World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 49, March 2018

In this issue:

  1. From the Editors
  2. Book Reviews
  3. Recent Publications
  4. Recent PhD Theses
  5. Online Materials


Interesting coincidences have appeared in this and our previous issue, including French Saint-Domingue featuring in two reviews and a doctoral thesis; Roger Knight’s recent sugar histories occupying our reviewers across both issues; and a couple of researchers appearing both as authors and reviewers. This is to be expected with the resurgence in sugar historical research and the consequent volume and density of material that we have mentioned in the past and will provide copy for successive issues. Which brings us to the point that Number 50 of the Newsletter will be appearing in September. We shall try to make it special, and contributors are urged to submit their conference news, research notes, and other appropriate material in good time for inclusion.


Trevor Burnard & John Garrigus, The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), Pp. 360, ISBN: 978-0-8122-4829-6 (hb); 978-0-8122-9301-2 (eb).

Despite the authors’ choice of a title - The Plantation Machine – it is the Seven Years’ War that is the kingpin of this outstanding book on eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue and Jamaica. Three of the ten chapters concentrate on this war and its outcomes. “The irony of the Seven Years’ War was that the long-term result of the conflict […] was that the winner (Britain) lost while the loser (France) triumphed. By allowing France to rebuild in the Caribbean after the Seven Years’ War, Britain threw away the advantages it had gained for itself in its victories of the late 1750s and early 1760s” (18-19). The other irony was, of course, that Saint-Domingue became economically too successful for its own good. Akin to Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914 (2009), that challenges the reader to look at the first years of the twentieth century while forgetting about the horrors that were to come, Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus want us to forget what we know happened in the Caribbean after the outbreak of the French Revolution and focus on the transitions brought about by the Seven Years’ War.

The first sentences clearly outline the authors’ goals: “This book is about social, political, and economic transformations in eighteenth-century Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, two extremely profitable but socially monstrous slave societies […] they were Europe’s most successful plantation societies, and we examine them during the years they were at their absolute peak between 1740 and 1788” (1). They show how the trajectories of these two colonies merged at times, but also diverged at the end of the century. Burnard and Garrigus adopt a contemporary mechanistic metaphor and name this industrialized socioeconomic complex with its ruthless efficiency the plantation machine. The Plantation Machine not only covers the economic side of this complex, but also analyzes the social and political mechanisms that maintained and nourished it. The authors pay ample attention to urban settings, political machinations in the colonies and metropoles, and racial (re)configurations in these constantly changing colonies. The overall goal was to make money out of everything and everybody.

While identifying more similarities than differences, Burnard and Garrigus do not oversell the resemblances. Saint-Domingue came under full French governance only in the 1720s and the development of the sugar industry was twenty to thirty years behind Jamaica. By mid-century, however, the plantation machine had radically transformed the French colony and it leaped over Jamaica in production and number of enslaved. The authors stress the brutality of the labour system but do not elaborate much on the lives of these enslaved. They were cogs in the machine.

The heart of the book are the chapters on the Seven Years’ War and its effects on the two colonies, its social (read racial) reconfigurations, and its challenges to slavery in particular. In 1757-1758 Saint-Domingue experienced an epidemic of poisoning attributed to a maroon slave called François Macandal. In 1760 a series of slave rebellions known as Tacky’s Revolt scared the Jamaican planters and authorities. These internal challenges forced the two colonies to consider whether they should become settler societies or should accept their own emerging creolization and admit wealthy free people of colour into the local elite. “It was thus during the Seven Years’ War that Jamaican and Saint-Domingue colonists began to see the consequences of living in a society where they had enslaved 90 percent of the population” (100).

To me the highlight in this book is the chapter “Dangerous Internal Enemies” on the Macandal and Tacky scares. It shows how real or imagined slave resistance was part of daily white life in the Caribbean. In a text-book example of the use of many different sources, the authors present a surprising interpretation of the wave of poisonings. They argue that spoiled flour, a result of the naval blockade at the beginning of the war, and not a network of African poisoners killed thousands. Also, the authors present a new interpretation of the fear that Macandal put into the colonists. “We believe that Macandal was a charismatic leader in a Congo-influenced tradition, part of a fundamental shift in the black culture of Saint-Domingue” (111). During that time “Congos” became a majority of the newly enslaved. Macandal’s different spiritual practices included Christian iconography infused with African meanings.

As a result of the war and the effects of inter-imperial war on the enslaved, social/race relations became even more fixed, much to the detriment of the free people of colour. Whiteness rather than property determined one’s standing in society, all in the interest of the plantation machine that kept on roaring, reaping in profits. The American War of Independence surely affected Jamaica because its trade network was disrupted, but according to Burnard and Garrigus these difficulties were only temporary, thus undermining Eric Williams’s thesis that the American Revolution was the beginning of the end. In fact, hurricanes formed a greater threat than the British-American conflict. In the 1790s the British Caribbean plantations expanded “to an unprecedented level” as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and this upward trend continued after the turn of the century. Saint-Domingue suffered from an earthquake, droughts, and famine, but this did not permanently affect the production of sugar and coffee. Meanwhile, opposition against plantation slavery and the “brutal” planters began to grow in London, while in Paris wealthy free coloureds lobbied against the injustices and graft in the colonies. In their final chapter Burnard and Garrigus reflect on the dynamism of the two colonies. They emphasize that “there was nothing inevitable about the later decline of Jamaica or Saint-Domingue” (266).

A comparative or connecting perspective, forcing researchers to look beyond linguistic, imperial, and other borders, is essential to understanding (the history of) the Caribbean. The Plantation Machine is not the first book to compare two colonies, but this collaboration by two experts on the history of the British Caribbean (Burnard) and Saint-Domingue (Garrigus) is an outstanding example of how to do it.

Rosemarijn Hoefte

Rosemarijn Hoefte is Professor of Suriname History at the University of Amsterdam and senior researcher at KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden. She is the managing editor of the New West Indian Guide. Her most recent monograph is Suriname in the Long Twentieth Century: Domination, Contestation, and Globalization (Palgrave 2014).

Adrian Leonard & D. Pretel, eds., The Caribbean and the Atlantic World Economy: Circuits of Trade, Money and Knowledge, 1650-1914 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), Pp. 319, ISBN: 978-1-137-43271-1 (hb); 978-1-137-43272-8 (eb).

The Atlantic world, Adrian Leonard and David Pretel write, was the “vanguard of modernity” (3) and a laboratory for the development of contemporary capitalism. To understand the place of the Caribbean within this wider story, Leonard and Pretel have assembled an ambitious book, one that places Atlantic history in direct conversation with the “less sexy” (2) but still insightful field of economic history. They articulate several admirable priorities, which the subsequent essays for the most part follow. They want stories that break out of imperial boundaries, that avoid a strict model of metropole and periphery, that emphasize variations among institutions and state policies, and that do not look exclusively for agency among human beings but among “materiality, environment, and geography” (9).

As editors, Leonard and Pretel have arranged their contributors thoughtfully. In contrast to the more temporally and spatially localized essays that follow, the book begins with chapters that take a wide view. They cleverly begin with an essay not about the Atlantic at all but about the Baltic and North Seas. A restructuring of this “core” of the European economy, David Ormrod argues, produced the financial, energetic, and resource surpluses that allowed for the subsequent invasion of the New World. So too Chuck Meide’s study analyzes the cargo of thousands of Florida shipwrecks to trace phases in the evolution of the Atlantic economy as a whole. A few chapters later, Gert Oostindie focuses on the empire that facilitated the others. The Dutch, he shows, with their “precocious globalization” and decentralized institutions, helped facilitate other nations’ trade and knowledge exchanges. In general, these first few essays are enjoyable and valuable, and they orient—and then reorient—us to the Atlantic world we think we know. It would be a shame if readers of the Newsletter wind up flipping past the first hundred pages in orders to get to the sweeter stuff.

Several of the subsequent essays make good use of a narrowing focus. Manuel Covo shows how Baltimore became “Caribbeanized” after 1789, when Maryland’s grain became important to the survival of France’s Caribbean plantations. The fact that the city was small by the standards of the continental ports means that the effects of the revolution in Saint Domingue had an outsized and observable impact. Adrian Leonard’s close reading of the underwriting records of the Providence-based Obadiah Brown shows how important insurance was to the trade of the Atlantic.

As Cuba grew to dominate the Caribbean of the nineteenth century, so the final four essays close in on that island. Using the company’s own archives, Inés Roldán de Montaud shows how Baring Brothers went from merchants to major creditors and even plantation owners—which became awkward in an age of British emancipatory sentiment. Following the money in the other direction, Martín Rodrigo y Alharilla argues for looking at capital flows from rather than to the Caribbean: the vast profits of Cuba’s creole elite, earned by selling their sugar widely among industrial nations, were funnelled back into London, Paris, and especially Barcelona.

Two meaty essays, one by Dale Tomich and the other by David Pretel and Nadia Fernández-de-Prieto, delve into the workings of the Cuban sugar economy. Tomich makes a sweeping argument about the spatial order of the sugar economy, tracing its “commodity frontier” from Guiana to Jamaica to Cuba. He encourages us to pay simultaneous attention to an unwieldy ecology of labour, capital, technology, knowledge, biology, landscape, and climate. In each of those three colonies, he shows how what mattered was whether natural forces made it easy or difficult to build plantations along the ideally efficient model and to take advantage of new technologies.

Turning exclusively to Cuba in the volume’s last essay, Pretel and Fernández-de-Prieto show how those technologies and the expertise to construct and maintain them came from the US, Britain, and France. Given the paucity of studies of the companies that actually supplied the sugar world with its machines, their study is especially valuable for its investigation of Derosne & Cail, a leading French manufacturer. Their essay would have been even stronger had they acknowledged before the last page that knowledge and technology in Cuba—as everywhere—is a creolized hybrid of imports and local ingenuity.

The essay that will force social historians to dust off their macro textbooks is “Slavery, the British Atlantic Economy, and the Industrial Revolution,” in which Knick Harley takes aim at the “Williams thesis” that Caribbean slavery provided the profits for Britain’s industrialization (although he helpfully distinguishes the “thesis” from what Williams actually says in his book). Harley, like other economic historians, deploys macroeconomic models to show that slavery was only of marginal importance to the rise of modern capitalism, not essential as others (e.g., Sven Beckert) would have it. But the whole debate, to me, seems a dispute over the meaning of “crucial” (175). To economists, slavery cannot be crucial if we show that the free labour counterfactual would not have been much different. To historians, however, the point is that Europe actually committed slavery’s crimes in the only past we live with today.

Throughout the volume, there is a tension between those who, like Tomich, seem fundamentally suspicious of acquisitive capitalism and those like Harley who do not question the basic importance of what he calls “modern economic growth” (161). The terrific conclusion by Martin Daunton traces these disagreements, especially through the lineages of free trade and mercantilism and the relationships between markets and states. Daunton spends several pages on the hypocrisies of the nineteenth-century’s ideologues of free trade. As he puts it, “secure property rights to one was expropriation to another,” especially for Africans kidnapped into slavery or Native peoples across the Atlantic world.

The conclusion is worth reading even for those who only casually acquaint themselves with the book, partly because even Daunton’s brief essay represents the book’s longest sustained engagement with slavery and dispossession. In a volume of over 300 pages, that is a disappointment; in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a failure to reckon with these issues is a serious limitation of an otherwise enlightening and valuable book.

On the very last page, Daunton calls for an extension of this Caribbean and Atlantic frame past 1914, as Caribbean peoples migrated to Europe rather than the other way around “and as European integration posed challenges for the former colonies” (301). Today, Caribbean leaders and scholars like Sir Hilary Beckles call for reparative justice; instead, the European Union decides that its exploited ex-colonies lag too far behind the current commodity frontier and so must be weaned off their “mollycoddling” subsidies. Historical crimes are not marginal but rather were the foundation on which the Atlantic economy was and is built—no matter what the models say.

David Singerman

David Singerman is an Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Virginia. Currently he is working on a book about the American sugar empire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He has published articles on sugar in Radical History Review and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as well as an editorial on corruption in the sugar industry for The New York Times.

G Roger Knight, Commodities and Colonialism: The Story of Big Sugar in Indonesia, 1880-1942 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), Pp. 292, ISBN: 9789004250512 (hb); 9789004251090 (eb).

The ups-and-downs of the Javanese sugar industry have long been one of the central themes in the work of Roger Knight. In this comprehensive study he focuses explicitly on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a period of spectacular growth in the Javanese sugar industry: “Over the course of less than fifty years, the Southeast Asian outpost of a small and economically backward European power had emerged, in terms of technological advance and sheer output, onto the front rank of the international sugar economy.” In the eight chapters of this 290-page monograph, Roger Knight sets out to explain how and why Java came to take in almost one fifth of the world sugar production during the interbellum.

The history of Java sugar is remarkable because at first glance the contemporary constraints on its development seem more obvious than the incentives. The first boom in sugar production on the island had been closely linked to so called “cultivation system” (Dutch: cultuurstelsel) after 1830. In essence, this was a surprisingly efficient colonial tool to appropriate labour by force and to increase the production of cash crops, including cane sugar. But it also tied people to their land and made it almost impossible for entrepreneurs to develop new land. This form of labour extraction was abolished in the late 1860s after intense liberal lobbying. For the sugar industry this seemed to lead to an inevitable setback in labour supply. However, Roger Knight shows just how and why this setback was overcome in the decades to follow.

The first chapters discuss the initial growth after the 1880s and the unique position of the sugar industry in Java. While supplying raw sugar to the region’s refiners, colonial Java’s sugar factories were not tied to the metropolitan refiners who had invested in the machinery and technology necessary to produce centrifugal sugar, or factory white sugar. This could be sold in the regional market for direct consumption. It was not of the best refined quality, but it was affordable and it suited the local taste. As a result, South and East Asia became the most important importers of Javanese factory white. It is paradoxical that the most important factor in this boom - the presence of an advanced industrial network - was the direct outcome of this organization of the sugar industry under a conservative cultivation system. Early industrialization of the Javanese countryside is also a central theme in Knight’s other excellent study, Sugar, Steam and Steel. The Industrial Project in Colonial Java, 1830-1885, [reviewed in WSHN No. 48] that reads as a prequel to Commodities and Colonialism.

In both books Knight excels in creating an image of the sugar industry by bringing together expert knowledge of historical agriculture, technology, and labour relations, and insightful analyses of the networks that underlay colonial entrepreneurship. In other words, while the development of the sugar industry itself is always at the centre of his work, at the same time sugar works as a lens through which to view more general aspects of Javanese rural and colonial history.

One of the themes that stands out is the connectedness of developments in Java with the rest of the world. Consumption in Asia has already been mentioned above. The early Japanese investments in the shipment of both refined and unrefined sugar for the Japanese market turned out to be crucial in the overall expansion of sugar production on the island. This expansion relied first on the opening-up of new lands, something that was made possible through the abolition of the cultivation system. Second, the land under cultivation was made more productive, as the sugar entrepreneurs turned out to be quick learners who imported fertilizers from Europe that had proven to be very successful in enhancing sugar beet cultivation in Germany. The sugar entrepreneurs not only learned from German practices, but they also copied management strategies from Cuba with regard to the organization of field labour. In addition, women and children came to be included in the labour force which immensely increased productivity of land and labour. Knight quite rightly labels the sugar sector of Java as an agro-industry.

Despite setbacks in the 1920s, the colonial sugar industry was resilient, thanks to active research and development units that continued to learn and import practices from Cuba and elsewhere. New fertilizers were imported and machinery improved. A continuous characteristic of Javanese sugar production was the proximity of the factory to the field, so that the scale of production continued to expand. Knight shows how on the eve of the crisis of the 1930s the Javanese sugar industry was highly competitive in both price and quality. But the crisis hit hard and with the growing competition with Japanese refiners, turbulent political changes in China, and the development of a strong local sugar industry in South Asia, Javanese Big Sugar suffered a final decline.

One can imagine that these ups-and-downs in the sugar industry had the potential to transform daily life in the Javanese countryside greatly. This remains difficult to assess, however, as Knight’s central focus is on the sugar industry itself and not on the Javanese village as such. That would entail an entirely different approach, which hopefully other scholars may pick up in the future.

While the book is surely essential for anyone interested in sugar, it has even more to offer. Knight’s approach is holistic in the sense that he shows that there is more to the sugar industry than control over land and labour, deployment of global expert knowledge, and entrepreneurship. He convincingly argues that in Java the sugar industry remained entangled with the colonial state, through policies and through personal networks. For example, Knight shows just how much the sugar industry benefitted from government-led irrigation and drainage schemes. However, he states that the industry should not be understood merely as an extension of the colonial state, and that there were conflicting interests in the countryside. Yet through personal networks and ties between the planters and the senior colonial bureaucrats, broad concessions were made possible and new agro-industrial initiatives could blossom. Knight is a master in unravelling these family networks and imperial careers that strategically encompassed both the commercial and the governmental sectors. In that sense, his work is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the Dutch colonial upper layer functioned and managed to secure Dutch colonial and private commercial interests in one go.

Alicia Schrikker

Alicia Schrikker is a Lecturer at the Institute for History at Leiden University. She focuses on the daily workings of colonialism in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and has become interested in colonial interaction in Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly sites of negotiation and engagement, such as judicial courtrooms, workplaces, and post-disaster sites. She was editor-in-chief of Itinerario and is now an editor of the BMGN/Low Countries Historical Review.



Jeremy Ball, Angola’s Colossal Lie: Forced Labor on a Sugar Plantation, 1913-1977 (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015), Pp. 200, ISBN: 9789004301740 (hb); 9789004301757 (eb). [To be reviewed in WSHN Number 50.]

John De Santis, The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2016), Pp. 176, ISBN: 9781467136891.

Chris Dier, The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2017), Pp. 144, ISBN: 9781625858559.

Duncan L. du Bois, Sugar and Settlers: A History of the Natal South Coast, 1850-1910 (Bloemfontein: SUN Press, 2015), Pp. 405, ISBN: 9781920382704 (pb); 9781920382711 (eb).

Jeffrey Wayne Maulhardt, Oxnard Sugar Beets: Ventura County’s Lost Cash Crop (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2016), ISBN: 9781467136792. [The publisher’s note refers to the author tracing the origins and fate of ‘one of the [US’s] largest producers of sugar’.]

Gladys I. McCormick, The Logic of Compromise in Mexico: How the Countryside Was Key to the Emergence of Authoritarianism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), Pp. 300, ISBN: 978-1-4696-2774-8 (pb); 978-1-4696-2894-3 (hb); 978-1-4696-2775-5 (eb).

April Merleaux, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), Pp. 320, ISBN: 978-1-4696-2251-4 (pb); ISBN: 978-1-4696-2252-1 (eb). [To be reviewed in WSHN Number 50.]

J. Michael Niotta, The Los Angeles Sugar Ring: Inside the World of Old Money, Bootleggers and Gambling Barons (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2017), ISBN: 9781625859976. [The ‘sugar ring’ in Niotta’s book was formed around the supply and use of sugar in the production of illegal liquor. The publisher describes it as ‘a rare insider’s look at the history of the Eagle Brewing Company’.]

Paul Raphaelson, Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin: Relics and Stories of the Domino Sugar Refinery (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2017), Pp. 128, ISBN13: 9780764354120 (hb).
[Pre-publication mention of this book can be found in WSHN, Number 46. The author describes his book at]

Lucio Zago, Williamsburg Shorts (New York: self-published, 2017), ISBN13 9780692881491 (pb).
[Pre-publication mention of this book can be found in WSHN, Number 46]

Journal articles

Marcia Amantino, “As origens da terra Jesuítica na capitania do Rio de Janeiro e a implantação do engenho Velho no século 17 (The origins of the Jesuit lands in the captaincy of Rio de Janeiro and the deployment of Engenho Velho in the 17th century),” América Latina en la Historia Económica (2016), 23:3, pp. 7-36.

John E Crowley, “Sugar machines: Picturing industrialized slavery,” American Historical Review (2016), 121:2, pp. 403–436.


Karl Whitney, “Under the staircase” (Review of The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan by Gisli Palsson, translated by Anna Yates), London Review of Books (2017), 39:20, pp. 33-4.

Hans Jonathan was born a slave in St Croix and died in Iceland 43 years later. Gisli Palsson’s biography of Hans Jonathan tells of a life entwined with the history of sugar.

Karl Whitney writes in his review:

“Hans Jonathan was born into slavery in 1784 on the island of St Croix, then part of the Danish West Indies. The island had been bought from France in 1733 and its economy was founded on the sugar trade. A slave population of around twenty thousand laboured on the island’s plantations; there were between 1500 and 2000 white residents, including plantation owners, government officials, priests, doctors, craftsmen and police. At the time of Hans Jonathan’s birth, his mother, Emilia Regina, was a slave in the household of Henrietta Cathrina and her husband, Ludvig Heinrich Ernst von Schimmelmann, who was descended from a family of Danish sugar barons: his grandfather, a Prussian-born commodity trader who became the Danish king’s commercial adviser, had bought four plantations in the West Indies in 1763, along with a sugar refinery in Copenhagen and a fleet of slaving ships”.

The full review is at:


With acknowledgement to OATD.ORG:

Néba Fabrice Yale, Les habitations Galliffet de Saint Domingue, un exemple de réussite coloniale au XVIIIe siècle (fin XVIIe siècle-1831). Grenobles Alpes, Docteur es, Histoire, 2017.<

Hsiao-Hui Tai, The transition of trade unions in Taiwan: from paternalistic autonomy to responsibility for collective union and non-union representation. London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London), PhD, 2017. [This thesis concentrates on a steel company and its union; state-owned SugarCo and its union Sugar-U are looked at as a supplementary case.]

Jonathan Stern Connolly, Worthy of Freedom: Antislavery, Free Labor, and Indentured Labor Migration in the Era of Emancipation, 1834-1878. Stanford University, PhD, History, 2017. [Limited access until mid-2019.]


Monograph now available free online

Michael Moynagh, Brown or White? A History of the Fiji Sugar Industry, 1873-1973 (Canberra: ANU, 1981), ISBN: 0 908160 87 9 (pb).

This issue of the World Sugar History Newsletter has been compiled by David Lincoln and Peter Blanchard. Correspondence should be sent to David Lincoln, Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, Cape Town, 7700, South Africa, or to Peter Blanchard, Department of History, University of Toronto, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S3G3 Past issues of the Newsletter can be found at