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
had the advantage of size, enabling individual plots to be of about 50 acres (20 ha) compared with about 10 acres (4 ha) in the West Indies, but also of quality. As the demand for tobacco in England increased, Virginia was able to meet it easily, but the demand for West Indian tobacco fell because expansion of output was not so rapid and the quality was inferior. Competition also came from the Dutch trading tobacco at Araya in Venezuela, and later at Curaçao. Consequently the price of West Indian tobacco fell and many small farmers went out of production. Sugar came along at the right time to take the place of tobacco. Another market force at work was the rising demand for sugar in Europe. After the colonisation of India and the Far East, coffee and tea were becoming increasingly popular in Europe and hence the demand for sugar as a sweetener for these drinks. People in Northern Europe had managed without sugar before the colonisation of tropical lands,
though it had been known in the Mediterranean lands. Sugar had to be grown in a tropical or subtropical climate and the West Indian islands were favourably situated for its growth. A transatlantic voyage made the West Indies accessible to the European market. This journey was much easier than that which brought coffee, tea and spices to the European market. Chance also played a part. The Dutch and the Portuguese were fighting for Brazil between 1624 and 1654, and when the Dutch were winning, at least in Northern Brazil, they shipped Portuguese prisoners of war north to the islands to be sold as slaves. In 1643 a Dutch ship brought fifty Portuguese slaves to Barbados. They were freed because the enslaving of Christians was not tolerated, but Barbados had fifty labourers experienced in the growing of sugar available. Then, when the Portuguese started winning back Northern Brazil from the Dutch, the Dutch came to the islands of the eastern Caribbean as refugees, bringing with them their expertise in sugar production.
Part played by the Dutch in the sugar revolution The Dutch contribution was...