Sugar production

Raw materials

The most efficient method of growing sugar was on large plantations with many workers. The sugar plantation system became the main industry of the Caribbean.

Because of the lack of labour in the Caribbean, vast numbers of Africans were imported to work on the sugar plantations throughout the 18th century. Every slave was expected to work - even women, children and the elderly.

Life on the plantations was extremely hard with a third of newly imported slaves dying within three years. This created a constant demand for new slaves to replace them.

The video below looks at the demand for slave labour in the New World.

Producing the crop

Between 1766 and 1791, the British West Indies produced over a million tons of sugar. Growing sugar was hard, labour-intensive work.

Sugar was produced in the following way:

  • The ground had to be dug, hoed, weeded, planted and then fertilised with manure, all under the hot West Indian sun. Slave gangs consisting of men, women and children worked under white overseers. They were whipped for not working hard enough. Slaves worked from dawn until dusk.
  • At harvest time, sugar cane was cut with machetes and loaded onto carts. This was back-breaking work.
  • The harvested cane was taken to the sugar mill where it was crushed and boiled to extract a brown, sticky juice. Operating the machinery was very dangerous - slaves could be maimed or even killed. The sugar boiling houses were unbearably hot and difficult to work in during the summer. At harvest time it was common for slaves to work 18-hour days, while some slaves worked for as long as 48 hours without a break.
  • The sugar juice was left in barrels until a brown syrup called molasses could be drawn off. This was used to make another of the Caribbean exports - rum. The clearer sugar was left behind, which would then be packed into barrels and shipped to Europe.
  • The juice taken from crushed sugar cane would sour and spoil within 24 hours. Slaves had to process it in the cane mills as soon as it was produced.