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Reviewed by:
  • Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680
  • Frank “Trey” Proctor III
Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680. Edited by Stuart B. Schwartz. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. xiv, 347. Maps. Illustrations. Figures. Tables. Notes. Index. $59.95 cloth; $22.50 paper.

For many, the early history of the Atlantic World was marked by a "sugar revolution" defined by the simultaneous and interconnected growth of the plantation regime, slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, and commercial capitalism due to the association of sugar with monocrop agriculture on large estates with large regimented (often enslaved) labor forces. In this collection of essays solicited by Stuart [End Page 284] Schwartz, a multinational group of scholars reassesses the revolutionary character of the growth of sugar production in the Atlantic world. Importantly, the sugar colonies under study developed serially with new activity predicated on the importation of expertise from previous producers (primarily Madeira and the Canaries), but each developed differently, with some, but not all, of the component characteristics of nineteenth-century sugar.

William Phillips Jr. traces the dual Muslim and Christian introduction of sugar to the Iberian Peninsula and highlights the central role of Spain and Portugal as intermediaries in the spread of sugar to the New World. Alberto Vierra compares the different trajectories of sugar on Madeira and the Canary Islands. On Madeira, although sugar was processed in large water-powered mills, the majority of sugar cultivators did not own mills and African slavery was of limited importance. Compared to Madeira, sugar in the Canaries was marked by the monopolization of cultivation by mill owners, slightly higher annual production, and a greater but not complete reliance on slave labor.

The next three entries focus on the dominant Spanish (Española and Cuba) and Portuguese (Brazil) sugar producing colonies prior to 1680. Largely due to royal promotion of sugar in Española, including sizeable startup loans and a favorable position in the slave trade, Genaro Rodríguez Morel argues for a fully developed plantation regime marked by large estates with water-powered mills (seventy-five tons average annual production), and large slave workforces by 1510. However, after 1550 Española's sugar industry declined and was replaced by Cuba as the primary Spanish sugar producer. Alejandro de la Fuente's excellent essay argues that Cuba became the dominant Spanish colonial sugar producer by 1650, but production was part of a mixed economy focused on livestock and foodstuffs (even at the level of individual holdings), and was characterized by smaller productive units, animal-powered mills (averaging 10-12 tons per year), and small slave workforces (about 16 slaves per mill) due to lack of credit and royal support. According to Schwartz, although Brazilian sugar quickly became a plantation economy with productive units characterized by water-powered mills, large slave labor forces (80-100 per mill), and high annual production (140 tons), its defining characteristic was the significant number of sugar growers who were unable to establish mills because of insufficient capital and credit. Prior to 1650, these lavaradores de cana cultivated the majority of sugarcane and owned nearly one-third of slaves employed in Brazilian sugar. Together, these essays highlight the heretofore understudied role of credit in the development, or overdevelopment, of sugar.

The next two essays abandon sugar colonies to explore other issues central to the expansion of sugar and the growth of the Atlantic economy. Herbert Klein surveys the early operation of the slave trade in Africa and the Atlantic World, concluding that sugar did not drive the African slave trade. The volume of the trans-Saharan trade was greater than that of the Atlantic trade; the overall value of slaves was less than that of trade goods like precious metals and ivory within the Atlantic trade; [End Page 285] New World demand for slaves was driven, in part, by non-sugar regions like mainland Spanish America; and, slave prices in Africa remained fairly stable prior to 1650 despite the steady growth of sugar production in the Atlantic. Eddy Stols, focusing on increasing consumption and the symbolic meanings of sugar, suggests that its impact on European...


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