Cuban Sugar Industry

Figure 1.--This engraving depicts the Zafra--the sugar cane harvest in Cuba. The caption read, "Cuba. The great sugar industry--curring and loading the cane on the plantation of Las Cañas." Th artist/engraver is Walter Yeager. It appeared in 'Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper' during 1880 just before the abolition of slavery. The impression here that Yeager gives is that the Zafra was a happy time, almost a feastival. Notice that no overseers are depicted. Of course any slave system is brutal. Cuban slavery was, however, different than the horrendous conditions in Santo Domingo (Haiti) in the 18th century. The British by the 1870s had made huge progress in cutting in ending the slave trade, cutting off the flow of captives from Africa. This meant that slaves could not be worked to death and easily replaced. This affected the cost of buying a slave and how slaves were treated and cared for by the planters. It did not mean that the system was humane, but does mean it was no longer genocidal. We are not sure how accuate the depiction here is.

One of the consequences of the French Revolution was the Haitain slave rebellion (1790s) and eventual independence of Haiti. Cuba had not been a major sugar profucer during the Caribbean sugar boom (18th century). After the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), Cuba emerged as the main sugar producer in the Caribbean. The industry grew very rapidly in the 1820s abd 30s. Large numbers of captive Africans were need to work o\all the new plantations. Slavers thus shipped to Cuba to work the plantations. The profitabilty of sugar and the Spanish ability to hold the islands as independence movements swept the mainland, allowed the industry to develop rapidly. Cuba became the last non-Muslim country to outlaw slavery. After Castro seized control of Cuba (1959), Cuban sugar played a role in the Cold War.


Sugar is not needed for proper nutition, but for some reason man is geneticall programed to seek out sugar. It is one of the five tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami (savory or mearty) that human taste buds detect. Sugar is found in small quantities in many foods. Man was not gentically engineered to consume large quantities of sugar. And doing so in our modern world has caused all kinds of health problems. For most of human existence, this is how sugar was ingested, supplement by occassion bee hive finds. It was the Polynesians who are believed to have discovered sugarcane. Indian traders operating in Polynsia brought it back to India where processes for manufacturing refined sugar were first developed. When the Persian Emperor Darius invaded northwestern India (6th century BC), the Persians encountered sugar bringing it further west. The Arab Islamic outburst resulted in the creation of a vast empire--the Caliphate (7th century AD). The Arabs encountered sugr in Persia and spread it througout their empire as far west as Spain. It was during the Crusades, however, that European elites first became aware of sugar. The Arabs continued to control the sugar trade for several centuries after the First Crusade. The word surgar (azucar in Spanish) is of Arab origins. Arab control meant that quantities were limited in Europe and hugely expensive. Only a few areas in Europe were suitble for growinging sugar cane. This changed with Colunbus' discovery of the Americas ad the colonization of huge areas in the tropical zone that were suitable for growing cane. This set in motion both a sugar boom and the Atlantic slave trade. Large scale production began in Brazil (17th century), but soon spread to the Caribbean. The European sweet tooth made tiny Caribbean islands some of the most valuable realestate in the world.

Growing Conditions and Methods

Sugarcane is native to souther India and thus grows best in tropical conditions. Cuba lies in the northern Caribbean just south of the Tropic of Cancer. The tropical weather patterns Cuba enjoys is idel for sugarcane. Tere are many daysof bright troical sunshine during the growing period. Cuban soil is also ideal for sugar culture. Sugarcane is generally grown on land between 300-1,000 feet in elevation. One author writes, "... the location of Cuba on the outer margin of the tropics gives it an ideal climate for growing sugar cane." [Boyer] The combination of geography, soil conditions, and climate proved to be the operfect combination growing sugar cane. Ratooning proved to be an effective grwing method. Ratooning comes from the Spanish retoño (sprout). Growers left the lower parts of the plant with the root uncut when harvesting. Another crop grew from the ratoon or stubble. A ratoon crop matures earlier in the season. Ratooning also lowers the cost of preparing the field and planting.

Spanish Colonial Period (16th-18th Century)

Hispaniola was the first Spanish colony in the New World. Columbus had actually landed on Cuba earlier. Columbus on his Second Voyage had brought sugar cane cuttings among other plants to be planted and grown on Cuba and Hispaniola. The Native Aericans were not as interested in sugar cane as the Sopanish. The Spanish settlers planned to reduce the Native American populations to slaves although royal officials resisted their freedom of action. Before thee differences played out, the Native merican populations on first Santio Domingo and then Cuba was decimaed by a combination of European disease and mistreatment. This is esentially made aabor intensive crop like sugar cane impossible to pursue despite te fact that the climate was ideal. From the beinning, what the Spanish were after was gold. And the within only two decades of settlement the focus of empire shifted to the mainland when Fernando Cortez sailed from Cuba to Mexico and soon conquered theAztec Empire and gained huge quantities of gold. The conquest of the Inca Empire followed shortly adding unimaginable quantitities of gold and silver. Hispaniola and Cuba becamne quiet bckwaters of the Spanish Empire. The Spain Main (caribben) even was invased by other European powers. The French even seized western Hispaniola, Those Spanish who stayed on Cuba and Hispaniola turned primarily to stock-raising. Ranching could be conducted with only a small labor force. The major market was the ships pssing back and forth from Spain. One historian writes, "The meat afforded a supply for the shipping and the hides were exported. Honey and wax soon became important. The sugar industry grew slowly and chiefly in the favorable region of Habana, three ingenios being established in its vicinity in 1576. These mills were simple, crude constructions of rollers for crushing the cane moved by cattle or water power. The product obtained by simple boiling in open pans was of a very inferior quality, and was consumed in the island. The ingenios required from eighty to one hundred negroes each." [Aimes] While sugar was produced, it was a relatively limited economic activity. The Sugar Boom began in Brazil (17th century). As a result of dynastivc union with Spain, Portugl became involved in the Dutch-Portuguese War. The Dutch even occupied northeastern Brazil for several decades. When the Portuguese finally expelled the Dutch from Brazil, the Dutch brought sugar technology to the Caribbean. French Santo Domingo (Haiti) and small British and French islands became enormously valuable. The Spanish islands (Cuba, eastern Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico) did not participate strongly in the Sugar Boom. The Dutch from Brazil did not settle on the Spanish islands. Here religion was a factor and the as well as the Dutch War for Independence. The Spanish attempted to both destroy Protestantism and ehd Duth independence as they did in the Spanish Netherlands. Colonial trading regulations may also have been a factor. At any rate, sugar culture developed slower in the Spanish Empire, even on Cuba where growing conditiins were ideal.

Cuban Slavery (19th Century)

The number of slaves om Cuba wwre greatly expanded after the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) with the growth of the island's sugar industry. During the great expansion of the Cuban sugar industry, the Atlantic slave trade was still operating in great force. Spain signed a treaty with Britain to end the slave trade (1817). There was a grace period involved. Spain while agreeing to end the slave trade, in fact took no real actions to do so. Enforcement was largely left to the limited abilities of the British Royal Navy. After the treaty came into force, slavers continued to deliver slaves to Cuba and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico. One account estimates that between 1821 and 1831 more than 300 slave ships brought an estimated 60,000 slaves to Cuba. Spanish authorities on Cuba made no real effort to stop this. Spain abolished slavery south of the equator (1820). Spain at the time, however, had lost or was losing its South American colonies, leaving it only with Cuba and Puerto Rico which were well north of the Equator. Following the defeat of Spain in a series of wars in South America and Mexico, Cubans began to organize an independence movement (1820s). A spanish census on Cuba found a slave population of 287,000 (1827). Most of Cuba's slaves worked on 1,000 sugar plantations (ingenios). Cuban slavery burst on the American political scene with the Amistad affair (1839). Gradually the Royal Navy's efforts to end the slave trade made it more and more difficult to obtain new slaves. This meant that slaves could not be worked to death and easily replaced. This affected the cost of buying a slave and how slaves were treated and cared for by the planters. It did not mean that the system was humane, but does mean it was no longer genocidal.

Late-Colonial Period (The 19th Century)

The Frech Revolution helped set off the Haitian slave rebellions which end the era od plantation slave sugar prodctuin on Haiti. And it also set in motionfirst the French Rvolutionary Wars (1791-99) which melded into the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). These wars and especially the French invasion of Spain created the conditions for independence movements throughout the Spanish Empire. Even after Napoleon's final defeat, the British Royal Navy made it very difficult for the Spanish to support royalists forces attempting to maintain the Empire. Only in the Caribbean did the two isolated Spanish outposts hang on (Cuba and Puerto Rico). As Europe recovered from two dcades of warfare, normal economic conditions emerged, including ademand for sugar. And planters on Cuba began to participate in the sugar trade in a major way for the first time. Large-scale sugar production began. One historian writes, "Sugar quickly became the cornerstone of the Cuban economy and a new class of wealthy planters emerged." [Guerra y Sánchez] Sugar production on Cuba rapidy expanded. Cuba was providing about a third of world sugar prodyction (mid-19th century). U.S. investors began participating in the industry, financing its rapid expansion. One historian writes, "From the beginning, the sugar mills were extended protection against foreclosure for debt, an extremely important privilege that was considered an indispensable aid to this new industry. For the planting of cane, the Havana Cabildo itself ceded lands, within a radius of eight leagues, that had been reserved for growing food crops. Thus, the first sugar mills were set up very close to the municipal limits and were owned by the wealthiest and most influential colonists." [Guerra y Sánchez]

Abolishing Slavery (1886)

The abolition of slavery in Spain's last Western Hemishphere colonies is a complicated matter. Sugar planter Carlos Manuel de Céspesdes freed his slaves, issuing the Cry of Yara (Grito de Yara). A wave of slave liberations followed (1868). The wars of liberation against Spain were impaired by the slave question. Planters were concerned that independence would lead to abolition. The Spanish Government proclaimed the "Free Market Law" which freed slaves over age 60, those born after September 17, 1868, and all slaves who fight under the Spanish flag (1870). The last slaver landed Africans in Cuba (1873). Spain finally abolished slavery (1886). This meant the end of slavery on the two remaining Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere--Cuban and Puerto Rico. Cuba was the last country to end slavey in the Western Hemishere. Slavery only continued in a major form in the Muslim world.

Changes in the Sugar Industry (1890s)

The end of slavery in Cuba meant that the country's sugar industry had to be reorganized. A new class of planters emerged after emancipation (1880s). They did not have the huge plantations that function whie slavery still prevailed. They became refrred to as colonos. They were more dependant on financng. They contracted to plant, cultivate, harvest and then deliver the cut cane to the mills called Centrales. Large plantatiions had their own mills,. The new Colons were dependent on the Centrales. These new Centrales which eventually became huge complexes. Few of the emancipated slaves became landowners. The Colons wre mostly white Cubans or foreign investors. The former slaves bcame field hands working for wages. There was only limited year round jobs, but a treendous demand for seasional labor during te Zafra (harvest). There wre two types of Colons. One group actually oned their land. Another group worked land which they rented or leased. The industry was dominated by the Centrales. The Colons had to sell to them and tgey thus could control prices. Some sources claim that the Colonos did not do well. Many had to borrow money from the Cetrales. had difficulty getting by, and most owed money to the Centrales.

Second Cuban War for Independence (1895-99)

Cuban revolutaries fought a decades-long war for independence from Spain. Most of Spain's American colonies achieved independence during or after the Naoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. Spain held on to Cuba and and Puertp Rico afer defeats in South and Central Ameruica. Cubans began their struggke for indeopendence at mid-century. The first major armed action was the War of the Ten Years (1868-1878). A poorly equipped army of 8,000 Cubans fought a valiant struggle against aell-armed Spanish army which suffered some 80,000 casualties. The revolutionaries which failed to fight a centrally organized campaign finally had to give up with the Pact of the Trench, although General Antonio Maceo issued the protest of Baraguá. A second insurrection was organized by Jose Martí (1895). The Army of Liberation was better organized than in 1868 and was commanded by General Maximum Gomez. The Army of Liberation eventually fielded about 50,000 men, but only about half were armed. The Spanish commited an army of about 250,000 men. In the campaign they suffered about 71,000 casualties and the war proved a major drain on the Spanish economy. The Spanish Army was able to hold on to the major cities, but most of the countryside fell into rebel hands. The Cubans did not have the military force need to take the cities and the Spanish did not have an adequate force to persue the rebels into the countryside. Thus an uneasy, but brutal deadlock developed followed. The Spanish set up concentration camps in an effort to control the country sise. Large areas of the country-side was devestated. One author writes with some hyperbole, "For almost four years, contending forces had laid siege to the largesse of the land, preying upon the bounty of its resources, and practicing pillage of every kind as the normal method of warfare. And when it was over, in 1898, the toll of Cuban independence reached frightful proportions. The fields were blighted; the pastures, barren; and the fruit trees, bare. Agriculture was in desperate crisis in an economy predominantly agricultural. The rich sugar provinces of Havana and Matanzas were each cultivating fully less than one-half of the area in 1899 than they had before the war." [Pérez] It was not just that livestock and crops were pillaged by the revolutionaries and Cuba forces, but there was also economic war being waged. The Revolutaries sought to put pressure on the Spanish by reducing the value of Cuba as a colony. Thus sugar mills became a military target. And the Spanish also targeted the mills in areas controlled by the rebels. Most of the damage to the Cuban economy was done before the United states entered the War. The Cuban fight for independence evolved into a very brutal struggle. And American newspapers sensationlized the struggle, fueling public support for war. The explosion othe USS Maine in Havana Harbor led to the Spanish American War (1898-99). Once American forces, the lan campaign was quickly settled with relatively little damage done. There was very little fighting in the countryside. The Americans moved on the Spanish-held cities. The major battle was fought around Santigo in the east where a Spanish garrison attempted to defend the country's primary naval base in Cuba.

Cuban Economic Situation (1899)

Cuba was devestated by the independence struggle. The country's sugar industry, the most important economic acivity, was devestated. In Pinar del Río Province only 7 of 70 sugar mills were still operating. In Las Villas Province only 73 of 332 sugar mills were undamaged. By the time the Americans landed (1898), less than 20 percent or 207 of Cuba's 1,100 sugar mills were undamaged. [Pérez Hispanic.] The Cuban economy was in a shambles and most of the vital sugar industry shut down. The Mayor of Nueva Paz in Havana Province describes the situation. "The lands of this muncipality represents a taxable income of $236,000 [in 1899 dollars], but all are abandodned. Even those who were not completely ruined are in an unproductive state." Another official, Mayor Julio Domínguez of Cruzes in Santa Clara Province wrote, "At the commencement of the year 1899, no lands in this district were under cultivation, with the exception of a few very small farms surrounding the towns, devoted to the cultivation of vegetables and other produce for the sustenanceof their owners. Misery, hunger, sickness and generaldiscontent prevailed among the people. [Pérez, Lords, p. 72.] We suspect that many of these assessments were from upper- and middle-class Cubans, commonly assocoated with the Colons and important land owners. The rural peasantry may not be in as desperate circumstances. They could grow vegetables and perhaps raise a few chickens and even a hog, Unk\like the landowners, they were no accustomed to an affluent life style. They may jave had trouble finding work, but they could produce food.

American Military Occupation (1898-1903)

The United States military forces that occupied the island largely ignored the Cuban revolutionaries who had hoped that the United states would recognize them as the legitimte government of an independent Cuba. Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee, the military govenor of Havana and Pinar del Río reported to military Governor Brooke "Business of all sorts is suspended. Agricultural operations have ceased; large sugar estates with their enormous and expensive machinery are destroyed; houses burned; stock driven off for consumption by the Spanish troops or killed." (September 1899). Cuban Colons (small property owners) were badly in debt. Some had been in debt before the Second War for Independebce (1895-99) and many others contracted debyt as fighing intensified. American Military Governor John R. Brooke pledged resources to assist the Colons (January 1, 1899). This, however, never occurred. There was some thought of annexing Cuba, but there as not popular or political support for such an action. American policy thus became to establish a stable Cuban government. This was complicated by the fact that the Cuban economy, especially the sugar industry was in ruin. And the Colons, badly indebted, did not have access to the capital needed to repair the damage and resume sugar production. American policy at the time was implements through a series of orders issued by the Military Government. We arenot sure just how these orders were prepared and to what extent the War Department and State Department in Washington were involved as opposed to U.S. Army commanders in Cuba. Many of the militry orders concerned Army matters, but some had a substantial impact on the Cuban economy. Military Order #46 (April 1899) established a 2-year moratorium on debt repayment. This provided the Colons, smll-scale farmers and planters with larger holdings thus had a brief period to recover from the damage resulting from the independence struggle. It was, however, not a solution. As the Colons were already indebted they were unable to borrow the substabtial sums needed to but new equioment and resume production. One historian writes, "Direct aid to planters was not part of the United States' design for the postwar reconstruction of Cuba." [Pérez Hispanic] And without such aid, the Cubans themselves were unable to get the economy moving again. External capital was needed. Military Governor Brooke told Cubans hoping for U.S. Government assistabce that "the conclusion was reached that aid could not be given in this direction (October 1899)." Cuban Secretary of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industry Perfecto Lacosta warned that little progress was being made. The precarious situation [of] the great majority of the hacendados and agriculturists of Cuba requires ... ll the possible aid of the State to encourage the reconstruction of the state (June 1900)." [Pérez, Lords, p. 72.] Santa Clara planter Francisco Seigle wrote U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root, "Our condition is worse today. These properties cannot be made productive without capital (October 3, 1900)." Perfecto Lacosta complained as Military Order #46 was about to expire, "Nothing has been done toward the improvement of our agricultural situation." Military Order #46 expired (April 1901) and little had changed in Cuba. The Colons including the larger planters had not been able to resume production.



Aimes, Hubert S. A History of Slavery in Cuba, 1511 to 1868.

Boyer, Helen M. Economic Geography (July 1939).

Guerra y Sánchez, Ramiro. Sugar and Society in the Caribbean.

Pérez, Louis A. Jr. Hispanic American Historical Review (1985).

Pérez, Louis A. Jr. Lords of the Mountain: Social Banditry and Peasant Protest in Cuba, 1878-1918


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Created: 5:25 AM 10/1/2012
Last updated: 2:05 PM 10/24/2014