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Tropical Babylons Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
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Chapter One Introduction
Stuart B. Schwartz
It has in recent years become something of a commonplace to say that the origins of merchant capital and slavery in the Atlantic world were intimately and intrinsically tied to the production of sugar. The transference of sugarcane cultivation and sugar production from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic islands in the fifteenth century and then to the Americas in the sixteenth century is a story that has been often told, and its implications for the interwoven history of peoples on the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas have been the subject of great interest. Since the publication of Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1944), which argued that the slave-based economies of the Caribbean contributed directly, and even massively, to the British Industrial Revolution, scholars have become used to an association of sugar, slavery, and capitalism in which European capital and technology, American land, and African sweat were combined to produce profit in a commercial crop of great value. The Williams thesis has become an issue of considerable debate and controversy and, right or wrong, his vision of the late eighteenth century, when about 90 percent of the West Indies' value to Europe was from sugar, has been read backward in time so that even from its origins, the production of sugar and the combination of the various factors that went into its making have been viewed as a foundational capitalistic enterprise.
Of course, that idea predated the Williams thesis. Karl Marx, by implication, had indicted sugar for "the turning of Africa into a warren of commercial hunting of black skins," as part of the "rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production," and a chief element in the process of primitive accumulation. The fact that sugar production called for relatively large estates, a regimented labor force, which often consisted of enslaved workers, led to a view that the plantation regime, slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, and capitalism grew simultaneously, perhaps inevitably, as part of the same complex. The process of forming large estates using coerced labor in a semi-industrial productive activity geared toward export has sometimes been called the "sugar revolution," and while scholars have disagreed about the exact nature and timing of this "revolution," they have, nevertheless, tended to agree on the importance of the process on the areas where sugar became the principal staple.
This historical vision of sugar as the quintessential capitalist crop and the satisfactions that the implied association of capitalism and slavery seemed to bring to a critical scholarship anxious to condemn both of those institutions as well as the nasty foodstuff they produced has been a powerful interpretative incentive. Being able to criticize capitalism, even at its origins, by its association with slavery and with a sweetener that caused hyperactivity in children, dental decay, and numerous other health problems and social ills was more than many critics could resist. But there were from the outset certain interpretative problems in that criticism. First, socialist Cuba's continued dependence on sugar agriculture and the Cuban state's mobilization of society at various moments to harvest the crop demonstrated that sugar agriculture could be adapted to a variety of social or political regimes, and that there was no necessary connection with slavery or with capitalism or any other particular mode of production. In the twentieth century sugar was produced in a socialist society in the Caribbean, and in the fifteenth century in a feudal society in the Mediterranean. Second, with its origins in the Atlantic world, sugar production in the Americas was introduced by the Spaniards and Portuguese; in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Spain and Portugal could hardly be called capitalistic, and they lagged behind in the subsequent development of capitalism. Thus there would seem to be a certain contradiction, or at least irony, in the Iberian origins of the rise of mercantile capitalism and the plantation system in the Atlantic world. Finally, there were questions to be raised about both the nature of the "plantation" and the historicity of the "sugar revolution." What exactly did those terms mean? Had they changed over time? And, if so, what were the implications of those changes for our understanding of the history of slavery, capitalism, and sugar?
Let us begin with the term "plantation." In sixteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese, the term did not exist in its present meaning and was never used as such. Its use today in those languages is a neologism derived from English. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish tended to refer to the sugar-producing estates with their characteristic mill by the word for that machine: engenho in Portuguese, and ingenio in Spanish. Curiously, when the English began to establish sugar estates in Barbados they did not call them plantations, but used the Spanish term ingenio instead, even though they seem to have drawn primarily on the experience and expertise of Brazil where the term engenho was used. The etymology of the English term "plantation" changed over time from a synonym for colony in the seventeenth century to something more akin to its modern use in the eighteenth, although in English, Spanish, and Portuguese it also retained its meaning as any sort of farm. The word has come to mean a large agricultural enterprise, managed for profit, usually producing a crop for export, and often, because of its labor organization, hierarchically stratified. Agricultural properties that grew sugarcane and produced sugar had peculiar characteristics because of the nature of the crop. Sugarcane once cut must be processed within forty-eight hours or else the juice in the cane dries. Thus sugar plantations were agro-industrial enterprises that combined the farming of the cane and the processing of its juice into sugar, giving the sugar mill its distinctive, quasi-industrial character.
According to Luso-Brazilian Jesuit Father António Vieira, it was "an incredible machine and factory." Historically, sugar plantations implied large labor inputs under a regime of discipline that usually implied coercion, which sometimes took the form of slavery. In many ways, in its pure form, plantation organization seemed to foreshadow the modern factory. It was operated under a single authority, its labor was regimented and regularized, in part by the nature of the productive process-planting, growing, cutting, milling, cooking, cooling, crystallizing, sorting, packing, shipping-in part by the capacities and demands of the existing technology, and in some measure by social habits and expectations of command. With the exception of the skilled workers, who made up perhaps 10 or 12 percent of a sugar plantation's workforce, slaves were viewed as replaceable or interchangeable workers. Sugar plantations tended to combine skilled and unskilled workers and subordinate the labor of all of them to the goals of the mill. Slaves performed individual acts repeatedly and were separated from the means of production, the mill, and from the final product of their labors: sugar. Slaves did not make sugar; only the plantation did that. Their destiny was labor at the mill or in the field in continually repeated individual tasks so that the mill could make sugar.
In many of these characteristics the sugar plantation seemed to be a forerunner of the modern industrial units of the capitalist world, in operation long before capitalism had begun to emerge as a predominant economic system. A perceptive observer, Father António Vieira, who visited a Jesuit-owned plantation in Bahia, Brazil, during the 1630s, described his impressions: "People the color of the very night, working briskly and moaning at the same time without a moment of peace or rest, whoever sees all the confused and noisy machinery and apparatus of this Babylon, even if they have seen Mt. Etnas and Vesuvius will say that this indeed is the image of Hell." For Vieira and his contemporaries, Babylon symbolized sin, exile, and damnation, the inversion of Jerusalem, the symbol of peace and salvation. Vieira's metaphor sought to capture the essence of the sugar mill, but what he and his contemporaries were really seeing was, in some ways, simply a preview of the industrial future.
But such analogies may be overly simplistic. The traditional slave-based sugar estates, for example, did not prove to be very committed to technological innovation or to adapting mechanical improvements in order to lessen the burden and cost of labor. Their ratio of productive factors of capital, labor, land, and technology remained relatively stable over long periods of time. Moreover, unlike modern industry in which labor is essentially a variable cost, slavery turned labor into a fixed cost that needed to be financed, resupplied, and maintained. This had the effect of limiting owners' flexibility and ability to respond to changing market conditions. So long as planters could meet variable costs and some portion of their fixed costs, they sometimes remained in operation at considerable loss for long periods because to do otherwise would be to lose everything. Then, too, plantership usually had a social as well as an economic basis. The desire to achieve status as a landowner and attitudes of paternalism toward slaves and dependents undercut the purely economic considerations of sugar planting. The relationship with labor, in fact, became an overriding concern of the sugar planters in many societies, and the conflicts between property and paternalism inherent in slavery penetrated deeply into their lives and psyches. While such attitudes and hesitations may have been also true to some degree of capitalism, the emphasis in these plantation-based societies was elsewhere.
Then there is the problem of measurement. Plantations were supposedly efficient operations in which inputs and outputs were considered in terms of profitability or "efficiency." But early modern accounting practices in agriculture rarely permitted such calculations, nor were planters interested in them. As Douglas Hall wrote of eighteenth-century West Indian planters, "They could indulge in little rational capital accounting, consequently they lacked the basic permissiveness of calculability of success or failure in their business. They seldom had any realistic idea of how the enterprise stood financially, or what its prospects were." In the preceding centuries this was even more the case for planters, who, like the Portuguese in Brazil, usually calculated costs as what they spent each year without any differentiation between current expenses and capital investment, and thus rarely had an accurate idea of their annual return on investment. Most likely, given the many factors involved in sugar planting, some of which were beyond their control, planters viewed their operations in terms of a series of ratios and simply sought to optimize each of these as much as possible.
Geographer Ward Barrett's work, based on planter manuals and scattered plantation accounts, has demonstrated that the range of levels of productivity per worker and per unit of land were very inconsistent and did not illustrate a consistent pattern of improvement over time, nor were they geographically consistent. In Barbados, for example, productivity per slave ranged from an estimate of 1,170 kilograms (1649) to 720 kilograms (1690) to between 100 and 300 kilograms (1740-55), figures that do not support the idea that planters became more efficient over time, and which make it difficult to explain the success of Barbados. Such inconsistent and contradictory figures complicate any attempt to view the earlier sugar estates as inefficient in comparison with those of the eighteenth century or Spanish and Portuguese ones as any less rational or productivity-oriented than later English and Dutch estates. A "sugar revolution" there may have been, but it is difficult to document it from existing accounts and manuals.
These contradictions and seeming anomalies have troubled many observers. How could there be capitalist plantations that predated capitalism? How could an archaic or even atavistic form of labor be mobilized by a progressive economic system which, by definition, turned labor into a commodity? As anthropologist Sidney Mintz points out, Eric Williams himself had noted the irony. Plantations, according to Williams, combined "the sins of feudalism and capitalism without the virtues of either." It should also be noted that serious theoretical objections have been raised concerning the idea that capitalism grew from agrarian origins in general, and that even in the specific and peculiar case of sugar plantations, especially in this early period, traditional aspects of rural social organization proved stubbornly resilient. This aspect of the "agrarian question" has long troubled theorists of social change. Mintz's own resolution of the problem was to claim that while not necessarily capitalist by themselves, plantations had provided the commodities that led to Europe's economic growth and accumulation of capital, and moreover, the plantation's precocious organizational forms provided an important step toward the eventual emergence of capitalist productive relations. However, as Eric Hobsbawm has argued, it was not until the seventeenth century, with the development of full-blown plantation regimes in the Caribbean, that the overseas colonies had begun to create markets for European manufactures and thus closed the circuit necessary for capitalist development in Europe.
One might also object to the organizational strategy inherent in this volume that emphasizes the commodity, sugar, as the point of analytical departure. We might have placed more emphasis on the imperial systems in which sugar plantations were embedded, or focused on the individual colonies or on specific communities as a way of understanding the history of the Atlantic economy. Each of these approaches would have brought certain benefits, but emphasis on the commodity in this period of economic beginning is particularly useful. Such an approach owes much to what has been called staple theory, which emphasized the way in which factors of production were allocated toward the commodity because of its relative market value, and then how this allocation determined the relationship between the staple-producing colony and the consuming metropolis. After the economy is diversified, it is difficult to measure the effect of a single staple, such as sugar, or assess how it stimulated the economy, promoted linkages, or even contributed to real economic growth because of the presence of multiple crops as well as an artisanal-industrial or a large service sector.
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