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  • Sugarlandia Revisited: Sugar and Colonialism in Asia and the Americas, 1800 to 1940
  • Brandon Reilly
Ulbe Bosma, Juan Giusti-Cordero, and G. Roger Knight, eds. Sugarlandia Revisited: Sugar and Colonialism in Asia and the Americas, 1800 to 1940. International Studies in Social History, vol. 9. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007. 233 pp. ISBN 978-1-84545-316-9, $75.00 (hardcover).

Sugar was the single most valuable international commodity before the rise of oil. Cultivated primarily in overseas colonies, its study offers insights into political, economic, and cultural history, agriculture, slavery, technology, race, class, identity, and the nature of colonialism. "Sugarlandia" originally referred to sugar-producing regions in the American-colonized Philippines. This volume broadens the use of the term, defining it as "an evocative, global synonym for the social classes, cultures and political economies with which the large-scale production of the commodity was enmeshed and which equally shaped sugar production" (p. 7). Toward this end, the contributors have produced essays on Java, the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, well traveled in the study of sugar. They argue that 1800, rather than the conventional 1900, should be seen as a better starting point for the development of modern industry. Their coverage does not go beyond 1940 because the sugar industry worldwide went into decline thereafter.

Recent studies of sugar have broadened our knowledge of the global sugar economy in places such as India, China, Fiji, and so on, but surprisingly, little new work has been done in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. This volume seeks to partially remedy that gap and question some of its assumptions and concepts. Some of the questions it addresses include: how technological innovation interacted with harvesting, processing, transportation, and slavery; how we understand plantations and centrals (sugar refineries centered on cultivation sites); and how the colonial bourgeoisie was constituted.

G. Roger Knight's lead essay on the life of the English-born Thomas Jeoffries Edwards demonstrates that the emergent sugar industry in Java offered Europeans opportunities for social mobility. Edwards's life is emblematic of the Dutch settler community's desire to import skilled workers and new technologies in the 1830s onwards, which laid the foundations for the industry's subsequent rise. Arthur von Sheik and G. Roger Knight argue that Dutch immigrants who came to work in the emerging sugar industry in mid-nineteenth-century Java did not by the fact of their arrival radically alter notions of ethnicity. Identity in this context was instead shaped by a complex interaction of factors including place of birth, parentage, economic [End Page 651] standing, profession of Christian faith, and adoption of European social customs. Ulbe Bosma focuses on the biographies of elite Yogya (i.e., from Yogyakarta) families to show that 1884, the year when the manufacture of beet sugar led to a worldwide decline in sugar prices and subsequently brought about a banking crisis, did not constitute a rupture in Yogyakarta or Surakarta. The subsequent rise of sugar prices was in fact "the result of a continuous process of innovation from the 1830s onwards" (p. 74). Sri Margana painstakingly reconstructs the hybrid juridical system of nineteenth-century central Javanese villages. The Javanese responded energetically to the creation of a Dutch legal system, though not in the way colonizers had anticipated, as villagers filed grievances on an almost daily basis in 1900 for reasons all their own. Joost Coté demonstrates that the discourse of sugar became a site of political contestation in the late-nineteenth-century Dutch East Indies. His survey of the different ideological currents that swept through the colony demonstrates the salience of the sugar motif. Manuel Barcia argues that the number of African slaves that entered into Cuba from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s had been greatly underestimated for reasons including importers concealing their activities, inaccurate recording, and simply because the sources are incomplete. Barcia shows that the actual figures may have been underestimated by as much as one-third or one-half. Jorge Ibarra charts how distinct Spanish immigrant identities evolved in Cuba, where they composed 8.2% of the population in 1899, and Puerto Rico, where they were 0.8%. The Spanish community in Cuba became...


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