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Sugar and Slavery

 

Figure 1: Source: http://archives.chez.tiscali.fr/sarthissimo/lincolnslavery/canasucr.GIF

 

Sugar production is highly intensive, requiring substantial manpower to harvest the sugarcane with the use of such tools as machetes (Braun “Sugarcane”). This backbreaking work must be accomplished quickly since, once cut, the juice within the stalks will dry within 48 hours unless processed (Schwartz 3). Though African slaves were certainly present in the Mediterranean regions, slavery only became intricately linked to sugar cultivation after production began in the Atlantic islands of Madeira and Sao Tomé, and it only reached a massive scale with the transference of the plantation system to the Americas  (Phillips 28). Sao Tomé is an island in the Atlantic close to the African continent. It was here that the model of “plantation size, the universality of slave labor and production techniques” (Klein 204) was first developed; this model would later be applied to Latin American plantations. Motivation to use slave labour on sugarcane plantations lay in the large profits colonizers gained from sugar revenues, especially since they didn’t have to pay salaries (Richardson). Initially, the Spanish attempted to coerce Indigenous people to work in the sugarcane fields, but when this proved insufficient they turned to African slave traders (Klein 204). As of 1630, 170 000 African slaves were to be found labouring in sugar production in the Americas (Klein 208).

 

It is often noted that sugar production could never have reach the magnitude it did without the use of slave labor. “ Slave labor was the decisive element in Saint-Domingue’s productive forces; the knowledge, production experience and skills possessed by the slaves were indispensable” (Munford & Zeuske). Until the 1730s, monopolies existed among traders; however, after this time, free trade governed the slave market (Klein 215). The industry reached its peak in the 1780s when tens of thousands of Africans per year were arriving on slave boats (Klein 233). It was only by the late 1700s that the demand for slaves exceeded supply (Klein 233). By this time, sugar production in the Americas was thriving.

       

Though slavery in its true sense has long since been abolished, sugar production today continues to be an arduous task that requires the intensive use of cheap labor. As will be explored in the case study of the sugar economy in the Dominican Republic, conditions for migrant Haitian workers continue to be appalling, and they have often been referred to as indentured labor.

 

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