World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 51, March 2019

In this issue:

  1. From the Editors
  2. Book Reviews
  3. Recent Publications
  4. Research News


We stand somewhat aside in this issue, which makes its mark with an unusually large and diverse book review section. There is much else too, notably an interesting coincidence of two recently published journal articles devoted to nineteenth-century sugar manufacturing’s leading engineering works.

Please keep us up-to-date with news of conferences, publications, and any other research activity.


Jeremy Ball, Angola’s Colossal Lie: Forced Labour on a Sugar Plantation, 1913-1977 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), Pp. xvi, 199, ISBN 978-90-04-30174-0 (pb).

Over the years, many authors have cited Jeremy Ball’s 2003 doctoral dissertation on the history of the Cassequel sugar plantation in southwestern Angola. It is thus a real service to readers that Brill have now published this pioneering work in a revised form, incorporating the results of further fieldwork carried out in 2006. A major strength of the study lies in the deployment of oral testimony from former workers and staff, work songs, old photographs, maps, and company records. Brill are to be congratulated for providing readers with footnotes, rather than the dreadful endnotes that so many publishers still insist on, although the author places too much substantive text in the notes. There are also quite a few typos, including the late and much-lamented Leroy Vail appearing as Leroy Vial!

The author portrays his book primarily as a contribution to the history of labour, and it has much merit as a case study of how workers were recruited and treated, in both colonial and post-colonial times. Workers came mainly from the relatively densely populated central plateau of Angola, inhabited by the Ovimbundu people. Interviews reveal that forced labour was prevalent, but by no means ubiquitous, with relatively large numbers of workers freely signing contracts. Moreover, coercion ended quite quickly after the reforms of 1962, contradicting the critics of the regime at the time. Ball further notes that the company’s preventative health measures, mainly quarantine and vaccination, had a positive impact on the bulk of its workers, even though curative medicine was largely restricted to the higher levels of employees. It is a strength of this book that the author gives space to examining a range of semi-skilled and skilled workers. While the higher ranks of the labour force in colonial times consisted mainly of White Portuguese expatriates, there were some Black Angolans among them, at times having assimilated legal status.

Unfortunately, there is too much general background on labour in the book, notably in Chapters 1 and 3. This material is both well known, and yet not very surely handled. For example, the author writes that slavery was abolished in Angola in 1878, without informing the reader that it was re-established, de facto, about four years later, in the form of the serviçal system of compulsory contracts, sales of contracts, and birth into a contracted status. Antonio Enes did indeed advocate state-directed forced labour rather than slavery, but his call was heeded more in Mozambique than in Angola. It was the Republic that effectively abolished slavery in Angola and São Tomé, in the crucial years of 1911 to 1913, even if it also established a regime of forced labour.

The author also portrays his book as a contribution to business history, which is more novel in the context of the historiography of Angola and the wider Lusophone world. The Espírito Santo conglomerate, one of the most powerful corporations to flourish in the colonies under Salazar, has been quite reluctant to open up about its past. This book pierces that mantle of secrecy to some degree. Indeed, it would have been helpful to learn how and why the Arquivo Histórico do Banco Espírito Santo, in Lisbon, became accessible to researchers. Moreover, other business actors in the Cassequel story are poorly introduced, notably António da Costa and Bernardino Alves Correia. They were key players in the transition from rum (aguardente) to sugar production in the Republican period, and the Correia Papers in the Archive of the Ministry of Finance have long been closed to historians.

This is not a book with a strong focus on sugar cultivation and processing per se, although readers seeking technical information can follow up the author’s references. The detailing of the Cassequel Company’s monopoly on fuel derived from sugar is a partial exception. One weakness, common to many books on the sugar sector, is a neglect of working animals. They are fleetingly mentioned here, for both traction and dung, but the reader longs for more information. In particular, more analysis is needed of the slow pace of replacement of animals by locomotives and tractors, despite a late and casual reference to problems of maintaining machinery. The author rightly refers to the processing of sugar cane as a form of manufacturing industry, but he fails to explain how refining was confined to factories in Portugal, thus missing out on a crucial debate about colonial industrialisation and its limits.

Finally, the author is to be congratulated for straddling the periods of colonialism and independence, unlike many works that stop dead with the hauling down of the colonial flag. The Cassequel Company was an economic success in colonial times, but it closed down soon after independence. Some interviewees, notably women, stressed their belief that the Portuguese had developed Angola economically, even though they had been harsh with workers. Such opinions may have reflected the closure of the company in 1991, with the loss of some 4,000 jobs. The Cassequel enterprise was bankrupted by the loss of skilled expatriate labour, unrealistically inflated unskilled wages, the collapse of labour discipline, inflexible and poorly-informed management by bureaucrats, and the general political and military chaos that followed an unplanned independence.

For all its flaws, this is an important contribution to the global literature on the story of sugar. The Portuguese lands have all too often been left out of wider histories of both aguardente and sugar. This partly reflects the language barrier, but also the fact that the Portuguese colonial sugar industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries developed on a model of imperial autarky, aiming to supply local and metropolitan markets, but not the wider world.

William G. Clarence-Smith

William Gervase Clarence-Smith, Professor of the Economic History of Asia & Africa, SOAS, University of London, is the author of The Third Portuguese Empire, 1825-1975: A Study in Economic Imperialism (Manchester University Press, 1985), and has published numerous articles and book chapters on commodities and free and forced labour. He is chief editor of the Journal of Global History, published by Cambridge University Press.

Paul Raphaelson, Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin: Relics and Stories of the Domino Sugar Refinery (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2017), Pp. 128, ISBN13: 9780764354120 (hb).

Reading this book brought back memories of the 1999-2001 strike by the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1814 (ILA 1814)(see my report at It recalled the trip, of which I took part, to demonstrate at the annual general meeting of Tate & Lyle in London in 2000 (carrying with us a major New York City symbol of protest, a 20-foot tall inflatable rat!), as well as my conversations with Joe Crimi (who appears on pp. 116-117), Charlie Milan (p. 107), and other workers at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, New York. This collection of impressive photographs of the refinery before it was demolished in 2014 is not a coffee-table type of book, albeit its format may invite such thought.

The book has two main sections. The first includes the photographs of the refinery after it had been closed and just before the buildings were to be demolished; of its structures, equipment and centrifugal machines, control rooms, the power house (its deafening – yet absent – noise seems to thunder from the page, so effective is the photo), employees’ lockers, and other areas of the refinery. There are, among others, some panoramic views of the waterfront where the refinery stood (one with the Williamsburg Bridge in the background), from the top of the Bin Distributor looking towards the Syrup Station and Boiler House, and of the refinery seen from the East River Park in Manhattan.

Beyond their high quality, which can be appreciated by everyone, the photographs are a rich visual documentation that embodies the author’s opinion that "ruin photographs build bridges, between past and present…" (103). I can see that bridging because the photographs successfully recreate the environment in which some 350 workers (plus administrative staff) laboured day-in and day-out at the Domino Sugar refinery and also because they recall some episodes of my three decades working with sugar workers around the world.

The second section is an essay co-written by Raphaelson and Matthew Postal tracing the refinery’s origins in the 1860s and its development into what became the "largest and most productive sugar refinery in the world". Perhaps because of Postal’s own profession – he is an architectural historian and a New York tourist guide – a clear and easy-to-read text guides readers through architectural issues, with some details on building styles, construction and reconstruction plans, locations and measurements, sketches of old buildings (e.g. the American Sugar Refinery in 1870, 1882, and 1904), and a bit on US trust and antitrust legislation – policy matters have always been a major factor in the complex US sugar/sweeteners sector. Additional information comes through "boxes". For instance, there is an abbreviated review of the participation of the Havermeyer family in the early days of the sugar business in Williamsburg; a summary of technical aspects of sugar refining; a look at the 1999-2001 strike by ILA 1814; and some "post-mortem" notes after the refinery was closed in 2004. There are also newspaper clippings, photos, and notes (mostly from the Brooklyn Eagle), and quotes from interviews with workers.

My personal (and professional) interest in sugar-worker related matters, particularly occupational health and safety issues (OHS), prompts my comments on two of the many good photographs that held my attention. The first is one from the top of the Boiler House (p. 75) that strikes the reader as an elaborate setting for a dystopian movie; the second is one of the Bin Distributor (p. 83) that seems to be the menacing legs of a giant metal spider hanging over you. They convey what in my view is the oppressive environment in which many sugar factory workers around the world work. It is an environment that the essay describes as “Cramped, Dark, Loud, Humid, Sticky, Hot”, adding poignantly that the riches of the sugar business "never translated into comfort for the workers" (113). Interviewed Domino workers employed at the refinery before the strike confirmed those conditions, but they also talked about their pride in their job, which, interestingly, they say they "owned" (i.e. Joe Crimi on p. 116). There is a paragraph in the essay that reads: "Many machines were damaged by being shut down (in 2004) without proper cleaning. . . . Even if machines had been reparable, it was unlikely that they could be operated without the old workforce. Many of the antiquated machines had been kept running by perpetual modification and tinkering by Domino’s operators, mechanics and machinists. For the most part, only the strikers themselves knew how to fix and maintain equipment at the plant." (118). I have found the same in several sugar industries around the world: workers proud of the job they do and their nuanced knowledge of how they do it.

And, then, the 600-day strike that ended in January 2001 and of which the book says, "everyone lost". The labour contract signed after the strike was basically the same as the one that had provoked it, the refinery was closed three years later, the Tate & Lyle North American management was replaced, and Domino Sugar was sold a couple of times. The only winner seems to be the huge redevelopment of the Williamsburg waterfront, where the refinery once stood.

As an amateur photographer who focuses on labour issues, such as sugar cane harvesting, weeding, fertilizer application in cane fields, and other tasks, I like Raphaelson’s photographs very much. In September 2018, I visited and took some photos of the Wales factory in Guyana’s West Bank Demerara, which had been closed at the end of 2016. During the visit I sensed the same atmosphere that Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin evokes. Of course, my photos are no match for Raphaelson’s; from the "ruin photography" angle, his photographs give the reader a glimpse of what was going on at a place and time that are now gone.

Jorge Chullén

Jorge Chullén is a Peru-trained sociologist. He was the programme director at ICCSASW/CCSTAM, a sugar unions’ network, from 1984 to 1998, and the Global Sugar Coordinator for the IUF, a global union, from 1999 to 2018. He divides his time between his native Peru and his adopted Canada.

Ashutosh Kumar, Coolies of the Empire: Indentured Indians in the Sugar Colonies, 1830–1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), Pp. 338, ISBN 9781107147959 (hb).

It is difficult to review a book that is a compilation of extracts from books and documents that have appeared elsewhere, that spans three continents, and that covers the whole period of indentured immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The success of any compilation lies in the author being able to infuse into the narrative a continuous thread that reflects new insights. Ashutosh Kumar has chosen to weave into his narrative the views of indentured immigrants. While the wish to present material written by indentured immigrants or their descendants is a laudable initiative, it requires considerable skill to select just the right extract and amount of information. Even more daunting is to do justice to all the possible varied lived experiences of the immigrants who travelled through the British Empire and settled in distant colonies, each with its own social, economic, and cultural make-up.

The book’s title itself is problematic, for although "coolie" is still used in the ex-colonies, it is an extremely pejorative term. Leading historians of indenture, themselves descendants of indentured labourers and who have inspired the author (Maurits Hassankhan, Brij Lal, amongst others), have condemned the use of this term. Why Cambridge and other historians would insist on using and promoting what is no less than a racial slur in academic writing is beyond comprehension. It demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the views of the indentured populations on whose behalf they claim to write. Incidentally, it is also questionable whether "re-appropriating" the term, as some writers from indentured countries have done, gives it any legitimacy. This so-called "re-appropriation" has received no popular support whatsoever. If this book’s title is problematic, it is not helped by the lack of rigorous editing and the labelling of the immigrants, sometimes as "peasants", at other times as "coolies", or as "workers".

The value of this book is that the author has attempted a task that has so far been quite elusive for most historians, that of delving into the ‘cultural world’ of indentured immigrants. Even more laudable is his attempt to recreate the world of the immigrants before they left India and to analyse "the changing cultural world of the migrants" (12). His methodological approach was to scour existing writings, both primary and secondary, and then to write in a roughly chronological/thematic manner, starting from internal migration in India during the British colonial period (1700s) and ending when indentured migration was terminated by the Indian Government in the 1900s.

Chapter Two covers the recruitment process which is analysed through mainly the Grierson and Pitcher reports, which are familiar to most historians of indenture. The fact that both wrote in the 1880s is somewhat problematical as indentured immigration was already on the decline in some countries like Mauritius. Those not familiar with Indian history will however gain a glimpse of it through the examples provided of internal migration.

Chapter Three consists of some sixteen pages on the laws and regulations on emigration. Its focus is the very beginning (1840s) and the twilight stage of the indenture period (1880s), but not the main period of emigration (1850s and 1860s). By the 1880s, in Mauritius for example, only about 25% of the labour force on sugar estates was "indentured". It is not clear what the point of this chapter is except to try to prove that it was "unfree" labour, a point which has already been made several times over by historians of indenture.

Chapter Four examines the journey as recorded by the immigrants themselves. The author then proceeds to state that conditions were no different for Englishmen on board ships at that time. The fact that conditions on board ships were similar does not in any way excuse the high mortality that occurred. This appears, therefore, to be nothing more than an apology for British colonialism and the treatment of indentured immigrants. Again, to use the Mauritian experience, the fact that one-third of immigrants chose not to stay in Mauritius after their term of industrial residence had expired and another third died during indenture seems to escape the author.

Chapter Five is devoted to the history of sugar-cane cultivation in India and the colonies and its impact on the cultural habits of the Indians who migrated. Whether they are comparable is open to question, as the economic structure in India on one hand and the colonies on the other, are not comparable at all. Consequently, to compare cultural habits in both situations is open to debate, for in order to analyse why some traditions and customs did not survive requires in-depth knowledge not only of India, but also of the demographic, economic, and social structure of the host countries. Regarding marriage, for example: how was marriage in India comparable to marriage in colonies where the demography was so different? Traditional Indian marriage patterns changed forever in the colonies, where there were so few Indian women, not to mention the effects of cultural metissage, the key and subtle ways by which other cultures had an impact upon the imported cultural habits of the immigrants. Details of rituals at marriage ceremonies have been compiled from Fiji, Mauritius, and India but most of the information supplied derives from previous studies and it is a pity that the author did not engage in any fieldwork or ethnographic studies of his own. A more refined historical-ethnographic approach to cultural metissage could also have provided a discussion of the new culture which emerged when Indian and Afro-Malagasy practices met on the same sugar estate. This was documented in the 1980s by Joyce Fortune, who was informed by elderly Creole inhabitants that they felt an affinity with the statue of the Goddess Kali because it was similar to their "phenotype" (dark-skinned). In other words, Indians who emigrated did not live in a cultural vacuum, nor were they totally unaffected by the non-Indian groups living near them.

Chapter Six aims at "Writing the Girmitiya experience". This is accomplished by examining the writings of three Girmitiya immigrants: Totaram and Ram Chandra from Fiji, and Munshie Rahman Khan from Suriname. Historian Brij Lal, the most eloquent spokesman for the "indentured diaspora" is also studied. The topics covered include recruitment and the journey, life on the plantations, religion under indenture and the issue of "returnees". The position of indentured women is also broached though regrettably not through a woman’s eyes, but through the three men's writings. And although the issue of caste is discussed in every chapter and was an intrinsic part of the indentured cultural system, no separate section or subchapter is devoted to it here, where it would have been most fitting. Despite its weaknesses, this chapter is the most interesting and revealing of all, demonstrating some insight into and sensitivity about the nature and difficulties of integrating into a host country, especially where an indigenous community already existed (Fiji) or where there was a previously settled migrant community (Mauritius).

The final chapter is not surprisingly about the end of the indenture system. There have been few in-depth studies of the end of indenture, the latest being Amit Mishra’s study of Indian nationalism and the abolition of indenture (Bonded Self, National Disgrace and Human Misery: Indian nationalists and campaign for abolition of indentured labour emigration (University of Mauritius Press, 2017)). Kumar correctly points out that the end of indenture came about not because of Indian nationalism but because of the demand for equal political rights stemming from the free Indian people in those countries where the indenture system operated.

There is a certain naiveté concerning the official archives. The author bemoans the fact that there is so little mention of cultural habits of indentured migrants; but why would it be necessary for an official to document this unless it affected the law and order situation or the health of immigrants? The same situation has been noted by historians of slavery, where next to nothing exists on the actual life of slaves in Mauritius and elsewhere. Indeed, the sad truth is that colonial officials would rarely venture inside a slave or indentured camp and witness, let alone record, cultural practices first-hand. However, for the historian today, many opportunities are available to reconstruct this cultural history. Fieldwork and the exploration of family histories can yield precious information about the diverse rituals and practices carried out by the various cultural groups in ex-indentured colonies.

On the whole, this book will be useful to first-time readers of the history of indenture, as it provides an overview of indenture with examples drawn from three countries. However, no amount of externally viewed accounts either from India or the UK can be substituted for the original reminiscences of the immigrants and their descendants. Raw, unadulterated reflections and musings have immense value to historians, but the use of personal testimonies must be framed in historical context. Although much has been attempted in this book, it may perhaps have been more effective to focus on a few themes, frame them more fully, and provide a better contextual historical understanding of each host society.

Vijayalakshmi Teelock

Vijayalakshmi Teelock is Associate Professor of History in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Mauritius. She is the Coordinator of the Centre for Research on Slavery and Indenture and she chairs both the International Scientific Committee for UNESCO’s Slave Route Project and the International Scientific Committee for UNESCO’s Indentured Labour Route Project. Currently working on 18th-century Mauritius, her latest publication is as co-editor with Thomas Vernet of Inventaire des documents sur l'esclavage dans la serie C4, Archives Nationales de France (University of Mauritius Press, 2019).

April Merleaux, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), Pp. xi, 302, ISBN 978-1-4696-2251-4 (pb); 978-1-4696-2252-1 (eb).

In April Merleaux’s fascinating book, US imperialism crystallises in sugar. Covering the period from the Spanish American War of 1898 to the New Deal of the 1930s, Sugar and Civilization argues that the "cultural logic connecting imperial, trade, and immigration policies was the same one that facilitated new habits of sugar consumption within the United States and its territories" (1). In the best tradition of commodity studies, then, this book connects supply with demand, demonstrating how one cannot be understood without the other. But Merleaux’s approach does more than reiterate this important but well-established point. By drawing attention to the changing discourses of civilisation and nationalism in relation to sugar, she also stakes out a central analytical place for the historical processes of racialisation through the construction of "commodity cultures". The belief that refined white people ate refined white sugar, a distinction that came to prominence during Jim Crow segregation and overseas expansion, is but one example provided of how the colour line was drawn with the cultural politics of sweetness.

The American Empire of this period had come to include Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, all islands growing sugarcane. The sugar tariff thus became a tool by which US policymakers sought to resolve the contradiction between expanding state territory and preserving national whiteness. By offering the islands tariff concessions, policymakers hoped to promote civilised economic development through the establishment of "modern" sugar industries, whilst at the same time ensuring that it was goods not people that moved across the mainland border. Yet this strategy faced two intractable problems. First, such treatment meant defining the islands as neither domestic nor foreign; a liminal status that continually posed questions about their legal and political identity. Second, the import of cane sugar undermined the growth of the mainland sugar beet industry, itself integral to the US imperial project insofar as it enabled the settlement of a property-owning class of native farmers in the western interior. Contestation over these twin problems of the "US sugar empire" provides the animating force for the book, taking in a myriad of political and social negotiations – from the corridors of Capitol Hill to the candy stores of urban America.

Merleaux’s archival research into these events is meticulous, though she wears it lightly. As a result, the book is highly readable yet still able to offer powerful insights into the way in which decisions were reached and materials produced, teasing out key disagreements and deliberate choices that might otherwise be overlooked in the historical account. We learn, for instance, of an employee at the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce who was gathering pictures for trade journals on behalf of US confectioners. Rejecting pictures of sweets being sold in Cuba as they did not look sufficiently "exotic", what he helped get publish instead were images visualising backward practices of sugar consumption in Latin America and Asia, all the better for building domestic support for the export of US candies as part of a broader civilising mission. Revealing how racialisation involved the construction of whiteness as much as other colours, another passage tells how a photographer contracted by the National Child Labor Committee chose only to take close-up portraits of the white children working in the sugar beet fields of Colorado, largely ignoring the Mexican children he found there. In seeking to extend child protection law into agricultural labour, then, the campaign reproduced the assumption that some children were more deserving than others.

Of significance to the contemporary politics of the international sugar trade, the book details how the US regulatory apparatus established after World War 2, which has since endured into the twenty-first century, was first forged in this imperial context. Certainly, in my own readings on the famous Jones-Costigan Act of 1938 and its successor in 1948, I do not recall coming across the argument that the lowering of the sugar tariff and introduction of farm subsidies was bound up with the desire to end the "disproportionate returns" accruing to the island colonies and reform labour practices in the face of increased agitation by immigrant Mexican beet workers. Merleaux further shows how this ostensibly internationalist piece of legislation, which allocated US market quotas to Cuba despite protestation from domestic producers, also reinscribed an ongoing racial hierarchy between the mainland and its colonies. While farmers who agreed to "production adjustment contracts" on the mainland would be given individual payments funded by a processing tax on sugar, in the colonies the tax proceeds were put into separate funds over which the secretary of agriculture had discretion. Seven decades later, this same kind of division would be echoed by the European Union in the funds disbursed to sugar producers in Europe and the former British colonies to deal with the fall-out of trade liberalisation.

An inherent ambiguity of the commodity chain method is whether the commodity in question is being used as an interpretative lens or explanatory factor. For readers like myself who are new to American history, this is less of a concern here: the story told through sugar simply provides a compelling introduction to key debates. But for others the difference might matter more: just how significant was "the impulse to exclude both workers and sugar" (200) in demands to give the Philippines independence? And how much can we understand about how African Americans and Mexican Americans navigated their place in US labour and consumer markets by looking at their choice of sweets? Another stricture of the commodity method is that it requires somewhat arbitrary parameters to be put on the areas under investigation: as Henri Lefebrve suggested in his study of everyday life, "a woman buying a pound of sugar…will disclose a tangle of reasons and causes…[containing] the sum total of capitalist society, the nation and its history" (Henri Lefebrve, Critique of Everyday Life Translated by John Moore. London: Verso, 1991 [1958], I:57). It is not necessarily a weakness, then, for the book to exclude discussions of rum and of Florida, but in view of their obvious association with the US sugar empire – represented in Cuba Libre and the draining of the Everglades, respectively – an explanation of why they were omitted would have been helpful. But none of these points detracts from the book’s bigger contribution. Merleaux rightly shows that what is at stake in this history is not so much the magnitude of sugar consumed and the reasons for this dietary transition, but rather the "states of exception and routes to incorporation" (235) that such consumption enabled.

Ben Richardson

Ben Richardson is Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. He researches trade and development with a focus on agricultural commodities. He is author of Sugar (Polity, 2015) and Sugar: Refined Power in a Global Regime (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Daniel B. Rood, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Greater Caribbean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), Pp. 288, ISBN 9780190655266 (hb).

Dan Rood begins his book with three inversions. The first is sugar. If cane juice boils too long or with the wrong acidity it will invert into an uncrystallisable goop. On nineteenth-century Cuban plantations, the only people who knew how to prevent the inversion of sugar — the only ones who knew how to crystallize the profit out of the solution — were sugar masters and slaves. That brings us to the second inversion: across the region Rood calls the ‘Greater Caribbean’, the first half of the nineteenth century overturned legal and social hierarchies. Looking at Haiti, and the insurgencies that rocked Cuba in the early 1840s, slaveocrats everywhere worried they were next. Third, and finally, is the inversion of empire. Slaveholders responded to economic, political, social, and technological challenges to their power by reconfiguring their own methods of production and strengthening their links among each other. During this period of the "Second Slavery", Rood argues, new inventions, people, and goods did not only flow between industrialized centres and agricultural peripheries but also from one slave society to another. The supposed backwaters of the Greater Caribbean were in fact among the most creative and dynamic parts of the world economic system.

Rood’s play on the concept of inversion is only the first of many ways that material transformations — of sugar, flour, iron, coffee — are central to his story. The first half of the book focuses on Cuba during the "counterinsurgent moment" of the mid-1840s. Planters abhorred what they saw as the waste and inefficiency of the Jamaica train system. As Rood notes, the "prodigious consumption and disposal of raw materials was one key characteristic of Europe’s Industrial Revolution that could not be exported to the colonial setting" (27). The solution lay in importing European technology, knowledge, and experts. But invention and adaptation — the creolization of science and technology — happened neither in Europe nor on a plantation but in the exchange between them.

Norbert Rilieux’s triple-effect evaporator, for instance, "combin[ed] the ingenuity of European craftsmen with the expertise and local knowledge of an African-American engineer and the ambitions of capitalistic slaveholders" (18). In a problem that will be familiar to historians of science and technology, vacuum pans and other sugar machines had to be adapted to make them work in Cuba, but "making them work in Cuba" meant protecting sugar from inescapably Cuban factors like the tropical environment. Most of all, planters distrusted and denigrated the skills and labour of the enslaved. "Presumed indispensable to sugar production for over three centuries," Rood writes, "black workers were recast as necessary but ultimately threatening to a fleeting and lifeless white purity" (45).

Nineteenth-century Cuban elites were not necessarily more at ease with creolized knowledge than with creolized people. The peninsular chemist Casaseca, for instance, blamed the failure of one German product on its inventor’s misunderstanding the differences between beet sugar refineries and cane boiling houses. Seeking credibility among French peers, Rood writes, "Casaseca mobilized his creole authenticity to establish authority in the Paris-centered world of applied industrial chemistry" (50). But a key planter accused Casaseca of remaining in Havana when he should have been on a plantation, and his own students later decried his "ignorance of both the general laws of science and the special conditions of the locale" (51). Combining the right amounts of European knowledge and Caribbean know-how, as Rood might put it, was as difficult as adding the right measures of lime and albumin to the boiling juice.

Rood’s innovative third chapter covers the schemes to revolutionize the storage and movement of sugar in Havana. Huge warehouses for storing sugar and new railroad lines for delivering it were "decisive moves on the part of a new merchant-planter elite to take more control of shipping and boiling of high-quality grades of sugar" (65). Airy spaces of glass and iron facilitated both the physical movement of goods and market knowledge and broke the power held by Afro-Cuban labour and smaller merchants. Rood shows how the minutiae of materiality — the perishability of crude sugar in hogsheads, the ability of boxes to stack taller, or the value of certain grades of "plantation white" — drove much larger geographies of investment, construction, production, and export across the island of Cuba itself. So far as I could see, Rood cites neither Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged nor William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, but this chapter belongs alongside their work on the transformation of infrastructures.

The second half of the book moves away from sugar as the central commodity, but does so by following the circuitry of the Greater Caribbean itself. First, Rood examines the ironworks in Virginia which forged the railroads on which Cuban sugar rode. To build railroad lines and bridges in the tropics, where standard parts corroded and warped, the Tredegar Ironworks of Richmond needed to be flexible and adaptable. Unlike in Cuba, here "flexibility" meant bringing in skilled slaves, not excluding them, because the managers wanted to weaken the power of white artisans. Once again, Rood shows how the adaptations required to fulfil demand for Cuban sugar depended on the brains as well as the bodies of black slaves. The fifth chapter follows Tredegar to Rio de Janeiro, where the firm used its Cuban expertise and credibility to win more railroad contracts. Rio was sending its coffee to the United States in exchange for flour. Rio bakers’ particular demands for Richmond’s "city flour" ramified across the economic system. The wealthy millers of the Virginia capital consciously converted their city into an attractively specialized port for this particular export to Brazil’s burgeoning slave society, creating an "increasingly systematized circuit" (153).

Finally, Rood takes us across Virginia’s Piedmont region, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and into the Shenandoah Valley in search of the origins of the McCormick reaper. Just like on sugar plantations, it took slaves with a combination of metallurgical and agricultural knowledge to create "McCormick’s” machine. Even more so than in sugar, the harvest was quick so experiments were costly, and so unlike in sugar this machine economized on time, moving labour around and deskilling it rather than saving it. Ultimately, Rood shows, just like in Havana, the reconfiguration of the transportation and shipping infrastructure in Virginia brought consequences for Afro-Americans’ freedom of movement within a slave society.

Rood is as comfortable explaining the thermodynamics of fluids as describing global economic activity, and throughout the book he is attuned to the chemical and material aspects of sugar, people, and environments, both built and natural. He points out, for instance, that the ease with which simple sugar molecules break down is responsible both for their intensely sweet taste and the difficulty of preserving, storing, and shipping them. The planters’ phrase el principio sacarino, for him, means both the molecular target of the manufacturing process and the larger figurative desire for whiteness surrounded and threatened by its dark context. He repeatedly emphasizes such resonances among chemical, spatial, material, and racial concepts — mixture, inversion, pressure, isolation, flow, and so on. Chapter One, for instance, is structured around the idea of single, double, and triple effect. Some readers might raise an eyebrow at Rood’s more lyrical moments, but I found them worthwhile, provocative, and powerful. And I learned something on almost every page of this humane, clever, and deeply researched book. Anyone who wants to understand slavery, labour, and technological change in the Atlantic world should read it.

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 Osiris, Radical History Review, and Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as well as an editorial on corruption in the sugar industry for The New York Times.



Matthew Casey, Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba during the Age of US Occupation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), Pp. 326, ISBN 9781107127692 (hb). [From the publisher’s notes: "…this innovative study reconstructs Haitian guestworkers’ lived experiences as they moved among the rural and urban areas of Haiti, and the sugar plantations, coffee farms, and cities of eastern Cuba. It offers an unprecedented glimpse into the daily workings of empire, labor, and political economy in Haiti and Cuba. Migrants’ efforts to improve their living and working conditions and practice their religions shaped migration policies, economic realities, ideas of race, and Caribbean spirituality in Haiti and Cuba as each experienced US imperialism."]

Sabine Clarke (ed.), Science at the End of Empire: Experts and the Development of the British Caribbean, 1940-62 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Pp. 224, ISBN 9781526131386 (hb) (available as ebook). [From the publisher’s notes: "Britain's remedy to the poor economic conditions in the Caribbean gave a key role to laboratory research to re-invent sugarcane as the raw material for making fuels, plastics and drugs. Science at the end of empire explores the practical and also political functions of scientific research and economic advisors for Britain at a moment in which Caribbean governments operated with increasing autonomy and the US was intent on expanding its influence in the region."]

Francisco Moscoso, Orígenes y Cultura de la Caña de Azúcar de Nueva Guinea a las Islas del Atlántico (Cayey, Puerto Rico: Publicaciones Gaviota, 2017), Pp. 337, ISBN 9781615053063. [An English translation will be appearing shortly.]

Christer Petley, White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Pp. 320, ISBN 9780198791638 (hb) (available as ebook). [From the publisher’s notes: "In White Fury, Christer Petley uses [sugar planter] Taylor's rich and expressive letters to allow us an intimate glimpse into the aspirations and frustrations of a wealthy and powerful British slaveholder during the Age of Revolution. The letters provide a fascinating insight into the merciless machinery and unpredictable hazards of the Jamaican plantation world; into the ambitions of planters who used the great wealth they extracted from Jamaica to join the ranks of the British elite; and into the impact of wars, revolutions, and fierce political struggles that led, eventually, to the reform of the exploitative slave system…"]

Journal articles

Nadia Fernández-de-Pinedo, Rafael Castro, & David Pretel, "Technology transfer networks in the first industrial age: the case of Derosne & Cail and the sugar industry (1818–1871)," Business History, Published online: 18 Jan 2019. [Abstract: "This article examines the transnational operations of the French firm Derosne & Cail, one of the most innovative engineering companies in the mid-nineteenth century. It would become the leading European firm supplying advanced steam-powered technologies and equipment to the international sugar industry. Derosne & Cail’s international expansion was achieved primarily through a global strategy that connected customers and suppliers, particularly by building an effective international network of technological knowledge and expertise. This article explores three aspects related to its international activities from 1818 to 1871 (both before and after Derosne’s death): strategies of commercialisation of steam technologies; relationships with end users; and consequences for industrialising peripheral countries in terms of the transfer of knowledge, technology, and human capital."]

Daniel Moyano, "Producir azúcar en la Patagonia: El ingenio San Lorenzo, un malogrado proyecto de industrialización de remolacha azucarera (Río Negro, 1927-1941)," Mundo Agrario (2018), 19:42. [This article examines Patagonia’s San Lorenzo sugar mill, a failed sugar beet project.]

David Singerman, "Sugar machines and the fragile infrastructure of commodities in the nineteenth century," Osiris (2018), 33:1, pp. 63-84. [This article highlights the centrality of Glasgow and its engineering works in the development of industrial sugar production. Abstract: "This essay uses sugar machinery to explore the fragile infrastructure that allowed global commodity traffic to emerge. In the nineteenth century, the cane sugar industry transformed the Caribbean, the Hawaiian Islands, and much of the rest of the tropical world. Observers then and now tied sugar’s revolutionary power to the invention and spread of advanced mechanical technologies. Yet the origins and lives of those machines themselves have remained obscure. The superficially effortless circulation of standardized material goods like sugar depended on carefully cultivated systems for managing people, paper, objects, and knowledge—and such things could not be standardized so easily."]

Kim Tao, "From Basque country to cane country: A bittersweet history," Signals (2018), 124, pp. 70-73. [Abstract: "Sixty years ago, in August 1958, the first contingent of assisted immigrants arrived under the Spanish migration agreement's 'Operacion Cangur' ('Operation Kangaroo') to work as cane-cutters in North Queensland. But the origins of Spanish involvement in the Queensland sugar industry date back much earlier, to the introduction of the White Australia policy in 1901."];dn=047240286956123;res=IELHSS

Andrej Tóth, "K počátkům a vývoji cukrovarnického průmyslu v Uherském království do rozpadu habsburské monarchie," Listy Cukrovarnické a Řepařské (2018), 134:12, pp. 424-427. [This article deals with the "beginnings and development of a sugar industry in the Kingdom of Hungary until the Habsburg monarchy’s breakup."]

And catching up:

Francisco Moscoso, "La producción azucarera y la esclavitud vistas a través del inventario del Ingenio Santiago de la Paz, 1547," Clío (Organo de la Academica Dominicana de la Historia, (2007), Año 76: No. 174, pp. 13-42 [A study showing that on Hispaniola in the early 16th century Indigenous workers, both enslaved and from encomiendas, along with African slaves provided the labour in the transition from gold mining to the mercantile sugar economy, while after 1540 imported African slaves and their descendants became the principal labour force on the sugar plantations.]


Archived records of the International Commission for the Co-ordination of Solidarity among Sugar Workers (ICCSASW/CCSTAM)

Following the dissolution of the International Commission for the Co-ordination of Solidarity among Sugar Workers (ICCSASW, or CCSTAM according to its widely used Spanish abbreviation), the organisation’s documents went to Toronto’s York University and to the Documentation Centre of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union. This transfer was described in WSHN, No. 21, December 1995, Research News. ICCSASW’s administrative records have now also been lodged and become accessible to researchers at York University Library’s Archives & Special Collections. The archived ICCSASW records should be of special interest to anybody researching the position of workers in the post-World War 2 political economy of sugar production. They may be reached via

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