Case 2 books on growing and making sugar

Growing and Making Sugar


The cultivation and manufacture of sugar required huge amounts of labor. For much of the period we explore, plows were not used in planting sugar cane. Instead, gangs of slaves dug holes to plant individual sections of seed cane. As the cane grew (taking from a year to eighteen months, depending on whether it was a new planting or the second growth) the fields needed to be weeded and sometimes irrigated. Harvesting, too, was done by hand, as was the bundling of the canes to be carted to the mill.


Once harvested, the canes were crushed, and the sap (cleared from impurities by boiling and skimming) was reduced in a series of cauldrons until it was ready to granulate. The liquid sugar was cooled and poured into troughs to granulate, and then shoveled into barrels or molds. It was then taken to the purging house or curing house to let the molasses drain off. There followed a period of weeks or months of drying out in the barrels. The resulting brown sugar, known as "muscovado," was generally shipped to refiners to be further purified for sale. The molasses, along with the skimmings and dregs from the sugar boiling, was distilled into rum.


Innumerable things could go wrong, and plantership, the management of the lands, people, and processes involved, was a complex matter, with decisions at many points relying on both judgement and guesswork. These guides give us a detailed account of the planters' practices and the processes involved in making sugar, with the decisions required at the various stages.

Gordon Turnbull Letters to a Young Planter; or, Observations on the Management of a Sugar-plantation. To which is Added, The Planter's Kalendar. Written on the Island of Grenada, by an Old Planter ... 1785

The "Kalendar," with the state of the crops and activities for each month, give a detailed picture of the planter's year. The author, who published An Apology for Negro Slavery: or the West India Planters Vindicated from the Charge of. Inhumanity a year later, goes into some detail on the treatment of slaves.

Thomas Roughley The Jamaica Planter's Guide : or, A System for Planting and Managing a Sugar Estate, or Other Plantations on that Island, and Throughout the British West Indies in General. Illustrated with Interesting Anecdotes by Thomas Roughley 1823

This work was published in the interval between the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation, when the Jamaican plantations were beset by difficulties of various sorts: poor yields due to soil exhaustion, a shortage of labor, and fluctuating sugar prices. The author, who identifies himself as a planter with 20 years of experience, gives extensive detail on the liabilities of running a plantation. In his prescriptions for successfully growing and making sugar he relies heavily in the experience and judgment of the workers involved.

Benjamin Silliman Manual on the Cultivation of the Sugar Cane and the Fabrication and Refinement of sugar / Prepared under the Direction of the Hon. Secretary of the Treasury in Compliance with a Resolution of the House of Representatives of Jan. 25, 1830. 1833

This report from the U.S. stands in marked contrast to Roughley's guide, published only ten years earlier. It provides a snapshot of sugar-making as it responded to evolving technology. The descriptions emphasize quantitative measures, and technology such as the use of steam, but make no mention of the individual judgment and expertise that were still important factors in successful sugar production.

W.H. Whitehouse Agricola's Letters and Essays on Sugar Farming in Jamaica. 1845

Printed in Kingston by the Jamaica Times, most of the essays appeared originally in newspapers: the Royal Gazette and Jamaica Standard, Jamaica Standard, or Jamaica Times. The individual essays are signed Agricola, Agricola Whitehouse, or W. H. Whitehouse.


These were ublished 12 years after the emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies, when the basis of labor on the plantations had changed dramatically, and planters were seeking more efficient methods of cultivation and production. Notably, one essay discusses the use of the plow in planting the cane, a newly popular technique. Some historians argue that before emancipation planters favored inefficient, labor-intensive agricultural methods to keep the slaves busy the year around, including digging holes to plant the cane instead of plowing.