Dependency and Resistance: sugar cane cultivation and sustainable development in the Hispanic Caribbean (1840-1920)
04 / 2009 - 04 / 2013
Before the nineteenth century, world sugar production was dominated by the French and British Caribbean colonies. However, with the collapse of the sugar industry in Saint Domingue following the revolution there, and with soil exhaustion and slave emancipation in the British West Indies, during the nineteenth century the centre of Caribbean sugar production shifted to the Hispanic islands Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The way in which sugar encroached upon these three islands differed markedly, with Cuba becoming dominated by the crop by the mid-nineteenth century and this continuing to spread and consolidate into the twentieth century; Puerto Rico seeing development of the sugar industry in the mid-nineteenth century, and though this later became partly supplanted by coffee as the dominant export Puerto Rico continued to be the region s third most important sugar producer; and with large sugar plantations becoming established in the Dominican Republic in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, where previously cane had made little headway. By the start of the twentieth century, these three were between them the most important Caribbean sugar producers; with Cuba alone responsible for nearly a quarter of all sugars (and a third of cane) produced in the world in 1920. Although in the existing literature, growth of the Hispanic Caribbean sugar industry is seen as intertwined with broader questions such as slave emancipation, the emergence of movements for national independence and the increasing economic dependence that the islands fell under it is hard not to see this as being a necessary, even uncontested development. As a result, while reference has been made to elements of resistance within rural society and the sugar economy and studies have been made of certain elements of popular resistance in particular slave and post-slave organisation and actions, both passive and active, but also rural banditry and urban mobilisation there has been no systematic study of the complex of interrelated factors that combined to ensure that the spread of cane cultivation and the economic, social, political and cultural dominance of the sugar industry would not go uncontested. This project seeks to examine the processes of resistance to the dominance of sugar cane in the Hispanic Caribbean during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, through a comparative study of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It proposes to explore this on three interrelated scales. Firstly, local rural resistance to the spread of cane cultivation, which may have taken a number of forms. There were peasant attempts to keep control over land, in some cases involving the maintaining of other land uses whether for food cultivation, cattle grazing, or the production of alternative commodity crops (such as tobacco and coffee). The latter were not in direct competition with sugar cane, since they were generally grown on different land types. However, tobacco and coffee cultivators had to compete with sugar plantations for the capital necessary for their continuing development. There were cases of active sabotage of the sugar industry, both in the fields through the setting of fires and in the mills through the damage to equipment. The plantation labour force were a central element in this, through their active and passive resistance whether as slaves, indentured labourers or later rural proletariat upon whose labour the sugar plantations depended. Secondly, there was national urban resistance to the dominance of sugar and its consequences. This partly took the form of the assertion of alternative industries and the development of a labour movement; or the political and cultural challenge to the sugar elite. But it also may have included the maintenance of alternative commercial networks. Thirdly, these local and national alternatives will be examined in the context of their relationship to other global manifestations of anti-commodity resistance. The project will ask whether these different elements can legitimately be seen to have combined to constitute a counter-hegemonic system to that of sugar cultivation, production and trade; or whether they were each simply isolated factors, existing in the interstices of the sugar complex. Sugar has brought significant ecological damage to the Caribbean, and this historical study will contribute to contemporary debates in the region concerning alternative, sustainable developmental paths building upon the economic and social dynamics that have historically been overshadowed by sugar production.