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chapter nine The Sugar Industry in the Seventeenth Century A New Perspective on the Barbadian ‘‘Sugar Revolution’’ John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard The seventeenth century witnessed two important developments in the sugar industry. The first was a shift in the center of sugar production , away from the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic Islands and BraziltotheBritishCaribbean ,asthetinyislandofBarbadosbecame,for a while, the world’s leading sugar producer. The second was the emergence, in Barbados, of a new way of organizing production that was eventually to change—but not revolutionize—the sugar industry. For more than two and a half centuries, the customary story of the rise of sugar production at Barbados has been told in terms that many have labeled the Barbadian ‘‘sugar revolution.’’∞ The sugar boom in Barbados is usually explained as the result of a conjuncture between a failure in the Barbadian economy and the interests of the Dutch. Around 1640 the island economy was thoroughly depressed as bad times in the tobacco industry hit the low-grade leaf grown in Barbados especially hard and as cotton failed to live up to its initial promise as an alternative crop. Barbadians, so the argument runs, either had to find a profitable export or abandon the pursuit of riches and accept a future much like that of New England’s as small farmers at the edge of empire. According to conventional wisdom, the Dutch, after their control of the sugar industry in Pernambuco was threatened, proved to be the island’s salvation. They taught the Barbadians how to grow, harvest, and process sugarcane; they loaned them the capital to build plantations; sold them the slaves to do the work; shipped the product across the Atlantic; and marketed it in the major European trading centers.≤ As the tale is usually told, the results of this intervention were swift and sure, awesome and dreadful. The so-called Barbadian ‘‘sugar revolution’’ transformed 290 john j. mccusker and russell r. menard the island in the decades surrounding 1650: sugar monoculture drove out diversi fied farming; large plantations replaced small farms; blacks arrived by the thousands and whites deserted the island; destructive demographic patterns took root among both whites and blacks; the island began to import food and fuel; and the great planters rose to wealth and power—all within the two decades after 1640. Regularly quoted in this regard is the striking testimony of Barbadian planter Richard Vines, in a 1647 letter to John Winthrop: ‘‘Men are so intent upon planting sugar that they had rather buy foode at very deare rates than produce it by labour, soe infinite is the profitt of sugar workes after once accomplished .’’≥ While what he wrote was surely true, nothing in his words equates with ‘‘sugar revolution.’’ The critical changes in this long list were the rapid growth of African slavery and the rise of great plantations. The traditional explanation for them seems straightforward. Sugar, because of its substantial scale economies and handsome profits, was most efficiently produced on big units that required large numbers of workers. That greatly increased the demand for labor. Increasing demand for labor pushed up wages and the price for indentured servants. That, in turn, stretched the capacity of the servant trade to the breaking point and forced planters to look elsewhere for workers. African slaves, available in large quantities through the century-old Atlantic trade, were the most attractive alternative. Other islands in the British and French West Indies, patterning themselves on Barbados, experienced similar transformations in the size of plantations and the composition of the labor force as sugar came to dominate their economies, too. Yet nowhere did the ‘‘sugar revolution’’ strike with the speed and power apparent at Barbados—or so we are told. This is a compelling story, but, besides rushing things along, it is misleading in many of it details. In particular, it understates the performance of the economy just prior to the beginning of the sugar boom; it distorts the relationship between sugar and slavery in the crucial, early years of the transformation of the workforce; and it exaggerates the importance of the Dutch in introducing sugar to Barbados and, thereby, underestimates the role of the English. We think that the restructuring of the Barbadian sugar industry described in this essay came about slowly over time, that it came about through trial and error (‘‘learning by doing’’), that it involved a variety of social and economic factors, especially the nature of the labor...


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