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120 The Jamaican Plantation Industrial, Global, Contested LOUIS P. NELSON A bumpy, twenty-minute drive south from the coastal highway takes you to Good Hope, John Tharp’s late-eighteenth-century Jamaican plantation.1 Passing the steep drive up to the great house, the road leads to a stone warehouse on the way to the rushing waters of the Martha Brae River. Just before the river, on a flat parcel to the right stands a substantial cut-stone building that now serves as an orange-packing plant (fig. 1). This was Good Hope’s boiling house, where raw cane juice was purified, separating molasses and other residue from the thick cane syrup that would cure into crystalized sugar. When in production, the boiling house was the center of any plantation ’s sugar works, and the sugar works was the center of the sugar plantation .2 I argue here that the boiling house on any Jamaican sugar plantation stood at the heart of an extraordinary landscape, simultaneously industrial, global, and contested. Unlike the processing of tobacco or rice, the processing of sugar was a very complicated process that required careful synchronization of both labor and product. One late-eighteenth-century planter described the sugar plantation as “a well-constructed machine, compounded of various wheels, turning in different ways, and yet all contributing to the great end proposed.”3 Enslaved laborers planted acres of cane shoots in straight rows. Once the cane was cut, the sugar juice in the cane would begin to ferment within hours, so recently cut cane had to be quickly crushed in a mill, extracting the juice to be carried to the boiling house for reduction in a series of large boilers into molasses and purified cane juice. The press to refine the sugar before it spoiled, together with the financial investment of starting up the boiling process and the constant drive toward greater profits, meant that boiling houses often ran twenty-four hours a day for days or weeks at a time. The juice was then cured in a huge curing house, usually for weeks, before being packaged into hogsheads for exportation. The molasses by-product either was used as a calorie supplement for the enslaved or could be dis- The Jamaican Plantation 121 tilled into rum, usually in another large building called a “distillery.” A sugar works was a substantial capital investment; there was no such thing as a small sugar planter. John Tharp’s boiling house, as it stands today, is a late-eighteenth-century threefold expansion of an earlier boiling house that stood on the property through the eighteenth century (fig. 2). Careful examination of the building ’s plan reveals that the grander elevation of the building encased a mideighteenth -century boiling house that likely stood on the site when Tharp purchased the property in 1766. Measuring 37 feet long by 16 feet wide, the mid-eighteenth-century boiling house was already a fairly large, industrialscale building. But Tharp substantially enlarged the building to 64 feet long by 34 feet wide. In the flush of refining, this boiling house disgorged smoke and heat, running continuously through night and day as teams of exhausted slaves ladled scalding-hot syrup from one cauldron to another. The boiling house was the epicenter of the plantation and the center of “clock time consciousness,” to use Justin Roberts’s phrase.4 The boiling house was so central, in fact, that one overseer assured the plantation owner that “the Boiling House has been my constant residence all day as soon as light would permit work to be done.”5 And as at Good Hope, Jamaica’s boiling houses were usually paired with equally large curing houses, where enslaved AfriFigure 1. Good Hope boiling house, Trelawney Parish, Jamaica, built mid-eighteenth century, expanded c. 1802. (Photo by author) Louis P . Nelson 122 cans poured the thick syrup into heavy clay molds to cure into crystal cones. In scale and complexity of form and process, these buildings were not agricultural but industrial. The investment of a sugar works was in not only buildings but also machinery . One seventeenth-century writer warned that planters would want regularly to inspect “the Rollers, the Goudges, Sockets, Sweeps, Cogs, or Braytrees,” because if any of these failed, “the whole work stands still.” The same would be true of the equipment in the boiling house, where the brick platforms that carried the boilers might crack or break “by the violence of the heat from the Furnaces.” Again...


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