The Sugar Trade

Europeans introduced sugarcane to the New World in the 1490s. Cane plantations soon spread throughout the Caribbean and South America and made immense profits for planters and merchants. By 1750, British and French plantations produced most of the world’s sugar and its byproducts, molasses and rum.

At the heart of the plantation system was the labor of millions of enslaved workers, transplanted across the Atlantic like the sugar they produced.

From W. Clark, Ten Views in Antigua, 1823

Courtesy of the Burke Library, Hamilton College

Cutting the Sugar–Cane . . .

In the hot Caribbean climate, it took about a year for sugar canes to ripen. At nine or ten feet high, they towered above the workers, who used sharp, double-edged knives to cut the stalks. Once cut, the stalks were taken to a mill, where the juice was extracted.

Caribbean islands became sugar-production machines, powered by slave labor. In pursuit of sugar fortunes, millions of people were worked to death, and then replaced by more enslaved Africans brought by still more slave ships.


 

From W. Clark, Ten Views in Antigua, 1823

Courtesy of the Burke Library, Hamilton College

Shipping Sugar

Blocks of sugar were packed into hogsheads for shipment. Workers rolled the barrels to the shore, and loaded them onto small craft for transport to larger, oceangoing vessels.