst of an era of turmoil and uncertainty in the sugar zone, the early twentieth century.
If planters saw a labouring landscape and derived their sense of power from a relationship with the land, Rogers suggests that workers also understood and articulated their plight in relation to the landscape. One interviewee, born in 1869 and who started working in the fields at age twelve, recalled that “the green horizons of the Salgado Mill lands were the limits of the world.” (p. 71) Such observations, combined with insights from social science studies of workers’ conditions from the 1930s and 1940s, underpins Rogers’ notion that the verdant fields were a key referential in how workers perceived their situation. He writes: “we find traces of workers’ struggle to distinguish themselves from the natural world even as they consistently characterize their conditions using the metaphor of captivity” (italics mine, p. 72).
The “metaphor of captivity” serves Rogers well to focus on the nature of labour relations before and after the abolition of slavery (1888), and into the subsequent generations. It is known that sugar cultivation from the 1870s was overwhelmingly done with “free” labour, even if the majority of the forty-odd thousand slaves that remained in Pernambuco till the end of slavery were found in the sugar zone. That is, in strictly “labour” terms, sugar production did not depend on slavery in the late nineteenth century, yet sugar planters remained fiercely active in local politics and formed their own associations—Clubs de Lavoura—to organize conferences (1884) in response to abolitionist mobilizations. The fact that “free” and “enslaved” toiled together in the fields, if in different proportions, makes it fair to suggest, as Rogers does, that “a sense of captivity by association” existed, “especially since planter treatment of workers clearly reflected the tradition of bonded labor” (p. 75). Future research may probe more closely into how racialized discourses of labour also informed the “metaphor of captivity,” as cane workers, evidenced by the photograph reproduced on the cover of the book, had varying degrees of African backgrounds. In a context where “negro” equaled “slave,” constructions of hierarchy before and after abolition operated around processes of racialization, among other issues.
The second part of the book places the famous 1963 rural workers’ strike, that mobilized some two hundred thousand people, in a longer perspective, situating this wave of collective action in relation to ongoing state-led projects of "modernization" and "rationalization" of the sugar industry. The creation of the Institute of Sugar and Alcohol (IAA) in 1933 coordinated attempts to transform sugar production, although the new methods did not always prove better. The adoption of the “3x” variety of cane in the 1940s and 1950s, for example, bore broad consequences, both in environmental and labour terms, while still not showing that more production was necessarily more lucrative. This particular variety yielded more cane tonnage but not more sucrose until late in the growing season. Therefore, as Rogers details, it was imperative to plant more in order to produce the sufficient levels of sucrose. The consequences were dire for workers, as the plantations absorbed spaces previously preserved for workers’ gardens. In addition, changes in how workers were paid—“from the day’s wage to pay by the task”—exacerbated workers’ perceptions of unfair treatment. These efforts to "rationalize" the sugar economy notwithstanding, Rogers cites an industry report from 1964 that highlighted Pernambuco’s still inefficient means for cutting, collecting, and wrapping cane. “On average, 3.6 workers per day were required to harvest one ton of cane as late as 1965, whereas São Paulo used only 2.2 and Hawaii just 0.3” (p. 119).
Chapter Five, “The Zona da Mata Aflame” explores the political upheaval of the early 1960s, including the famous 1963 strike, in light of the environmental and production changes of the previous decades. The role of Francisco Julião and the so-called “Peasant Leagues” emerge in a context where a sympathetic governor and a burgeoning Communist Party provided key roles in organizing workers. Rogers notes the different patterns of mobilization across the southern and northern regions, with the Communist Party more active in the former, dealing with workers who experienced the most intense effects of the recent “rationalization” efforts. The expansion of cane planting pushed workers off the land, and “by 1961, fully half the respondents to a large survey listed a place of origin elsewhere in the cane zone” (p. 129). In the northern region, the Church “established municipality-based unions,” though of “the thirty newspaper articles the Diário de Pernambuco published on rural worker strikes during the tumultuous months between May and November 1963, only three covered action in the north” (p. 139). The chapter ends with an interesting analysis of “fire,” both as a discourse about modernizing sugar techniques and as a weapon of radical politics. Similar to earlier constructions about labour and the environment, the discussions about fire show the interconnectedness of agricultural and political themes.
Part Three of the book concentrates on the military era (1964-85). Rather than showing a marked rupture in labour protest with the onset of the dictatorship, Rogers stresses that “the ability to press complaints and seek improved conditions remained, if in attenuated form” (p. 159). The state’s presence in further regulating and stimulating agriculture continued in the 1970s, a process catalyzed by the 1973 oil shock and the country’s emphasis on producing fuel alcohol. Credit expansion and the use of fertilizers occurred on unprecedented scales. From the production of 944,000 tons of sugar in 1970 to 1.4 million in 1986, the growth of the industry once again spurred important labour and environmental changes. Workers, this time mostly those in the northern region, experienced health and basic subsistence hardships associated with the more regular flooding that came with more pollution entering the rivers.
Workers increasingly placed a higher emphasis on wages rather than land plots, as the changes introduced after the 1950s remade the labour structure. Also, the state’s presence in the sugar zone came with an infrastructure that workers used to contest planters’ power. A series of strikes coalesced in 1979, concentrated in the northern region where the gravest impact of the sugar and alcohol boom was felt, and focussing on higher wages. The mobilizations, occurring as the military softened its stance amid louder and louder demands for democracy, set the tone for protest efforts into the 1980s. Increasingly, disputes over contract negotiations were “hashed out in the public arenas of state power: the local labor courts and the labor delegate’s office in Recife” (p. 197). In short, Rogers’ analysis of labour protest during the military period soundly sustains his stance of ongoing power contestations, and the links between labour and political upheaval and environmental changes.
Altogether, The Deepest Wounds is a crucially important book that illuminates the entwined dynamics of large processes (labour, environment, and production), while also providing a detailed and cohesive analysis of a place (Pernambuco) where sugar evidently thrived well beyond the nineteenth century. This book is extremely well suited for comparative seminars on sugar, labour, and modernization, in addition to courses on Brazilian and Latin American history.
Jonathan Curry-Machado, Cuban Sugar Industry: Transnational Networks and Engineering Migrants in Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
Peter D. Griggs, Global Industry, Local Innovation: The History of Cane Sugar Production in Australia, 1820-1995 (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, 2011), Pp. xxxvi + 928. SFr125.00/US$124.95, ISBN 978-3-0343-0431-3.
Allyson Stoll, “Thoroughly tested and carefully tried: Cane culture, agricultural technology and environmental change in nineteenth-century Guyana,” Journal of Caribbean History 45:1 (2011), 92-127.
Allyson Ann Marie Stoll, “Not for ‘Want of Go-Aheadism’ in Field and Factory: The Technological Trajectory of the Guyana (British Guiana) Sugar Industry from 1800 to the 1930s” (Cornell University, 2011).
This study documents and analyzes the technological transformations that occurred in Guyana’s canefields and sugar factories during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Four chapters detail the socio-economic and political underpinnings of the period’s modernizing trends; the ecological transformation of the cane-growing region, with a survey of the principal architectural elements of the sugar complex; field trials with implemental and mechanical ploughs; and new cultivation techniques and plant experiments led by G. S. Jenman, E. E. H. Francis, and J. B. Harrison from the 1880s. Noteworthy advances in factory processing are also detailed. A final chapter addresses the longstanding allegations of backwardness, inertia, and technological incompetence and interactions of labour and technology during the slavery and indentureship periods.
Dr. Stoll can be contacted at email@example.com