Sugar plantations

Detail of sugar cane

"The story of sugar was not all sweetness. Sugar and slavery developed hand in hand in the English islands" (Dunn 1973, 189)

The first European settlers in Nevis in 1628 were English farmers from St Kitts. They cleared spaces in the dense forest to create small farms, which were worked by their families and indentured servants. Indentured servants were given passage to the West Indies and clothing, food and housing once they arrived. In return they had to work for their master for a term of up to seven years. They were often treated harshly as their masters tried to get the maximum work out of them during their term. Once they had completed their service the former servants were given a small piece of land, so that for the first 50 years or so after European settlement much of the land on Nevis was divided into plots farmed by small landholders. Over the first two decades of settlement the farmers grew cash crops for sale, such as indigo (a dye plant), ginger and tobacco, and most of their own food.

Indigo plant, St Kitts (left) and tobacco plant on the island of St Eustatius (right) 

In the 1640s sugar was introduced to St Kitts, either from Barbados or from one of the other Caribbean islands. (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 81) European planters found that sugar cane thrived in the fertile soils and tropical climate of Nevis and St Kitts and sugar rapidly became a highly profitable crop, yielding rich rewards for the growers. By 1655 sugar was the most important export crop from Nevis. Over time, wealthy landowners bought up the small farms and combined them into larger plantations dedicated to producing sugar. The cost of building plantation works to process the sugar put the financial endeavour beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest merchants or landowners. In 1650 Richard Ligon calculated that it cost £1000 to buy the land, construct the buildings and pay for the slaves and servants for a sugar plantation. (Watts 1978, 187). Fifty years later, Thomas Tryon estimated that before a man could make a hundredweight of sugar worth 12-14 shillings he had to spend between £3000 and £10,000 buying or setting up the plantation. (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 288) How did planters justify these exorbitant costs? Sugar was a source of huge wealth that could quickly repay the initial outlay. In 1770 sugar, rum and molasses formed 92% of St Kitts's exports and much of the island was devoted to the growth of cane.

Sugar cane fields in St Kitts

By the 1770s plantations had risen in value by more than three times over fifty years. (O’Shaughnessy 2000, 260-1 n. 68) However, in the late-18th century the American war of independence closed off the main source of food and supplies, and threatened shipping. Planters faced rising costs and many fell heavily into debt. Many estates were sold and the price of sugar dropped dramatically. Owning a West Indian plantation was no longer a guarantee of wealth. However, recent economic history convincingly argues that sugar plantation profitability soon recovered. Sugar production, and the profits reaped from the labour of enslaved Africans continued to rise well into the 19th century (Eltis, Lewis, and Richardson 2005). 

You can read more about African slavery in the International Slavery Museum website.

Further information