Art of Making Sugar

Date: 1749
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images

This 1749 drawing depicts the essential facets of a sugar plantation: the cane plants, reaping the cane, crushing the cane, boiling and refining, and, of course, white men forcing black men to work. Although the basic processes of sugar-making had not changed much since the sixteenth century (see De Bry's 1595 drawing of a sugar plantation), the refinement process was much improved by new technologies. By the eighteenth century, refiners had switched from using a single kettle to a "train" system like the one pictured here. This technique allowed different temperatures to be applied during various stages of refinement, a process that resulted in purer sugar crystals.

Eighteenth century modernizers struggled to reconcile their desire to add scientific expertise to the sugar industry while retaining the traditional hierarchies of slave societies. In Cuba, would be modernizers emphasized scientific education among whites in charge of large refineries, but the concept of "science" on the whole came to connote little more than sugar-related chemistry. "Enlightened" men in Portugal and Brazil also promoted agricultural reforms that would make slavery more efficient without giving blacks any new freedoms. Just as many progress-minded Latin Americans looked to Europe as a paradigm of modernity, so too did agricultural reformers use the British Caribbean for examples of how new technologies could be employed without social change.

Unfortunately, technological innovations in sugar refinements did serve to perpetuate the profitability of slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean in much the same way that the cotton gin re-entrenched slavery in the southern United States. Although technology may have offered a way to continue monocrop production without slave labor, elites feared the effects of social change and, instead, used technology to keep blacks fettered.

References: Galloway, J.H. "Agricultural Reform and the Enlightenment in Late Colonial Brazil." In Agricultural History, Vol. 53, no. 4 (Oct., 1979), p. 763-779.

Portuando, Maria M. "Plantation Factories: Science and Technology in Late Eighteenth Century Cuba." In Technology and Culture, Vol. 44 (Apr. 2003), p. 231-257.

CITATION: John Hinton. "A representation of the sugar-cane and the art of making sugar." 1749. 1 print: engraving, hand-colored. Illus. from: The universal magazine of knowledge and pleasure .... London : Published ... according to Act of Parliament, for John Hinton, 1749. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. ID: LC-USZ62-7841. Original Image Number: 3a10477.