A water snake sheds its skin. State support of private enterprise across time has taken many forms. (Photo:

In the history of sugar, one faithful aspect has been omnipresent: the nurturing by the state of its domestic sugar industries. Various factors have insured that the degree of care has undergone a bewildering change over time. Some forms of state support such as military intervention were more prevalent in the ‘startup’ years, while other means, such as favorable tariffs follow, and in fact lead sugar across history. This lack of universal consistency in the vigor and application of state support reflect the varying needs of private commercial entities and factions across different periods, does not bequeath itself to an overly simple general pattern, but nonetheless reflects and speaks of a dizzying and powerful change over time.

The sugar colonies and the sugar planter have been described as “business ventures primarily” and “strictly a businessman” respectively[1][2]. From this we can ascertain that plantations nor the individual planter possessed any martial capacity other than the ability to discipline and subdue its own labor force through violence.[3] Plantations did not mount invasions and planters did not lead professional armies.

Jamaica, one of the “crown jewels”[4] of the British Empire was seized by a military expedition, which found the island easier takings than neighboring Hispaniola.[5] With its capture, the British state was able to offer “English sugar interests with as much Caribbean acreage as they wanted.”[6] State nurturing through military force of the sugar planters went beyond terra firma into the high seas. 127 years later, Jamaica was under threat by France and American colonists, who had just swiped six British sugar islands. The Royal Navy was dispatched and beat the French, “saving…the sugar islands”[7]

Islands firmly in hand, state support moved into another phase: providing labor. Sugar planters throughout history have been bewildered by the same issue – the need for labor. Begnaud states that “the central problem was, and is, the labor supply” and “the most acute problem of the planter may well have been securing the labor force needed in sugarcane cultivation.”[8][9] Before chattel slavery, the Crown was able to provide “thieves and whores rounded up” alongside “Scottish and Irish” POWs to the planters[10], who were then coerced to the Indies with indentured servitude contracts. With the Caribbean not exactly meeting the expectations of the “thieves and whores”, “the masters could persuade few laborers whose indentures had expired to stay on”[11] The final solution was the Royal African Company, which was granted the monopoly by the state to trade in slaves and “handled much of the English business between 1673 and 1711”[12] Third party runners who tried to sell outside of the monopoly were pursued by the Royal Navy. With two-thirds of all Black slaves shipped to the Americas “directly related to the production of sugar”[13] the state’s hand in ensuring the sugar plantations’ appetites were fulfilled appear to have been prominent and successful.

Among the presents of military force, poor White servants and Black slaves, another gift of the state to the planter was an insatiable market. To motor forward with industrialization, one needs a labor force. In England, this meant farmers, previously self-sufficient (aside from periods of famine) in food. The Enclosure Acts between the late 18th and early 19th centuries forced farmers to migrate from rural areas and into cities, where “they had to purchase their food”[14] With the steadily declining price of sugar, as slave labor worked fields in Caribbean secured by state military forces, this large, hungry urban population were able to enjoy “Sugar, cheaper and more plentiful than it had been.”[15]

Tariffs are one form of state support that, while varying in form across time, have been a consistent tool to carry favored groups. In the Mercantilist era, the British state set agreeable tariff rates for its West Indies planters, below that for foreign sugars, in return for locking them to the British economy, forcing them to only sell their sugar in Britain (perhaps 50% would be re-exported), but also to buy provisions from England. In exchange they enjoyed a “protected home market.”[16] Their American planter counterparts, a century later found themselves in the same dilemma. The difference was that American sugar was grown in America, and the need would be a protective tariff on foreign sucrose. “The one thing all sugar farmers agreed upon was the necessity for protection from cheap imported sugar, for their business methods were expensive,”[17] writes Begnaud of Louisiana sugar planters. Congress delivered and legislation in 1934 “saved…the domestic sugar industry.”[18] Hodson concludes that “like it or not, the U.S. sugar industry has long been a creature of government policy.”[19] Thus tariffs held back an avalanche of sugar from Hawaii, the West Indies and India from smothering the domestic U.S. sugar industry.

[1] Dunn 25

[2] Dunn 65


[4] Alexander and Parker 1

[5] Dunn 152

[6] Dunn 21

[7] Abbott 172

[8] Begnaud 29

[9] Begnaud 33

[10] Dunn 69

[11] Dunn 72

[12] Dunn 229

[13] Kaplinsky 14

[14] Abbott 63

[15] Abbott 63

[16] Dunn 80

[17] Begnaud 42

[18] Burbin 83

19 Hodson 136


Abbott, Elizabeth. SUGAR: A BITTERSWEET HISTORY. London: Duckworth Publishers, 2009. Print.

Alexander, Robert J. and Eldon M. Parker. A HISTORY OF ORGANIZED LABOR IN THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING WEST INDIES. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2004. Electronic.

Begnaud, Allen. “The Louisiana Sugar Cane Industry.” GREEN FIELDS: TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF LOUISIANA SUGAR. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1980. Print.


Dunn, Richard. S.. SUGAR AND SLAVES: THE RISE OF THE PLANTER CLASS IN THE ENGLISH WEST INDIES, 1624-1713. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972. Print

Hodson, Charles. “U.S. Sugar Policy Since the 1930s.” GREEN FIELDS: TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF LOUSIANA SUGAR. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1980. Print.

Kaplinsky, Raphael. SUGAR PROCESSING: THE DEVELOPMENT OF A THIRD-WORLD TECHNOLOGY. Delhi: Oxford Universty Press, 1983. Print.

Myric, Herbert. SUGAR: A NEW AND PROFITABLE INDUSTRY IN THE UNITED STATES. New York: Orange Judd Company, 1897. Print.

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