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Sugar Cane Garden

A Brief History of Sugar

Sugar cane is a member of the grass family, growing up to 15 feet tall, with leaves at the top, and a hollow stalk filled with a sweet juice or sap from which sugar can be extracted. A perennial tropical plant, it grows best in very warm climates. It is ready for harvesting after 10 to 20 months.

Sugar as an agricultural commodity can be traced back several thousand years in China and India. The word sugar is itself derived from an Arabic word.

By 600 A.D. the practice of breaking up the sugar cane and boiling it to produce sugar crystals was widespread. Six hundred years later, when Marco Polo visited China, he saw flourishing sugar mills.

The medieval world was quick to recognize the difference sugar made to food, and a flourishing trade built up.

Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the Caribbean from the Canary Islands on his second voyage in 1493, and by the next century sugar was being exported from the West Indies.

Danish Sugar Production on St. Croix

After the Danes purchased the Virgin Islands in 1733 the government recognized the agricultural potential of St. Croix, and organized the Danish West India and Guinea Company.

The Danish government declared a company monopoly to produce sugar and cotton. The sugar was to be carried to Denmark on company ships and refined by the company’s refinery there. The company was also given the rights to establish a distillery on St. Croix.

Ben Kessler wrote in his book Priceless Heritage: “It was known that expensive equipment was needed-a mill to extract the cane juice, a factory to change the juice into sugar and molasses, and a distillery to make rum. Experience had shown that it was not feasible for several farmers to share the same facilities. Cane ripened at the same time on most farms, and as cane processed at its peak produced the most sugar, all farmers wished to process cane at the same time. It was concluded that each sugar tract should be 150 acres in size to permit each farmer to run his own “works,” and a surveyor soon divided the St. Croix plains into 150 acre plantations.”

Sugar cultivation was so profitable that even the mountainous regions of the island were cleared and sugar cane planted, and sugar became known as “white gold” in Europe. By the end of the 18th century, St. Croix was regarded as one of the premier sugar islands of the Caribbean.

Plantation Sugar Cultivation Practices

Work on the sugar plantations was done largely by African slaves. The growing of sugar cane demanded extremely hard physical labor, requiring regular cultivation, weeding and hoeing and annually the harvesting of the cane. This combined with the extremity of the climate made the work unattractive to potential servants from Europe. The indigenous Indian population were unable to perform the physical labor required on the plantations, because they had been weakened by disease. Plantation owners, therefore, turned to Africa to supply their constant need for laborers.

Work was especially hard during “crop time” when the harvest was brought in, and the cane juice “cooked” into raw sugar. Ben Kessler writes, “The “works” operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week when the cane crop was at its peak. Cane harvested at its peak produced more sugar and the sugar was of better quality…nothing was permitted to halt the sugar processing activity.”

The earliest planting technique was called “holing” and is described by Johan Christian Schmidt writing in the 1780’s: “The manager, who has two old and experienced blacks with him, marks with small sticks some holes, using a chain or a rope, indicating where they should be dug with hoes, that is four feet, six inches deep, and a half foot from each other…when hoes are being used on such a piece of land, it is interesting to see a row of a hundred or more blacks of both sexes hoeing, which is the (total) number the …estates…can assemble.”

… In the spring, when the cane has ripened, it is cut. Most estates begin their harvest in February or March, but those who have a particularly large harvest often begin earlier…

…When the cane is cut …around 60 cutters are organized, which usually consist of female blacks, who are best suited to that work. Besides the cutters, there are around twenty others or weak females blacks who follow behind the cutters, and bind into small bundles the cut canes, which are cut as near the ground as possible…The cut and bundled canes are usually brought by mule back or in carts to the mills.”

Plantation Sugar Factories

Every sugar estate had its own factory for production of sugar, molasses, and sometimes rum. Cane juice was boiled in “coppers” which were heated copper pans. Fires fueled with dried cane stalks heated the coppers. Boiling caused excess water in the juice to evaporate out, and impurities could be skimmed off of the top of the pan. The juice was progressively boiled and ladled into smaller and smaller coppers until it was poured off into wooden cooling pans to cool and allow sugar crystals to form. The molasses was drained away to use in making potstill rum, leaving a wet brown sugar called muscovado. If molasses was desired instead of sugar the juice was removed from the last copper early to prevent sugar crystal formation. The sugar was then placed into barrels called hogsheads, which could hold up to 1600 pounds of sugar. Drippings from the wet sugar within the hogsheads were used to produce rum.

The Decline of Sugar on St. Croix

The ending of slavery in the Danish Virgin Islands in 1848 brought about substantial changes in agriculture, including the growing of sugar cane.

To continue growing sugar cane required adoption of less labor intensive and more scientific culivation and factory methods, and abandonment of the less productive hilly estates.

Improvements of cultivation included adoption of ox and mule drawn plows, and the use of synthetic and organic fertilizers such as guano. Improvements in factory methods were also introduced to create economies.

Increasing mechanization and industrialization of sugar processing was the most important factor in Crucian sugar production after Emancipation. Whereas, previously cattle mills and later windmills had powered the grinding of cane, now many steam mills were built. Windmills extracted 56% of the cane juice, whereas steam mills could extract between 66 and 70%

However, factors militated against widespread agriculture on St. Croix. Lack of ground water, except for a few wells, prohibited extensive irrigation of the sugar fields. Moreover, because of the lack of abundant rainfall on St. Croix, some forms of fertilizer were not beneficial.

Additionally, because of the limited land area of St. Croix, the economies of scale that were possible on the larger islands of the Caribbean such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, were not so effective here.

But it was finally the widespread cultivation of the sugar beet that finally sounded the death knell to Crucian sugar production.

In 1747 the sugar beet was first identified as a source of sugar that could be grown in a temperate region. However, European interests vested in Caribbean sugar cane plantations quelled production of the sugar beet through political pressures. But the British blockade of the European continent during the Napoleonic wars encouraged the European cultivation of the sugar beet, and by 1880 sugar beet had replaced sugar cane as the main source of sugar on continental Europe. Those same vested interests probably delayed the introduction of beet sugar to England until the First World War when Britain’s sugar imports were threatened.

However, by the first quarter of the 20th century, sugar cane production on any commercial scale ceased on St. Croix.

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, Tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think ye Masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial Boards,
Think how may Backs have smarted
For the Sweets your Cane affords!

William Cowper