sugar, madeira, and the canaries -- 12/29/22

Today's encore selection -- from Sugar: The World Corrupted by James Walvin. Sugar followed gold and silver as the most important commodity in the New World. Sugar had long been a small-scale luxury, limited by the lack of the right soil and climate for growing sugar cane. That changed dramatically with the discovery of the New World, leading to the establishment of large-scale plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. But the tragedy of dependence on African slaves, as well as the pattern of moving west to find new plantation venues, was well-established before this New World expansion:
"Cane sugar spread from plantations in the Mediterranean into northern Europe largely via major trading dynasties in Catalonia, Genoa and Venice. Compared to what followed, the volumes of sugar traded to Germany, the Low Countries and England were tiny. Sugar was a small-scale luxury trade, but it proved astonishingly influential. It created a taste for sweetness, and a commercial and financial system to satisfy that taste. It was also clear that the cultivation of sugar cane, and new systems of processing the cane in the Mediterranean (using rollers to crush more juice from the cane), provided the basis for a lucrative commercial venture, which was largely the work of the financial and commercial acumen of Italian merchants and financiers. All this was in place before Europeans began to trade and settle outside the Mediterranean, on the Atlantic islands, and long before the settlement in the Americas.

"The labour used on early Mediterranean sugar plantations had been a mix of free and slave labour. Slaves were procured from warfare on the edges of Europe, notably between Christians and Muslims, and from conquests in North Africa, but sugar plantations also involved costly investment, with the money provided by Spanish and Italian city merchants. The resulting crude sugar often needed further refinement, initially in Antwerp, but later in many of Europe's major ports.

"The broad outlines of the modern sugar economy were thus in place long before Europeans embarked on their American adventures. Sugar was cultivated and processed on plantations financed by European merchants and bankers, and used slaves and free labour working side by side. The end product -- cane sugar -- was then refined in northern European cities before being marketed and sold to wealthy consumers across Europe. In time, this simple sugar economy was to become a mass market, and sugar itself was transformed.

"That transformation began when Europeans embarked on their remarkable age of maritime exploration in the fifteenth century. Led by the Portuguese, Europeans began to edge their way into the Atlantic, then south along the African coastline (initially in search of gold and spices, ultimately seeking sea routes to Asia). En route, Spain and Portugal settled the Atlantic islands -- Madeira and the Canaries first, then São Tomé and Principe, both much further south in the Gulf of Guinea. Sugar cultivation was an obvious line of commercial development and land settlement.

Detail of the Azores and Madeira islands, from the 14th-century Corbitis Atlas

"In 1425, Henry the Navigator equipped the early colonises to Madeira with sugar cane plants from Sicily. By the end of that century, the island was producing substantial volumes of sugar. Meanwhile, Spanish settlers overcame the resistance of indigenous people to take possession of the Canaries, and they, too, planted sugar cane. Throughout these Atlantic islands the Azores, the Canaries, Cape Verde Islands, Madeira, São Tome and Principe -- the conquering European settlers planted sugar cane where it was possible. In some places, they discov­ered that other crops were more suitable and profitable (wine and wheat in the Azores, for example). But sugar soon proved its worth on Madeira, an uninhabited island which attracted Portuguese settlers to the prospect of land, and which they turned over to wheat and sugar cultivation (with help from Genoese and Jewish financiers). Sugar became the island's most lucrative commodity and, by the end of the fifteenth century, Madeira was the West's largest sugar producer. It also employed slave labour from Africa, as well as from the Canary Islands. Most sugar cultivation was in the hands of small cane farmers who sent their cane to be processed in the nearest factory, some of which used the latest water-powered technology. By 1470, Madeira was producing 20,000 arrobas (230 metric tonnes) of sugar; by 1500-1510 (the peak years of local production) that volume had risen to 230,000 arrobas (2,645 metric tonnes) of various kinds of sugar.

"This pattern of sugar cultivation in the Canaries was to become familiar in the Americas (though on a vastly different scale). The sugar was cultivated by both male and female slaves -- Africans, people of mixed race and slaves from the Canaries (although that was outlawed at the end of the century) -- and all this cook place on small-scale plantations or 'engenhos'. Compared to what was to follow in the Americas, this seems miniscule but, in essence, it formed a blueprint that sugar planters in the Americas were to follow later.

"By the early sixteenth century, sugar was considered the most important enterprise on Tenerife. A good local plantation produced about 50 tons of sugar a year and, in a fruitful year, the island produced about 1,000 tons of sugar. The labour was enslaved, and overwhelmingly male; in time, it was increas­ingly African, with the managerial, technical or supervisory staff made up of free Portuguese. There was also a scattering of poorer sugar cane producers who simply grew sugar cane and dispatched their cane to the nearest factory for processing. Once again, the finance for all this came from Spanish and Italian financiers, with the finished produce dispatched to mainland Europe via major European commercial houses.

"Throughout the sixteenth century, sugar from the Canaries was an important export to Europe (and remained as import­ant as the sugar exported from the Spanish Caribbean until c.1600). Eventually, however, and under competition from sugar from the Caribbean, sugar in the Canaries gave way to wine production. The Cape Verde islands, also thought a likely sugar producer, were 400 miles off the African coast and had a dryer climate, and settlers were reluctant to move to so remote a place. The initial sugar industry never really took off. What finally undermined the islands' fledgling sugar industry was competition elsewhere, and the fact that the Cape Verde islands became an important way station in the Atlantic slave trade; it had other commercial temptations to offer the enterprising settlers and agriculturists.

"On the eve of the settlement of the Americas, the wide­spread cultivation and processing of sugar was perfected in what might seem, at first, an unlikely location: two small islands lying close to the African coast in the Gulf of Guinea. The Portuguese landed on São Tomé in 1471, one of their discoveries as they made their uncertain way south along the African coast. It was uninhabited and ideally suited to settle­ment. The cultivation which developed followed the pattern established in Madeira and the Azores. Sugar cultivation started at once, with the help of settlers already familiar with sugar production, and with finance, again, from Italy. By the mid-sixteenth century, the sugar economy of São Tomè was booming, yielding 150,000 arrobas of sugar. At its peak, 200 sugar mills dotted the landscape and the island's population rose to 100,000. More striking still, the labour force was increasingly African -- and enslaved. 

"Enslaved Africans had previously passed through the islands along early Portuguese slaving routes which saw Africans shipped from one coastal African society to another. This early European slave trade involved selling Africans to other Africans. But São Tomè lay only 320km off the coast of Africa, and African slaves were readily available for islanders in return for the variety of goods offered by European traders. From the first days of settlement, São Tomè had been an entrepôt for the movement of goods on the routes of trade and exploration along the African coast. Now it became a destination for coffles (groups of chained slaves) of enslaved Africans destined for São Tomè's sugar fields.' The numbers involved (compared to what was to follow) were relatively small; in 1519, more than 4,000 Africans were delivered to the island. A few years later, the Portuguese Crown was obliged to regulate the slave trade to the island. By the middle of that century, there were some 2,000 African slaves working in the island's sugar fields, but perhaps three times that number were waiting in pens to be transported elsewhere.

"It was so easy -- and cheap -- to acquire African slaves that they were used lavishly on the island's sugar plantations." 



James Walvin


Sugar: The World Corrupted


Pegasus Books, Inc.


Copyright 2018 by James Walvin


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