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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the AmericasSugar Production in the English Caribbean
Sugar and Slaves

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
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for this exhibition
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Arrival: Life in the AmericasPreference for AfricansThe Slave Markets
European RewardsSlave Populations in the AmericasThe Ships Return to EuropeEconomics
Sugar IntroductionSlavery in North AmericaReligionSilver Mines of South America

Sugar Introduction

A significant portion of the transatlantic slave trade developed as a result of the European love of sugar. Grown successfully in Morocco, and less successfully in other parts of the Mediterranean, sugar was a luxury item much coveted by the peoples of Christian Europe. However, most sugar-producing areas were in Islamic hands or were threatened by Islamic expansion, and this near-monopoly drove the prices upward. But as the Portuguese began exploring the coast of Africa, and thus the offshore islands of the Madeiras, Cape Verde, and Canaries in the early 15thcentury, it became apparent that some of these lands could support sugar cultivation. This proved a boon to the sweet- toothed Europeans who could now cultivate their own sugar without involving the "infidel" Muslims.

In 1452, Portuguese sugar production began on Madeira, an uninhabited island off the northwest coast of Africa. Guanches, the indigenous peoples of the Canary Islands, were among the first workers brought to Madeira to work the sugar mills, but the need for labor was so great, and the Guanches so fragile, that enslaved Africans quickly became the main labor force in the island's sugar industry. By 1500, Madeira sported 80 sugar mills and over 200 cane growers and became, for a time, the largest exporter of sugar in the world. Sugar production also spread to other of the Atlantic islands - first the Canaries, then Santiago in the Cape Verde islands. These islands, however, lacked the requisite rainfall for good cane culture, so the Portuguese, and later the Spanish, Dutch, and English would set their sights on other areas to continue expanding sugar production.

Christopher Columbus was the first to bring sugar cane to the West Indies on behalf of Spain. Spanish sugar mills shortly sprang up in Cuba, Hispaniola, and Mexico. Indians provided the initial labor force, but as the Portuguese had discovered in Madeira, indigenous peoples proved to be poor laborers and the Spanish too turned to black Africans as their primary labor force. Spanish sugar production remained on a comparatively small scale as Spanish interests turned to gold and silver mining in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese extended their sugar industry to the coast of Brazil, at Bahia and Pernambuco. By 1600, Brazil had overtaken Madeira in sugar production and soon became the sole European provider of sugar. The continued need for labor allowed the Dutch to enter the industry when they began supplying Portuguese sugar plantations with African slaves. The Dutch briefly seized control of Pernambuco in 1630 and became sugar producers themselves, but by 1654, the Portuguese had resumed control. During this brief period, the English learned the secrets of cane culture from the Dutch, who were happy to supply the English with slaves as well. By the 1640s, the English colonies in the Caribbean had begun their long love affair with sugar. Along with it came their intense dependence on African slave labor.