Sugar mills

Carting canes to the Mill, Trinidad, 1830s. Image reference BRID-01, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. Courtesy of authors Jerome S Handler and Michael L Tuite Jr.

Plantation owners built sugar works on their estates to process the cane. Once the cane was cut, it needed to be processed quickly or the juice the cane contained would ferment and spoil.

The cut sugar cane was brought to the mill by donkey or cart. Inside the mill, the enslaved workers fed the cane through wooden or metal rollers to crush it to extract the juice (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 72-3). The mills initially had three rollers made out of wood, but in the 1650s the planters developed the idea of sheathing the wooden rollers with iron or copper tubes (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 293).

The earliest mills, known as cattle mills, were powered by cattle, mules or oxen. Horses and cattle had to be imported from Europe or North America so oxen were most popular in the beginning. However, oxen did not live very long, so in the 17th century planters turned to horses and cattle.

The windmill dated 1760 at Estridge plantation, St Kitts

Windmills were introduced before 1663 in Barbados and were adopted quickly. By 1674 there were more than 260 windmills on the island (Richard Ford's map of 1674, Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 292). In Nevis and St Kitts windmills were brought in more gradually during the 18th century. They worked faster than animal mills, but were useless when the wind dropped so some owners kept animal mills in reserve.

Advertisement for steam engine for West Indies sugar plantations, 1889

In the early 19th century plantation owners began to invest in steam engines to power their mills. The engines could run continuously but needed large amounts of fuel and water, and were expensive to buy. In 1825 Charles Pinney bought a steam engine for his Nevis estate at Stoney Grove at a cost of £1539 (Pares 1950, 301, 303). The steam engine and cane crushing mill at New River, made by George Fletcher and Company of London and Derby, UK, still stands in the engine house.

Engine and crushing mill made by Fletcher and Co of London and Derby, at New River, Nevis

The crushed cane waste, called bagasse, was dried and used as a valuable fuel for the next stage in the process, heating the cane juice to produce sugar.