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chapter one Introduction Stuart B. Schwartz It has in recent years become something of a commonplace to say that the origins of merchant capital and slavery in the Atlantic world were intimately and intrinsically tied to the production of sugar. The transference of sugarcane cultivation and sugar production from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic islands in the fifteenth century and then to the Americas in the sixteenth century is a story that has been often told, and its implications for the interwoven history of peoples on the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas have been the subject of great interest. Since the publication of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), which argued that the slave-based economies of the Caribbean contributed directly, and even massively, to the British Industrial Revolution, scholars have become used to an association of sugar, slavery, and capitalism in which European capital and technology, American land, and African sweat were combined to produce profit in a commercial crop of great value.∞ The Williams thesis has become an issue of considerable debate and controversy and, right or wrong, his vision of the late eighteenth century, when about 90 percent of the West Indies’ value to Europe was from sugar, has been read backward in time so that even from its origins, the production of sugar and the combination of the various factors that went into its making have been viewed as a foundational capitalistic enterprise. Of course, that idea predated the Williams thesis. Karl Marx, by implication, had indicted sugar for ‘‘the turning of Africa into a warren of commercial hunting of black skins,’’ as part of the ‘‘rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production,’’ and a chief element in the process of primitive accumulation.≤ The fact that sugar production called for relatively large estates, a regimented labor force, which often consisted of enslaved workers, led to a view that the plantation regime, slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, and capitalism grew simultaneously, perhaps inevitably, as part of the same complex. The process of forming large 2 introduction estates using coerced labor in a semi-industrial productive activity geared toward export has sometimes been called the ‘‘sugar revolution,’’ and while scholars have disagreed about the exact nature and timing of this ‘‘revolution,’’ they have, nevertheless, tended to agree on the importance of the process on the areas where sugar became the principal staple.≥ This historical vision of sugar as the quintessential capitalist crop and the satisfactions that the implied association of capitalism and slavery seemed to bring to a critical scholarship anxious to condemn both of those institutions as well as the nasty foodstuff they produced has been a powerful interpretative incentive. Being able to criticize capitalism, even at its origins, by its association with slavery and with a sweetener that caused hyperactivity in children, dental decay, and numerous other health problems and social ills was more than many critics could resist. But there were from the outset certain interpretative problems in that criticism. First, socialist Cuba’s continued dependence on sugar agriculture and the Cuban state’s mobilization of society at various moments to harvest the crop demonstrated that sugar agriculture could be adapted to a variety of social or political regimes, and that there was no necessary connection with slavery or with capitalism or any other particular mode of production. In the twentieth century sugar was produced in a socialist society in the Caribbean, and in the fifteenth century in a feudal society in the Mediterranean.∂ Second, with its origins in the Atlantic world, sugar production in the Americas was introduced by the Spaniards and Portuguese; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Spain and Portugal could hardly be called capitalistic, and they lagged behind in the subsequent development of capitalism. Thus there would seem to be a certain contradiction, or at least irony, in the Iberian origins of the rise of mercantile capitalism and the plantation system in the Atlantic world. Finally, there were questions to be raised about both the nature of the ‘‘plantation’’ and the historicity of the ‘‘sugar revolution.’’ What exactly did those terms mean? Had they changed over time? And, if so, what were the implications of those changes for our understanding of the history of slavery, capitalism, and sugar? Let us begin with the term ‘‘plantation.’’ In sixteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese , the term did not exist in its present meaning and was never used as such. Its use today in those languages is a neologism...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469603667
Related ISBN
9780807828755
MARC Record
OCLC
652280205
Pages
368
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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