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chapter four The Sugar Economy of Española in the Sixteenth Century Genaro Rodríguez Morel The sugar economy of Española was born in the wake of the collapse of gold mining, the principal source of the original conquistadors ’ wealth.∞ This decline in mining, which took place at the same time as the disappearance of the indigenous population, accelerated rapid social and economic changes in the island’s society. The struggles for control of the political and economic resources of the island that accompanied these changes created the context in which the sugar industry was established. From the beginning, gold mining was an economic activity that seemed to lack any long-term rationale. Neither those in political control of the island nor those who held Indians as dependents in grants of labor or encomiendas, and were thus the principal figures in the society, looked beyond the immediate glow cast by the much-desired metal. This lack of foresight was brutally evident in the way in which the colonists treated the natives of the island; a treatment so unjust and unreasonable that in two decades the indigenous population was almost completely eliminated.≤ The colonists considered the calamitous decline of mining and of the indigenous population a serious blow. In part, the development of the agrarian economy resulted as a response to those declines. The colonists from the first days of settlement had practiced agriculture, but it had been directed toward local consumption. Although the mining economy was already showing signs of decline in the first decade of the sixteenth century, it was in the 1510s that a new agricultural system centered on the production of sugarcane and the ‘‘plantation ’’ took form. It is important to emphasize that as the mining economy weakened, and before sugar was firmly established, the island’s colonists had tried to establish 86 genaro rodríguez morel other lucrative enterprises. The most profitable of these was the import and export of horses. Brought first from Castile to be used in the takeover of the island, horses were later exported for the conquest of Mexico and Peru.≥ This trade permitted a number of individuals to increase their personal fortunes that were then invested in the sugar industry. The horse trade served as a steppingstone to the sugar estate.∂ The economic model of the plantation, which grew with the development of the sugar economy, intensified social differentiation among the white population of the island. The fact that the building of a sugar mill or ingenio required considerable economic resources essentially prohibited the Spanish population of middling resources from participating in this activity. This division reinforced the predominance of the island’s upper class while it diminished the purchasing power of the rest of the Spanish population. One result of these economic rivalries was emigration. Sectors of the population, which had received the fewest benefits, or had not gained great advantages from the distribution of wealth, were the most likely to move from the island. Those who could not leave were forced to seek other means of subsistence, and many concentrated in the city of Santo Domingo, the neurological center of the economy, where numerous small shops of shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and masons flourished. Parallel to this small-time artisan activity was small-scale agriculture in maize, yuca (manioc), and vegetables along with the raising of chickens and livestock to serve the needs of the island’s white population.∑ These products were sold primarily in the island’s main cities of Santo Domingo , La Vega, Santiago, and Puerto Plata and were exported to neighboring islands such as San Juan (Puerto Rico) and Cuba. The existence of this system of small-scale agriculture and trade supported the establishment of the sugar economy. The system allowed those who could to invest their capital in the building of ingenios while others participated in the export economy through small-scale local commerce that provided food to the white population as well as clothing and supplies to the slaves. The Introduction of Sugarcane The first sugarcanes were probably brought to Española from the island of Madeira, which, as we have seen in chapter 3, had a long experience with this plant. Columbus had lived on Madeira and later made his last stop there before his second voyage to America. The cane cuttings he brought from Madeira were planted in La Isabela, and although they took root, they did not have a great impact on the island. In fact, we do...


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