Case 8 Two letterbooks and a map

Manuscripts: Sources on the Business of Sugar


The Manuscripts Division holds rich primary sources on the details of the sugar business in half a dozen collections, including the James Stothert Papers (1784-1807), the Tailyour Family Papers (1780-1840), the Jacob Aemilius Irving Letterbooks (1809-1816), and the Jarvis Family Papers (1790-1884). Correspondence and other papers document the day-to-day realities of the business of making and selling sugar: yields, prices, expectation and realization of good and bad harvests, and the disposal of the sugar to merchants and factors.


The letters on exhibit in this case are from the papers of the Jarvis family, sugar planters on Antigua, whose estates came to include 1,000 acres in the parishes of Saint John and Saint George, as well as Long Island and Bird Island. Resident proprietorship was more common on Antigua than on many of the sugar islands, and the plantations were owned and managed by the Jarvis family for 200 years. In the letterbooks of two family members, Thomas Jarvis (1735-1805) and Bertie Entwisle Jarvis (1793-1862), we have accounts of owners' day-to-day concerns when plantation ownership and management were integrated.


The letters discuss the full range of a planter's preoccupations and troubles, with details about the cultivation of the canes, the vicissitudes of the weather, and the effect of pests and diseases on the crop. They document the making of good, bad, or indifferent sugar, the quantities of sugar shipped with prices and profits, the state of the sugar-making equipment, and the management of and trade in slaves. They give us a particularly close look at the endless financial complications that arose from sugar's fluctuating market, and the tendency of planters throughout the West Indies to operate in debt to the merchants and factors who sold their sugar: the correspondence includes many promises to pay for present needs out of the proceeds of the next crop.

Thomas Jarvis Letterbook p. 89 Thomas Jarvis to B. & N. Heywood November 12, 1791

"Your letter of the 1st of August announced the sale of my ten hhds [hogsheads] of sugar by the Joanna at 54/; the lowest price I have yet heard of & I am greatly to lament it, more particularly so as my neighbor Mr. Byam sold much worse in London at 69/, they were so bad that he had his doubts whether they would have remained in the casks and they arrived at market much about the time mine did. Your market must have been very flat for bad sugar and that of London very brisk at this time. "

Bertie Entwisle Jarvis Letterbook 2 p. 63 Bertie Entwisle Jarvis to Charles Turner February 17, 1828

"I have commenced sugar making with a fair prospect of reaping a large crop, the quality of which upon a new plan of manufacture far surpasses any sugars that have been yet shipped by me. The planters will not be ready for sea before the first of April owing to backwardness of the crop in the windward part of island. I have half a mind therefore to send a shipment to your London House at an earlier date as I find that the first sugars generally fetch the best price."


Map of buildings ponds and roads

Plan of Hart's & Royal's estate buildings, Antigua. c. 1800

A map of the estate buildings, including the essential sugar making areas: the mill for crushing the canes to obtain the juice, the boiling house where the juice was reduced to a consistency that would granulate, a still house for distilling rum out of the molasses that was a by-product of the sugar making, with a rum cellar underneath it, and a curing house where the finished sugar was stored to drain and dry for a period of weeks or months before being shipped. The legend on the back identifies these as well as housing, kitchens, stables and pens for livestock, etc.