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The Sugar Revolution

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Revolution means a complete change in a system. There was an economic revolution that occurred in the 17th Century. Some refer to it as the Sugar Revolution. During this period, several basic changes took place.

(1) Sugar replaced tobacco as the chief export crop in the Caribbean.

(2) The population changed from one that was mainly white to one that was mainly black because of the introduction of African slaves.

(3) The size of land holdings changed.

This change was pioneered by the Dutch, who provided the capital to establish sugar plantations. They also taught the British and French planters how to manufacture sugar and provided a market for the sugar which was produced.

The Sugar Revolution occurred first in Barbados where it took a mere decade for the transformation to take place (1640 to 1650). It happened at a slower pace in other islands. Some other small islands had fast rates of change such as: Nevis, Antigua, St Kitts and Montserrat.

Why was Barbados the First Island to change to Sugar Production?

1) Barbados had comparatively speaking a larger population size than the other Eastern Caribbean islands. Therefore the planters felt secure enough to make such huge investment believing that they would be able to defend themselves against attack.

2) There were many wealthy planters in Barbados as a result of the huge profits made from the sale of tobacco in earlier years.

3) Sugar production required more land and labour; the fact that the island had a larger population size than the rest of the Eastern Caribbean islands meant that there were enough labourers to get started and the richer planters could buy more land.

4) A revolt that started in 1645 in Brazil against Dutch rule meant that the Dutch could no longer buy the sugar they wanted there or sell African slaves to Brazilian sugar planters. Instead, the Dutch began to sell African slaves cheaply in Barbados and gave the Barbadian planers a good price for their sugar, to encourage them to produce more.

5) Sugar prices fell after 1654 and the English government stopped the Barbadian planters from trading with the Dutch insisting that they sent their sugar to England instead.

Although the Sugar Revolution took place at different times for different countries, the approximate period when it began was between the mid 1600’s and the end of the 1600’s.


Fall in West Indian tobacco prices

There was a fall in tobacco prices. Tobacco was previously the main cash crop of the Indies because of sales to Europe. However in the early 1600’s, new competitors emerged selling tobacco mainly from Virginia and Venezuela. In 1613 John Rolfe had introduced tobacco to Virginia, the earliest of the North colonies. A variety imported from Trinidad proved very satisfactory. By 1627 Virginia was able to ship nearly 500,000 Ibs of tobacco to England in one year. In 1628 the total for St. Kitts and Barbados was only 100,000 Ibs. There was also another advantage that of size, enabling individual plots To be of about 50 acres (20 ha) compared with about 10 acres (4 ha) in the West Indies.

The quality was also better as they had virgin soil. As the demand for tobacco in England increased, Virginia was able to meet it easily, but the demand For West Indian tobacco fell because expansion of output was not so rapid and the quality was inferior. Competition also came from the Dutch trading tobacco at Araya in Venezuela, and later at Curaçao. Consequently the price of West Indian tobacco fell and many small farmers went out of production. Because of this new competition, there was less demand for tobacco from the Lesser Antilles and prices fell and many small farmers went out of production.

Increasing Demand for sugar

Sugar came along at the right time to take the place of tobacco. There was a rise in demand for sugar. Sugar was already being used for sweets and baked goods, but it was demanded even more as a sweetener for coffee and tea which were becoming popular in Europe. After the colonisation of India and the Far East, coffee and tea were becoming increasingly popular in Europe and hence the demand for sugar as a sweetener for these drinks. The West Indies provided the perfect climate for the production of sugar cane.

Presence of knowledgeable individuals about sugar production In 1654 when the Dutch were winning, at least in Northern Brazil, they shipped Portuguese prisoners of war north to the islands to be sold as slaves. In 1643 a Dutch ship brought fifty Portuguese slaves to Barbados. They were freed because the enslaving of Christians was not tolerated, but Barbados had fifty labourers experienced in the growing of sugar available. Then, when the Portuguese started winning back Northern Brazil from the Dutch, the Dutch came to the islands of the eastern Caribbean as refugees, bringing with them their expertise in sugar production. Part played by the Dutch in the Sugar

The Dutch contribution was so great that we can say they made the change possible. About 1640 the Dutch were easily the greatest traders in the Caribbean Region, almost having a monopoly of the carrying trade. The Dutch traders and captains were looking for ways by which to increase their trade and they saw that encouraging the planting of sugar was a great opportunity. Sugar needed capital which the small planters of the eastern Caribbean did not have, but the Dutch came to the rescue by supplying credit. A Dutch merchant would put up the capital on the security of the crop.

In this way many planters started. The Dutch took over the export and sale of the crop in return for providing the initial capital. Not only highly specialised labour, but also the ordinary manual labour was provided by the Dutch as the slave trade was in their hands. The Dutch brought slaves from West Africa to the West Indies at the rate of about 3000 per year. England could not have provided these essentials for the development of the sugar industry. In any case the English system was not one of supporting the West Indian colonies through a wealthy company or through the government. Colonies and their plantations were individual enterprises which were expected to manage on their own.



(1) The introduction of a great number of African slaves changed the population structure in the islands because there were then more blacks than whites. Blacks far outnumbered whites, in some cases the ratio was as much as 25:1.This also caused the emergence of different social classes. The population of the Caribbean islands was divided into three groups. At the top were the whites, in the middle were the mixed race and free Africans and the bottom were the enslaved Africans. However, there status divisions within these groups: among the whites for example, status was determined largely by occupation. Whites were divided along status lines based on wealth. In the British colonies these were called “principal whites” and “poor whites.” In reality they formed three ranks. At the top, forming an elite, were families who owned slaves and successful plantations. Some of their names became important in the history of one or more islands, names such as Guy, Modyford, Drax, Sutton, Price, Bannington, Needham, Tharp, and Beckford in Jamaica; Drax, Hallet, Littleton, Codrington, and Middleton in Barbados; and Warner, Winthrop, Pinney, and Jefferson in the Leeward Islands.

Next in rank came the merchants, officials, and such professionals as doctors and clergymen, who were just a shade below the big planters. At the bottom of the white ranks came the so-called “poor whites,” often given such pejorative names as “red legs” in Barbados, or “walking buckras” in Jamaica. This group included small independent farmers, servants, day laborers, and all the service individuals from policemen to smiths, as well as the various hangers-on required by the curious “Deficiency Laws.” These were laws designed to retain a minimum number of whites on each plantation to safeguard against slave revolts. A Jamaica law of 1703 stipulated that there must be one white person for each ten slaves up to the first twenty slaves and one for each twenty slaves thereafter as well as one white person for the first sixty head of cattle and one for each one hundred head after the first sixty head.

The law was modified in 1720, raising the ratios and lowering the fines for noncompliance, but the planters seemed more prepared to pay the fines for noncompliance than to recruit and maintain white servants, so the law degenerated to another simple revenue measure for the state. This was true throughout the British islands during the eighteenth century. Each slave society in the colonies had an intermediate group, called the “free persons of colour. This group originated in the sexual relations of European masters and their African slaves. By the nineteenth century, the group could be divided into blacks who had gained their freedom or were the descendants of slaves, and the mixed, or mulatto, descendants of the associations between Europeans and non-Europeans. By the time of the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, the heterogeneous free nonwhite population represented about 10 percent of the population of Jamaica, 12 percent of the population of Barbados, and about 20 percent of the population of Trinidad. A number of these free nonwhites had been free for generations, if not centuries, and had carved a niche in the local societies as successful merchants, planters, professionals, and slave owners.

Throughout the British Caribbean the free nonwhites manifested a number of common traits. They were predominantly female, largely urban, and clearly differentiated from the slaves both by law and by custom. Although adult females outnumbered males, the free nonwhite population tended to be the most sexually balanced overall and was the only group that consistently reproduced itself in the British colonies during the era of the slave trade. Moreover, with the exception of Trinidad, where, as Bridget Brereton indicates, just as many free nonwhites lived in the rural parishes as in the towns of Port of Spain, San Fernando, and St. Joseph, the free nonwhites were strongly urban. After 1809, about 61 percent of all the free nonwhites in Barbados lived in the parish of St. Michael in the capital city, Bridgetown. More free nonwhites lived in Kingston, Jamaica, than in all the other parishes combined.

The coloured population was also rigidly stratified based on degrees of colour. Those coloureds whose physical features were closer to the Anglo-Saxons tended to occupy a higher position on the social ladder. Social and occupational conditions differed from colony to colony. In Barbados where the whites outnumbered the coloreds; there was competition between them and coloureds for jobs; that in other colonies automatically went to the second group. Normally, however, the coloureds which had the most power were sugar planters themselves or merchants, then tradesmen, after which there were professionals (e.g. The Watchman and Jamaica Free Press was owned by two coloured men: Edward Jordan and Robert Osborn, clerks in large merchant houses and among the poorest were those engaged in petty retail and huckstering. Degree of colour among the group was as follows: a mulatto was the offspring of a black and a white; a sambo of a black and a mulatto; a quadroon, of a mulatto and a white; and a mustee of a quadroon and a white.

Although divisions conditioned beyond this level, the child of a mustee and a white was declared free at birth if by chance his mother was a slave. The slaves were also stratified in terms of occupation and origins. Occupation was based on colour, intelligence and reliability. Domestic slaves were highest rank. Their task was light and material rewards were superior to those of the field hands. They got better food and hand me downs from their masters. The artisans and drivers by way of their skill occupied high position and were highly valued. Head artisans were except from field work. They were often times hired out to work for other tradesmen. They were also allowed to offer their services on other plantations on their off days. This was how they got access to cash and those who thrifty were often able to eventually obtain manumission.

Craftsmen were permitted to produce craft items that they sold in the markets, they could work additional hours for pay and could hire themselves out on free days. A carpenter on one of the Codrington plantation in Antigua was married to a coloured woman, had a horse and gig and a hearse and acquired virtually all of the funeral business in the area. The headmen also enjoyed a privileged position and in return for these advantages; they controlled the save population during and after work hours. Next in the slave hierarchy were the field slaves and they were among the poorest. The lowest of all the slaves were those owned by other slaves.

Homework: Find out how the other groups were divided.

(2) Absenteeism was a new factor brought about by the sugar revolution. Absenteeism refers to the sugar planters (plantation owners) living away from the plantations in Europe and hiring a manager called an attorney to stay on the island and manage and take charge of the plantation. The plantation owner would meanwhile live a comfortable life in Europe where they preferred to stay so they could maintain their lifestyle and enjoy a climate that was more comfortable to them.


(1) The emergence of the large plantation and an almost complete dependence on sugar and the adoption of restrictive navigation laws by the European mother countries. (2) The amalgamation of the land holdings to create sugar plantations led to a steep rise in the value of land. It also contributed to the reduction in the white population on the islands as many of them returned to England after losing their plantations.

(3) The sugar revolution led to a change from agricultural diversification (planting of a variety of crops for sale) to monoculture (a one crop economy). This is a problem which lingered for many years after the start of the revolution. Capitals were invested in the sugar industry. (4) Most of the capital however came from the Mother Country itself. Soon the West Indian planters became indebted to (European) British bankers, investors and merchants. (5) Plantation owners became wealthy. Some of them went back to Europe to live in comfort and style, showing off their wealth. The expression “as rich as a West Indian planter” became the accepted description of any wealthy person. (6) England collected a lot of taxes and duties and shared in the profits of the Sugar Industry. Later she would use much of the money to finance her Industrial Revolution Sugar- Summary

The French and English did not sit by a let Spain colonize the entire Caribbean. They to settle in some of the Caribbean islands which they colonized themselves. They also attacked Spanish colonies as well as Spanish ships, both legally and illegally. By the mid 17th century Spain had now become a weakened colonial master.

Revision Questions

1) Why did the revolution begin in Barbados?
2) Give three reasons for the Sugar Revolution in the Eastern Caribbean in the 1600’s.
3) Discuss the changes which resulted from the Sugar Revolution.
4) Discuss two ways in which the Dutch contributed to the Sugar Revolution.

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