World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 42, February 2012

In this issue:

  1. Reviews
  2. Recent Publications


Peter D. Griggs, Global Industry, Local Innovation: the History of Cane Sugar Production in Australia, 1820-1995 (Peter Lang, Bern, 2011). xxxvi, 928 pp. US$124.95. ISBN 978-3-0343-0431-3.

I am not usually intimidated by books. I was by this one. When I agreed to review Peter Griggs’ magnum opus I was warned that it was large, but not quite how large. Half way through reading it, and finding the book quite uncomfortable to hold, I had a sudden desire to collect another statistic beyond the usual biographic details. I decided to weigh the book: it came in at 1.67 kilos. Add this to the statistic that it is almost 1,000 pages long and you begin to have some idea of what has been undertaken. There can be few histories of sugar industries around the world that are as large and as comprehensive. It covers 175 years in immense detail. Luckily, there is a sixty-one page index that allows the reader to dip in and out, as I suspect that most readers will use the book as an encyclopaedia of knowledge on Australia’s sugar industry, not as a text to read from cover to cover. There is a fairly huge literature on the industry, which is well surveyed in the twenty-nine page bibliography. There are also sixty-nine plates, sixty figures, and fifty-six tables.

No one has ever attempted to write a survey of the whole history before and I congratulate Peter Griggs and his publisher for taking on this task. Although the book ends in 1995, I will use current statistics to outline the significance of the industry, which is Australia’s largest agricultural export. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Australia became the fourth biggest sugar producer in the world. Today, Australia rates third and there are 6,000 cane farm businesses producing around thirty-eight million tons of cane which become over five million tonnes of raw sugar through twenty-four sugar mills operating more than 4,000 kilometres of narrow gauge railways. The final product is moved around Australia and overseas through six bulk storage ports. Australian domestic consumption is around one million tonnes of sugar and the other eighty percent is exported. The annual revenue is around A$2 billion, and estimates suggest that 40,000 jobs are generated directly and indirectly from the industry. All Australian sugar cane has been harvested mechanically since 1979 and has undergone bulk-handling since 1964. The average size of farms has also increased as advanced technology forced economies of scale. In the nineteenth century, plantations were usually only a few hundred hectares. Now the average cane farm is around 100 hectares although some are as large as 1,000 hectares. Amalgamations will continue.

Peter Griggs will be known to many readers. He is a historical geographer based at the Cairns Campus of James Cook University in the north of the geographic spread of the industry, which is concentrated along the tropical east coast from Grafton in northern New South Wales and ends around Mossman north of Cairns. There are also more recent extensions into Western Australia. Since the mid-1990s, Griggs has published twelve articles and chapters on the industry, establishing himself as a broad-ranging geographer interested in environmental factors and the institutional side of the industry. This book is a culmination of more than twenty years of research. Griggs has scoured the secondary sources, used the Australian, Queensland, New South Wales government archives, and, importantly, the extensive Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) archives. He has also read widely in contemporary newspapers and journals. My own background is as an historian of the Melanesian labour force brought in to operate the industry during the final decades of the nineteenth century. I have used many of the same sources and cannot identify any gaps in his coverage. Griggs takes a national approach whereas most other studies of the industry deal with particular regions. For instance, I was only ever interested in the Pioneer Valley at Mackay, the largest sugar producing region, but this does not mean I know much about the operation of the industry in northern New South Wales. Since the 1970s, most of the mills have published books on their own histories and almost all of the Shires in which they sit have published centenary histories. There is no shortage of regional histories but nothing which covers the whole industry. The existing regional histories do not follow the raw product to the refineries, which for historical reasons have mainly been situated in the capital cities. Griggs treats the industry as a whole and the strength of the book is his inclusion of the CSR refineries. One of the most fascinating things about the book is its account of the emergence of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company as a significant raw sugar producer and a monopoly refiner for Australia. I almost laughed when I read of the hurt squawks from CSR when it was accused of having a strangle-hold on the whole industry. It was totally true and the only levelling force was the Commonwealth and State governments which took control of the industry, regulating all aspects of cane production from quotas to prices and the total cycle of production.

Griggs also clearly shows the differences in the industry in its various regions. Grafton is 1,100 kilometres from Mossman and the cane growing seasons in the south are about twice as long as in the north. Some areas have used irrigation since the 1880s, while others have sufficient rainfall. Other regions suffer from frosts, which has necessitated breeding frost-resistant canes. The author makes a point of differentiating place, regional differences, and environmental consequences. In the nineteenth century these differences affected the production systems, and after the 1930s government regulations impacted each region differently. Changes in farming techniques, the speed of adoption of machinery, and disease and pest outbreaks also exhibited differently in each region. The book deals with both the agricultural and industrial sectors, and while raw sugar milling has been well covered for most regions, almost on a mill-by-mill basis, the refining side of the process is less well known.

Global Industry, Local Innovation begins with a description of sugar cane and the process by which it is grown and then converted into raw and refined sugar. There are nineteen chapters split into three sections. The first section is small, charting the earliest attempts to grow cane through to 1863. CSR began during these years, and enough detail is provided for necessary background on the giant company. The second section takes the book from 1864 until 1914. These years are the best known, because of the amount of writing on the initial plantation era and the transition to European-owned small farms and government-financed cooperative and proprietary central mills. The 1860s to1900s were also noted for the complexities of the indentured workforce, at first (1863-1904) predominantly from the Pacific Islands, with many an echo back to slavery in the Americas. Historians have given emphasis to this historical period, to the neglect of the later years. The strength of this section will be the exploration of CSR which by 1914 had achieved almost a total monopoly over the refining and marketing of sugar in Australia. When the new 1901 Commonwealth government deported the bulk of the Melanesian workforce, it introduced an embargo over foreign sugar. The government also supported the refining of sugar in the capital cities, a process dominated by CSR.

Griggs’s third section (1915 to 1995) is his most substantial and in the long run will be the most valuable part of the book. By 1915, the modern pattern had been established. Pacific Islanders had been deported and those that stayed were marginalised from the industry. In their stead, White labour became dominant, connected to trade unions; the industry was converted to central milling based on small farms; and the State and Commonwealth governments took firm control through regulation and legislation. Chapter Ten covers the government regulation of the industry: no longer could growers just produce as much cane as they wanted; quotas were introduced based on the ability of the domestic and international markets to absorb the final product. The Queensland government attempted to slow production after 1925 and before 1939 through its Central Sugar Cane Prices Board. Then after the Second World War there was rapid expansion. Over twenty years, 1950s to 1970s, sugar production doubled, and then doubled again between 1974 and 1995. Chapter Eleven looks at the increasing use of labour-saving devices, fertilisers, and pesticides as farming became more scientific. Chapter Twelve deals with efforts to improve drainage and water supply, particularly through irrigation as more marginal land was brought under cultivation. Chapter Thirteen concentrates on breeding new cane varieties. Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen examine efforts to control pests and diseases. Chapter Sixteen deals with the harvesting of the cane and transport to the mills. Chapter Seventeen is an essay on the rapid reduction of the number of mills, together with increases in size and efficiency. Chapter Eighteen covers the inter-linking of the marketing and refining of sugar and its pricing until deregulation onwards from 1990. The 1900s’ embargo against foreign sugar was removed in 1989 and sugar sales were floated on a commercial basis. There is also a short concluding chapter.

Although the sugar industry has survived in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, this frost-prone area is not ideal and required breeding of frost-resistant strains. The best sugar land is from Mackay north. Existing growers always received preference when quotas were expanded, until the late 1980s when new areas for cane-growing were developed on the Atherton Tableland inland from Innisfail and Cairns. While mechanisation was introduced in the growing process, the harvest remained in the hands of labourers until the 1960s when Australia pioneered the introduction of mechanical harvesting. Later, this machinery was sold to overseas sugar cane producing areas. During the nineteenth century, the cane was harvested green. Then the advent of Weil’s disease in the 1930s required burning the cane to safe-guard the cane-cutters. Once the cane harvest was mechanised, cane was cut both burnt and green. Today, eighty percent of the cane is cut green, with the trash cuttings spread in the fields to prevent soil erosion, lower the amount of weed growth, and conserve moisture in the soil.

Peter Griggs has written an institutional history of high calibre. I lament that there is almost no consideration of social history, but this shows my own predilections, and anyway it would require a second volume. This book is an amazingly complex study of a major Australian agricultural industry in all its variations. Its technical apparatus is superb. The photographs, maps, graphs, and tables enable the reader to absorb and summarise the dense text. The book will be of interest to all historians of the world’s sugar industry and to anyone interested in how governments can control and shape an industry, then deregulate and let it float alone.

Back in the late 1970s, Dorothy Jones, author of three regional histories of north Queensland, mentioned to me that she was considering writing a history of the Australian cane sugar industry. Almost forty years later, Griggs has produced what will stand as a masterpiece in historical geography. I doubt that anyone else will make a similar attempt in the next forty years.

Clive Moore
The University of Queensland

Verene A. Shepherd, Livestock, Sugar, and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2009).$22.95. pp. xl + 279. ISBN 9789766372569.

Livestock, Sugar, and Slavery is a welcome addition to the current literature addressing sugar-oriented plantation societies of the Caribbean. Focusing specifically on Jamaica, Verene Shepherd explores British contestation over land use and the continued attempts to establish a monocultural economy. In the case of Jamaica, despite such efforts, there was a sizeable proportion of individuals involved in non-sugar enterprises. Among other things, this study looks at the relationship between ‘pen-keepers’, the contemporary term for those involved in raising livestock, and the sugar barons of Jamaica during the slavery era. As Shepherd sees it, this relationship seemed to have conflicting elements: it was both symbiotic and conflict-ridden.

This study serves as a reminder that there was much economic diversity in the slave-based societies of the Caribbean. Although few would question this diversity, Shepherd argues that historians have acted with a ‘totalizing tendency.’ The scholarly emphasis has been on the sugar sector, which was unquestionably important, but this focus has been at the expense of research on other agricultural sectors and economic enterprises. For that reason alone, this study’s analysis of the livestock industry makes an important contribution. Yet, to her credit, Shepherd does not look at the livestock industry in isolation. Her work is an analysis of the ways in which the livestock industry existed in a sugar-dominated economic system. In fact, this book is best seen as an exploration of the economic relationship that existed between the livestock and sugar industries.

Shepherd reminds the reader that Jamaica remained economically diverse after the ‘sugar revolution’. In addition to the livestock industry, key goods that were produced included tobacco, cocoa, and indigo. That said, the monopolizing tendencies of sugar production – particularly in the area of land use – resulted in the marginalization of other economic activities. One exception to this was the pen-keeping industry. As Shepherd makes clear, even after the introduction of large-scale sugar production, pen-keeping enterprises increased in number. In fact, the rise of the sugar dominated plantation economy resulted in ‘an extraordinary demand’ for livestock in Jamaica. Sugar estates depended on animals for a variety of reasons, but chief among them was the demand for manure to fertilize soil, to meet transportation needs, and as a labour source to power mills (before the widespread use of windmills).

The experiences of the men, women, and children who spent their lives working under slavery on livestock pens are addressed primarily in Chapters 6 and 7 and are carefully juxtaposed against the experiences of those who laboured in the sugar industry. Although Shepherd does not address the issue of age in any depth, in particular the experiences of children, she does give dedicated attention to key issues in the slavery scholarship, such as gender and the ethnic background of the enslaved. Not surprisingly, even on livestock pens, notions about gender shaped the experiences of the enslaved as they laboured. Similarly, as has been discussed in much of the scholarship looking at Caribbean slavery, the ethnic composition of the enslaved changed over time and depended on the areas of provenance from which these men, women, and children were derived. As Shepherd makes clear, however, the experiences of the enslaved on pens were quite different from those who worked on sugar plantations. Among other things, those who worked on pens had a less regimented work schedule and had greater opportunities to participate in independent agricultural production.

This is a well-illustrated study that provides a wealth of data. It has fifteen figures and 39 tables scattered throughout its eight chapters. Among other things, the compiled data include information on the sugar and livestock industries, on specific plantations and pens, and on race, age, and sex in colonial Jamaica. For those interested in understanding the sugar industry in relation to other economic enterprises, this book will prove very useful. Furthermore, although Shepherd focuses specifically on Jamaica, she is careful to point out that there are similarities to be seen in other parts of the Caribbean. As such, this study offers insights into the sugar-dominated plantation economy of the Caribbean more generally.

Audra A. Diptee
Carleton University


Matthew Casey, “Haitians’ labor and leisure on Cuban sugar plantations: The limits of company control," New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids, 85:1&2 (2011), pp. 5-30.

Ulbe Bosma, Juan Giuti-Cordero, & G. Roger Knight (eds.), Sugarlandia revisited: sugar an colonialism in Asia and the Americas, 1800-1940 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007). Cloth $80/£53 ISBN 978-1-84545-316-9. Paper $29.95/£17.50 ISBN 978-1-84545-784-6.

Kathleen Mapes, Sweet Tyranny: Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). 336 pages. Cloth $83. ISBN 978-0-252-03436-7. Paper $31. ISBN 978-0-252-07667-1.

Jim Norris, North for the Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009). 216 pages. $22.95. ISBN 0-87351-631-1.

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