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Sugar Revolution

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  • November 2010
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The Sugar Revolution
In the seventeenth century both in the English and to a lesser extent in the French islands, a change occurred in the basic cash crop. This change was so rapid and far-reaching that ‘revolutionary’ is a fitting word to describe it. It ranks in importance with emancipation, for the sugar revolution changed the Lesser Antilles completely. It was not just that sugar replaced tobacco as the chief crop: the population changed from white to black; the size of landholdings changed; and eventually the West Indies became ‘the cockpit of Europe’. The list of changes the sugar revolution brought is almost inexhaustible. The sugar revolution is most clearly demonstrated in the history of Barbados where it occurred in roughly one decade, 1640 to 1650. It was not quite so rapid in the other islands. For example, Jamaica changed to sugar slowly and less completely at a much later date. However, in each island ‘revolution’ can be used to denote the startling economic, social and political changes that occurred.

Slaves at work in the sugar fields

Causes of the sugar revolution
Fall in West Indian tobacco prices The forces which brought about the change from tobacco to sugar all came together about 1640. Tobacco, the crop on which the economy of the Lesser Antilles was founded, started to decline as a result of competition from Virginia tobacco. In 1613 John Rolfe had introduced tobacco to Virginia, the earliest of the North American colonies. A variety imported from Trinidad proved very satisfactory. It is ironic that a variety from the West Indies should be the source of the decline of the West Indian tobacco crop! By 1627 Virginia was able to ship nearly 500 000 lbs (226 800 kg) of tobacco to England in one year. In 1628 the total for St Kitts and Barbados was only 100 000 lbs (45 360 kg). Virginia not only 104

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had the advantage of size, enabling individual plots to be of about 50 acres (20...