sugar takes over the world -- 8/13/19

Today's selection -- from The Sugar Baron's by Matthew Parker. As much as oil in the 20th century, sugar would dominate trade and commerce globally in the 16th and 17th centuries, and spawn a renewed and vastly expanded slave trade. First the Portuguese (then Dutch) possessions in Brazil became the world's wealthiest through sugar. Then young Englishman James Drax imported the industry into the British possession of Barbados, and it, and next the British colony of Jamaica, became the wealthiest possessions of the British Empire:

"Thus developing the [sugar] industry (and expanding the market) fell [from Spain] to the other nation of great Atlantic explorers, the Portuguese. In the 1490s, the islands of São Tomé and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea were colonised by Portugal and put to cane. When combined with the supply from Madeira, this made Portugal the world's leading sugar producer. The African islands, like Madeira, would for various reasons quickly fade from the picture, but not before they had acted as a nursery of cane technology for the next great expansion. In 1500, Portugal claimed Brazil, and within 20 years had created a huge industry in sugar, initially manned by the indigenous population, then, as it fled or died out, by imported African slaves. Numerous sugar factories were established by the 1520s, and from the 1530s the industry expanded rapidly, particularly around Pernambuco, Olinda and Bahia.

Sugar factory in the West Indies c. 1670

"It was a golden period for Brazil. By the end of the sixteenth century, a narrow coastal strip boasted more than 120 sugar mills in what had now become the richest European colony anywhere in the world. [Englishman] James Drax, visiting in around 1640, would have seen all this: the fabulous opulence of the local planters, their tables laden with silver and fine china, their doors fitted with gold locks; the women wearing huge jewels from the East, precious fabrics everywhere and an army of prostitutes and slaves always hovering. A French visitor at the beginning of the seventeenth century has described his visit to a Portuguese sugar baron, who took his lavish meals to the sounds of an orchestra of 30 beautiful black slave girls, presided over by a bandmaster imported from Europe. All was afloat on a sea of easy profit -- the Dutch estimated that in 1620 the Brazilian sugar industry made the equivalent of more than half a million pounds sterling a year, an astonishing figure.

"Unsurprisingly, the Dutch, who had emerged after a long struggle against Spanish rule into their Golden Age as Europe's most extensive and successful international traders and bankers, wanted a piece of the action. When, for dynastic reasons, Portugal merged with Spain towards the end of the sixteenth century, her colonies became fair game.

"The Dutch West India Company, licensed to make war in search of profits for its backers, was founded in 1621 to get its hands on some of this trade. Three years later, the Company, with a force of 3,300 men and 26 ships under the command of Admiral Piet Heyn, attacked a town on the coast of Bahia. The port's two forts were quickly captured and the defenders dispersed. Driven out the following year, the Dutch returned in 1630, landing 7,000 soldiers at Recife. This time, the hinterland was secured, and soon the Dutch controlled a large area of north-east Brazil. ...

"The Dutch leadership successfully encouraged the Portuguese sugar­-growers to re-establish their plantations and increase production. But the planters always bridled under the yoke of the hard-working, money-obsessed Calvinist Hollanders. By the early 1640s, cooperation was breaking down and there was agitation in the countryside. This, together with a string of poor harvests during 1642-4 (possibly caused by soil exhaustion in the coastal lands), led the Dutch to look for new sugar acres elsewhere to supply the cargoes for their giant merchant marine and hungry refineries at home. Thus when Drax came knocking in the early 1640s, he found a welcome audience happy to help expand sugar production in the Caribbean basin. ...

"According to a friend of Drax, bringing the business of sugar growing and processing 'to perfection' during the 1640s took 'divers yeeres paines, care, patience and industry, with the disbersing of vast summes of money'. Drax, an early account maintains, imported from Holland 'the Model of a Sugar Mill' for crushing the canes to extract the juice, and some copper cauldrons for boiling the liquid until it was ready to crystallise. ...

"As soon as Drax's first competent Barbados sugar arrived on the London market, it yielded a far higher profit than any other American commodity, fetching as much as £5 per hundredweight. Drax reckoned it increased his income per acre fourfold over any other crop.

"The stunning success of his experiment would see James Drax and his heirs -- as well as other families -- accrue fortunes beyond their wildest dreams. More than that, it would decisively affect the course of history, the fate of empires and the lives of millions. Most immediately, however, it would radically alter the nature of the 15-year-old colony in Barbados."



Matthew Parker


The Sugar Barons


Windmill Books


Copyright Matthew Parker 2011


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