01 December 2016

Sugar Conquest

Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, 1971

Undoubtedly gold and silver were the main motivating force in the Conquest, but Columbus on his second voyage brought the first sugarcane roots from the Canary Islands and planted them in what is now the Dominican Republic. For almost three centuries after the discovery of America no agricultural product had more importance for European commerce than American sugar. Cane fields were planted in the warm, damp littoral of Northeast Brazil; then in the Caribbean islands – Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Guadeloupe, Cuba, and Puerto Rico – and in Veracruz and the Peruvian coast, which proved to be ideal terrain for the “white gold.” Legions of slaves came from Africa to provide King Sugar with the prodigal, wageless labor he required: human fuel for the burning. The land was devastated by this selfish plant which invaded the New World, felling forests, squandering natural fertility, and destroying accumulated soil humus.

The demand for sugar produced the plantation, an enterprise motivated by its proprietor’s desire for profit and placed at the service of the international market Europe was organizing. Internally, however, the plantation was feudal in many important aspects, and its labor force consisted mainly of slaves.

It was the fate of the “sugar islands” – Barbados, the Leewards, Trinidad-Tobago, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Santo Domingo – to be incorporated one by one into the world market and condemned to sugar until our day. Grown on a grand scale, sugar spreads its blight on a grand scale and today unemployment and poverty are these islands’ permanent guests.

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