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chapter three Sugar Islands The Sugar Economy of Madeira and the Canaries, 1450–1650 Alberto Vieira Europe was always quick to name its islands according to the products that they supplied to its markets. Thus some were called the islands of pastel (dyestuff ), and others the islands of wine. Madeira and some of the Canary Islands, given the role that sugar played in their economies and in the life of their people, became known as sugar islands. These island groups played an essential role in the transfer of sugar from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean along what could be called the ‘‘sugar route.’’ This chapter traces the parallel evolution of sugar agriculture on the islands of Madeira, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Palma, and Gomera from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. The focus is on the productive and commercial cycles of this product as well as on the essential questions of land, water, and slavery that determined much of the history of sugar in its Atlantic island stage. Madeira is the point of departure for this study for a couple of reasons: sugar agriculture was first introduced in Madeira, from where the industry spread to other areas, including the Canaries; and the surviving documentation from Madeira enables us to better understand the impact of sugar on society and economy in ways that could eventually fill in gaps in the documentary record of the Canary Islands as well. The System of Landed Property and Water Rights The process of the occupation and settlement of Madeira and the Canaries was not identical. Between 1439 and 1497 the two islands of the Madeiran archipelago were a dominion (senhorio) of the Order of Christ, which established as its representatives three captains, namely João Gonçalves Zarco at Funchal (1450), Tristão Vaz at Machico (1440), and Bartolomeu Perestrelo at Porto madeira and the canaries 43 Santo (1446). In the Canaries, there were both royal islands (Gran Canaria, La Palma, and Tenerife) and those under lordly or seigniorial control (Fuerteventura , Lanzarote, La Gomera, and El Hierro). Moreover, in the Canarian archipelago, an indigenous population existed, not only slowing the process of occupation but also confronting the colonists with rival claimants to the distribution of lands among those autochthonous people who accepted Castilian sovereignty.∞ An understanding of the system of property requires an in-depth study, based on documentary sources, of relations based on the ownership and production of the limited arable land. For Madeira, some tax registers for sugar growers exist, but for the Canaries such information can only be found in land distribution (repartimiento) and notarial records.≤ The system of property in both archipelagos was defined by the distribution of land to the settlers and later by sale, exchange, or redistribution. Although there were many similarities, the process of settlement on each island varied due to their unique features. The Crown granted the captains and governors the power to distribute lands to settlers and conquerors according to their participation in the process and to their social rank.≥ All these donations or grants were made according to norms established by the Crown, based on the model established during the resettlement of the Iberian peninsula. These grants also included information, which was not always accurate, concerning the social status of the recipient, area of cultivation, improvements to be made, and a time table for cultivation. On the Portuguese islands, the Crown and later the lord of the island, Prince Henry (Infante Dom Henrique), regulated the distribution of lands from the very beginning. At first, the monarch, Dom João I, instructed the captains that the lands should be ‘‘conveyed unencumbered and without any rent to those of high quality and others who possess the means to use them well and stripping timber and in breeding livestock.’’∂ Later, João Gonçalves Zarco, using the prerogatives bestowed upon him and his descendants, held a significant portion of the land in Funchal and Ribeira Brava. Other grants were made under the Alfonsine regulations to those who had the capacity to develop them; failure to do so resulted in losing their right of possession. In the Canaries too the social distinction between the grantees was apparent. Following the cédula real of 1480, Pedro de Vera made grants to the conquistadors ‘‘according to their merits.’’∑ It is important to note that not all the Canary Islands had an ecosystem that was ideal for sugar cultivation, unlike Madeira where the chroniclers noted the abundance of water and...


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