Early Sugar Plantation

Date: 1595
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This 1595 engraving by Theodore de Bry is one of the earliest portrayals of African slaves in the Americas and shows just how interconnected slave labor was with the agricultural and technological processes involved in making sugar, the most important and profitable crop in the Americas. Several machines were created to facilitate sugar production, some of which, like the boilers, demanded that slaves be highly skilled. Sugar cane had to be processed within one or two days after it was cut, thus work during the harvest period, or zafra, was even more intense than slaves' typically Sisyphusian labors.

This image shows the toil and technologies of every step of the production process. The cane was cut by hand (top right) before being bundled and carried to a press. This plantation has both a waterwheel (in the distance) and a human-powered press that were used to crush the cane and extract the raw juice. The juice was then boiled to create either molasses or crystalline sugar before being poured into vessels and, eventually, exported.

The Caribbean and Brazil were monocrop sugar societies, and thus slavery was most rampant and most harsh in these two areas. Sugar was central to Brazilian society by the late sixteenth century and, by the nineteenth century, slaves constituted half of Brazil's total population. Approximately two-thirds of all black slaves in the Americas worked to grow and process sugar, an agricultural industry that reshaped demographics, the economy, human health, social structures, and natural ecosystems throughout the Atlantic. The burgeoning industrial age and large-scale enslavement combined in the New World to power a thriving, though essentially barbaric, colonial system.

Reference: Higman, B.W. "The Sugar Revolution." In The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 53, no. 2 (May, 2000), p. 213-236.

CITATION: De Bry, Theodore. Nigritae exhaustis venis metallicis consciendo saccharo operam dare debent. In Americae pars quinta nobilis & admiratione plena Hieronymi Bezoni Mediolanensis secundae setionos Hispanorum.... Accession no. 34724. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.