New Internationalist

Slave Sugar

Issue 363

Between the 16th and 19th centuries upwards of 10 million Africans were enslaved by Europeans and transported to the ‘New World’ – arguably the most prolonged episode of savagery in human history. Many slaves did not survive the ‘middle passage’ across the Atlantic. Those who did routinely died within a decade, since they were cheaper to replace than to feed. Not all were consumed by sugar – cotton and tobacco took their toll as well – but its production relied entirely on their labour.


Arabs were probably the first to cultivate and refine sugar around the Mediterranean. From the 11th century Europeans developed a taste for it during their Crusades to the ‘Holy Land’.

Both Arabs and Europeans overcame strong religious and cultural objections and relied on slaves in the labour-intensive process of sugar cultivation. Sugarcane was first carried to the ‘New World’ from the Canary Islands by Columbus on his second voyage of 1493. It was cultivated by African slaves in Santo Domingo, from where it was first shipped to Spain in 1516. Sugar and slavery followed the trail of Spanish conquest to Mexico, Paraguay and the Pacific coast of Latin America.

By 1526 the Portuguese were shipping sugar to Lisbon from Northeast Brazil, which rapidly became the centre of the trade. Slaves in Bahia originally included indigenous people, but Africans were preferred – and fetched three times the price. Some 50,000 African slaves reached Brazil between 1576 and 1591.


In 1619 the British established their first New World colony at Jamestown (Guyana), bringing with them both sugarcane and their first enslaved Africans. In 1654 Dutch soldiers expelled from Northeast Brazil arrived in Barbados with their slaves – and their knowledge of sugar. By 1667 there were 745 mostly British owners of sugar plantations in Barbados using over 80,000 slaves. In 1655 the British invaded Jamaica and introduced slave sugar there too. The French were doing likewise in Martinique. The French, Danish and British Governments copied the Dutch West Indian Company, setting up privileged national slaving companies. They established themselves on the west coast of Africa, where they built forts and made deals with local traders, supported by their governments and protected by their national navies. The infamous ‘triangular’ trade got underway: slaves were taken from Africa to the New World, commodities (of which sugar was the most lucrative) from the New World to Europe, and manufactured goods like cloth and weaponry from Europe back to Africa. Enormous profits were made, primarily in Europe, from each side of the triangle.

El Dorado

Between 1701 and 1810 Barbados – an island of just 166 square miles – received 252,000 African slaves; Jamaica 662,400. Annual sugar consumption per person in Britain rose from five pounds in 1700 to eighteen pounds in 1800. Britain came to dominate both the slave and sugar trades, which financed its imperial expansion.

In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht (which also ceded Canada to Britain) contained an ‘El Dorado of commerce’: the contract or asiento to import slaves to the Spanish Indies. The British Government sold this privilege for $12 million to the South Sea Company – there were hopes that the entire British national debt could be eliminated by this trade alone. Feverish speculation followed. Shareholders in the South Sea Company included the entire royal family, 462 members of the British House of Commons, the Swiss canton of Berne, King’s College, Cambridge, the writers Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift as well as the ‘father’ of modern science, Sir Isaac Newton. The company sold 64,000 slaves before the speculative ‘bubble’ burst in 1731. Two-thirds of the slaves shipped to the Americas in the 1770s worked on sugar plantations. In 1771 alone Liverpool sent over 100 ships to Africa to capture more than 28,000 slaves; London 58 ships for 8,000; Bristol 23 ships for 9,000; even the small port of Lancaster sent 4 ships for 950 slaves. In France, Nantes became the pre-eminent slaving port, followed by Bordeaux, Le Havre and La Rochelle.

The inferno

Rebellions on slave ships were frequent – at least one every ten journeys. In 1532 the 109 slaves aboard the Portuguese ship Misericordia rose up and killed all the crew except the pilot and two seamen. In 1650 a slave ship sailing from Panama to Lima was wrecked off Ecuador. The captives killed the surviving Spaniards. The rebel leader, Alonso de Illescas, established himself as a lord in Esmeraldas. In 1742 the galley Mary was driven ashore by local people on the River Gambia. The slaves on board killed most of the crew and kept the captain and mate prisoner for 27 days.

The utmost brutality was needed to prevent or subdue rebellion. Slaves were habitually shackled. Exemplary torture was commonplace. In 1709 the ringleader of a failed uprising on the Danish vessel Friedericus Quartus had one hand cut off and shown to every slave. The next day his other hand was cut off – the day after that, his head. His torso was then hoisted into the ship’s rigging. The other mutineers, after torture with thumbscrews, were whipped and had ashes, salt and pepper rubbed into their wounds. In 1717, reporting the loss of all but 98 of the 594 slaves on board the South Sea Company’s ship George, the captain cited ‘the length of the journey’ and ‘bad weather’ as the culprits. Suicides were frequent: in 1767 Ashanti slaves on sale in Elmina (in present-day Ghana) cut their own throats.


Initially, few uprisings were recorded in the slave colonies themselves – but they soon began. The most effective was in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Slaves were excluded from the promise of liberty that came with the start of the French Revolution in 1787 – Nantes had its best-ever slaving year in 1790. But on 22 August 1791 rebels led by Toussaint L’Ouverture set fire to the cane fields in Saint-Domingue. They took, and kept, control of the colony – a truly astonishing achievement at the time. From 1807 onwards revolts became almost annual events in Bahia, Brazil. Some were led by educated Muslims. Mullahs accused of teaching friends to read the Qu’ran in Arabic received whippings of 500 strokes or more.

In 1843 and 1844 there were repeated revolts in Cuba – by then the largest producer of sugar in the Caribbean. The Escalera Conspiracy was named after suspects who were tied to a staircase and whipped until they confessed. Some 3,000 people were summarily tried, and 80 were shot. Written histories tend to focus on European or American ‘abolitionists’, before the slave trade was eventually banned in Europe and slavery itself abolished in the United States, Brazil and elsewhere. The resistance of the slaves themselves is either downplayed or ignored altogether. The sugar industry adapted with relative ease to a system of contract labour, which included the transport of ‘indentured’ Indian labour to new areas like Fiji and Mauritius. Working conditions changed very little.

Sources: Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, Picador, London, 1997; Sidney W Mintz, Sweetness and Power, Viking, New York, 1985; Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, Verso, London, 1997; CLR James, The Black Jacobins, Alison and Busby, London, 1989.

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This article was originally published in issue 363

New Internationalist Magazine issue 363
Issue 363

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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