Sugar processing

Guyanese worker cutting cane by hand with a machete

By the end of the 17th century, much of the land in St Kitts and Nevis was divided into plantations. During this time a large plantation on Nevis could be no more than 50 acres in size (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 287). By contrast, on larger islands like Jamaica or Saint Domingue where land was plentiful, plantations measured 300 acres or more. On Nevis, wealthy plantation owners gradually bought up land to combine into efficient units. It was expensive to buy the land, build the sugar works and plant the cane so only those owners with good financial backing could afford to invest in sugar plantations (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 287). Growing sugar needed land and investment in the works to process the crop. Cane pieces, which were fields of similar size, could be planted in sequence so that not all the cane ripened at the same time. 

Sugar cane takes 14 to 18 months to mature (Dunn 1973, 190). Cane grows best in the wet months from June to November and ripens in the dry months of January to May. Planters staggered cultivation so that the cane did not all mature at once. The cane was planted either by digging a trench and lying old cane cuttings end to end, or by digging holes and inserting cuttings of cane two feet long (Dunn 1973, 191). A gang of thirty enslaved Africans using hoes could plant two acres in a day. The cane was fertilised with animal manure. When the cane was ripe, the enslaved workers cut the sugar cane by hand with broad curved machetes and loaded the stems onto carts. Mills were slow and inefficient so during the harvesting season the slaves worked in the mill and boiling house 24 hours a day to process the crop. “During crop time they work night and day almost incessantly”, wrote Revd William Smith in 1745 (Smith 1745, 232).