Sweet HereafterThe Bitter Past and Promising Future of Sugarcane

A sandy landscape made of sugar, sugar cane, and sugar cubes in front of a green background

(Photography by Mischelle Moy)

Cover of Bitch's Wild issue cover: women dressed in white dancing in a circle in a river with greenery in the background
This article was published in Wild Issue #92 | Fall/Winter 2021

My friend Diego San Miguel called me out of the blue one Wednesday afternoon. He’s a baker, and he wanted to know if we could host a sugar tasting. Would it be possible to have a “cupping” for sugar—the way they do with coffee, another precious commodity with which colonizers have done their foul work—in order to understand its nuances? We agreed that even if a sugar cupping weren’t possible, heirloom sugar could be the next big thing, now that grain has had its own renaissance thanks to a sourdough surge in global urban centers. “Sugar is stuck in the ’90s,” he said. When it comes to hip ingredients having their day in the artisanal sun, he’s right. Fair-trade sugar, in which a third party approves a company’s business and ecological practices, is still a niche sector of the massive sugar market, available only at a premium in fancier grocery stores. In Puerto Rico, where San Miguel and I both live, sugarcane is no longer cultivated on an industrial scale. Though the Spanish colonizers first brought saccharum to the Caribbean with the second voyage of Columbus in 1493, and it grew to become a significant aspect of local agriculture, sugar production came to an end once the United States didn’t see it as the best use of the archipelago’s land and people. With Operation Bootstrap, put in place in the 1950s, agriculture was undermined and the rise of factories caused an exodus to the cities. Now no working sugar mills remain on the archipelago, only their ruins standing rusted in vast fields or, such as on Vieques, overrun by plant life. The number of mills dwindled from 44 to 0 by the year 2000. 

The history of sugar in Puerto Rico has been marked by various major events throughout the centuries. There were periods of prosperity: The first significant surge occurred between 1790 and 1849. Measures that partially revoked the Spanish monopoly on commerce allowed for easier trade with other nations but also allowed enslaved people to work the land. Following the Haitian Revolution, demand for Puerto Rican sugar increased in the United States. By the middle of the 19th century, there were 789 sugar plantations growing cane in the territory. The ruins of these mills are massive structures, and it’s easy to squint and imagine all the workers who once labored there—whether enslaved people from Africa or, later, low-wage Puerto Rican workers. The abandoned mills are testimonies to a history we imagine long gone. But workers in places such as Brazil and India are still laboring to bring us all the sugar we consume that we buy easily at the supermarket or find plopped in front of us with our coffee at a diner. The legacy of sugar is around us, as thick as its own stalks, if only we look closely.

Sugar is still here in Puerto Rico too, and its cultural role is significant, even if its market share has been depleted. A farmer I talk to at the market every weekend occasionally brings some cut cane, and she tells me they have two kinds that grow “like weeds,” and they’ll sometimes suck on the sticky innards for a snack. Despite the local and international rum industries, there’s still a strong culture in mountain towns of making pitorro, a rum made on a small scale from sugarcane juice. Bottles flavored with passion fruit and tamarind are popular at Christmastime. Guarapo, an unfermented sugarcane juice, is sold at farmers markets and even made into a beer by local Ocean Lab Brewing. One rum company on the archipelago, San Juan Artisan Distillers, has even replanted sugarcane in order to make the only Puerto Rican rum, Ron Pepón, made with local sugar and its juice rather than molasses. The everlasting presence of the cane offers hope for a future that is once again profitable for the local economy, which has been in a recession and suffering population loss for more than a decade. Like coffee, sugar had been a symbol of local agrarian life. Unlike in the realm of coffee, where baristas and café owners have led a charge for transparency and direct trade with farmers, there aren’t enough bakers like me and San Miguel who care about fostering old diversity in sugar crops and creating new avenues for supporting farmers, who could—in some potential future—sell premium, small-batch sugar while also growing food for subsistence and local markets. I have been frustrated by the lack of local sugar when I see these mills because I want to eat from the land on which I live and support its tending, its laborers. But I am also bourgeois and selfish: I know fresher sugar would taste better, that a small-batch ingredient like this would add cachet to my baking. Imagine the terroir, I think. 

This is the double-edged sword of artisanal food. To even think like this is to perpetuate colonized foodways in which the power and decision-making, via taste, are concentrated along with capital in the Global North, outside the growing regions. As ever, sugar tells the story of the world, its power structures, and its foodways. Colonization devalued land and people, and then it devalued the fruit of the people working the land. Sugar has never been able to reclaim its value because it is still grown in places suffering the effects of slavery, colonialism, and rampant capitalism. I would argue that if we ever learn to value sugar, the land it’s grown on, the labor of the people who work that land, and the fruits of sugar’s existence in our kitchens, it will mean that we have created a whole new world. The most significant text on the role of sugar is Sidney W. Mintz’s 1986 book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. In it, he writes about how sugar entered the diets of Europeans and became the ubiquitous, if undiverse, commodity we have grown accustomed to having at our fingertips. Mintz did fieldwork in Puerto Rico in the middle of the 20th century, producing the text Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History (1960). He references that experience in the first pages of Sweetness and Power: “The sugar was not being produced for the Puerto Ricans themselves: they consumed only a fraction of the finished product.” Most of it went to Seville, Spain, and then to Boston. Sugar, like other crops, always served the empire. That’s how it came to be that Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food, including the sugar it once grew in such robust quantities.

Two archways made of sugar cubes in front of a red backdrop.

(Photography by Mischelle Moy)


An Expression of Empire


Sugar made its way around the world from its original source in New Guinea, but the earliest record of crystalline sugar was found in Northern India. The crop arrived in the north of Africa by 800 BCE and in Spain during the 8th century. The first colonizers to bring sugarcane to the Americas were mainly from Andalusia, the southern region of Spain, where they had already seen how the cane could grow in the proper hot climate. Sweetness transformed the palates of Europeans, and thus sugar production became a side of the triangle trade of the “New World,” along with European-manufactured goods and enslaved Africans. Molasses, a byproduct of crystal sugar, was shipped from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was used to make rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa, where they were bartered for people. The enslaved were then brought back to the Caribbean to be sold to plantation owners. The profits from the sale of the enslaved were used to buy more sugar, which was shipped to Europe, and so the cycle of slavery continued. Spanish Dominican Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote of the conditions people enslaved by plantation owners faced in his 16th-century account of his visit to the region: “Once they [enslaved people] were sent to the mills, they die like flies from the hard labor they were made to endure and the beverages they drink made from the sugarcane.”

Ownership of sugar has been a major driver of history. The 18th century saw the biggest changes in the sugar market when two major sugar-producing colonies gained independence: the United States and Haiti. At this time, sugar had become a commodity crop dependent on the extensive, back-breaking manual labor performed by enslaved Africans, and the European demand for sugar, which could be characterized as bloodlust, increased the brutal abuse of Haiti’s enslaved population. By the 1740s, Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola), together with the British colony of Jamaica, had become the main supplier of the world’s sugar. Every year, an average of 600 ships engaged in shipping products from Saint-Domingue to Bordeaux, France, and the value of the colony’s crops and goods was almost equal to all of the products shipped from the 13 colonies to Great Britain. The livelihood of 1 million of the approximately 25 million people who lived in France in 1789 depended directly upon the agricultural imports from Saint-Domingue, and several million indirectly depended upon trade from the colony to maintain their standard of living.

The cover of the Plastic issue of Bitch magazine with the text "Get the magazine that started it all:"

Slavery sustained sugar production under harsh conditions, including the climate of the Caribbean, where diseases such as malaria and yellow fever caused high mortality. In 1787 alone, the French brought about 20,000 enslaved people from Africa into Saint-Domingue, while the British brought a total of 38,000 enslaved Africans to all of their Caribbean colonies. The death rate from yellow fever and hard labor caused many of the enslaved to die within a year of arriving, so the white planters preferred to work them as hard as possible while providing them with the barest minimum of food and shelter. Their crude calculus concluded that it was better to get the most work out of the enslaved while incurring the lowest expense possible, since they were probably going to die of yellow fever anyway. That’s why abolition posed a threat to the sugar industry: The economies of Great Britain and France began to tremble as soon as the empires’ remaining colonies capitalized on their economic value and began to initiate their own independence—as they sought ownership of their bodies, land, and labor and the power that comes along with it.

After the Haitian Revolution led to the independent state of Haiti, sugar production in that country declined and Cuba replaced Saint-Domingue as the world’s largest producer. For Haiti, freedom also meant freedom from industrial sugar production. Upon the abolition of slavery in the United States, the country established control of a major sugar industry in the Carribean, which became concentrated in Puerto Rico when the United States began its colonization of the archipelago in 1898 (which continues in the present day). The local sugar industry then experienced many changes: U.S. investors replaced many of the Europeans on the archipelago. Huge sugar mills such as the Guánica Central and Fajardo Sugar were founded. The increase in the price of sugar on the world markets, as well as the investment of capital, made Puerto Rico into one of the principal producers of sugar internationally. Yet the sugar industry still required a large number of laborers who were submitted to conditions similar to those of the enslaved so that the product could be sold cheaply in the United States and abroad. This caused many protests and independence movements, which were staunched by force.

Piles of sugar shaped into dunes in front of an orange background.

(Photography by Mischelle Moy)

During the first decades of the 20th century, the sugar industry continued to develop and reached its peak. By 1930, there were 44 mills in operation in Puerto Rico. But in the 1940s, the mills began to weaken due to various factors: The fall in the price of sugar, mismanagement by some administrators, and the restriction of credit to independent farmers, as well as strikes by the workers, created conflict and conditions that led to the decline and eventual closure of many of the mills in subsequent decades. U.S. investors became focused on tourism and other industries, such as pharmaceuticals and manufacturing, that moved people into cities and afforded them a more stable life than sugar—an industry rooted in the colonial culture of cheap labor—could ever offer.

Following a record sugarcane harvest in 1952, the industry experienced an accelerated deterioration. Between 1951 and 1968, 17 mills ceased operations. At the end of the 1960s, the government tried to rescue the industry through a recovery program. The Land Authority acquired a significant number of mills and in 1973 created the Sugar Corporation. Despite the fact that the government became the principal sugar producer in Puerto Rico, the mills, both privately and publicly funded, were shut down one by one. In 2000, operations ceased at the last mills still functioning: Roig, in Yabucoa, and Coloso, which had operated for nearly 100 years in the municipality of Aguada. Some of the mills also included refineries and packaging operations whose refined white sugar, with its fine grain, built the reputation of Puerto Rican sugar producers as true artisans. 

The economies of Great Britain and France began to tremble as soon as the empires’ remaining colonies capitalized on their economic value and began to initiate their own independence—as they sought ownership of their bodies, land, and labor and the power that comes along with it.


Artistic Terrain


The terroir I mentioned, the potential terroir of well-tended Puerto Rican sugar, would also inevitably taste of the blood and sweat of those enslaved people. All sugar does. The writer Ruby Tandoh examined how sweetness and sugar are entangled with a horrific history in “Sugartime,” an essay published in Eater in 2018. “In the Western imagination, sugar is pleasure, temptation, and vice—and in modern history, it is original sin,” she wrote. Tandoh, too, is a baker and came to fame in her native United Kingdom through The Great British Bake Off. So it’s essential for her to question how this ingredient functions not just in recipes but also in the culture, and in conjunction with her Ghanaian ancestry. “Rather than finding value in the million ways that good taste can manifest, we are drawn into a polarized debate, where blackness is sweetness and excess, and whiteness is tasteful restraint,” she wrote. Black artists have used this lineage in their work as well, with Kara Walker’s piece A Subtlety (or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant) being one of the most notable. The “sphinx,” a 35-by-75-foot sculpture of a Black woman constructed primarily from sugar, served as the centerpiece of Walker’s 2014 exhibit at the Domino Sugar Refining Plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 

Walker also made other statues from sugar and molasses, including that of a small boy carrying bananas on his shoulder. These pieces made the physicality of sugar labor visible and make you wonder: What does sugar production look like today? Who is laboring? Who is still cutting down the cane, carrying the bananas? Jean-Michel Basquiat—a half-Puerto Rican and half-Haitian artist whose ancestral lands in the Caribbean were both major sugar producers—would often make connections between the crops of the “New World”—whether sugarcane, tobacco, milk, chickens, or the ingredients in enriched flour—and slavery, empire, and industrialization. They’re embodied in his work through their connection to his main subject, the corporeal form. An untitled piece from 1984 shows the word sugar repeated over and over, both with and without his characteristic copyright symbol. Ownership is power, and under capitalism, food is also owned. 


Sugar cubes arranged in a checkered pattern over a yellow background.

(Photography by Mischelle Moy)

Colonization built and tore down the sugar industry of Puerto Rico, and it was the enslavement of Africans that allowed sugar to become an everyday commodity. The question everyone, from the anthropologist Mintz and the baker and writer Tandoh to the artists Walker and Basquiat, asks is this: Was it worth it? The sweetness of your morning coffee, the bite of a cake or cookie, the beauty of French patisserie—was what these were built on worth the pain, the suffering, the death, the inhuman cruelty? The answer is no, of course, and so the real question is where do we go now—is the bourgeois consumer concern of fair trade the best we can hope for? It hasn’t changed the conditions for the production of coffee, which is still largely a commodity sold cheaply—not everyone has the money for fair-trade beans or the time for a $5 pour-over served in a hip café alongside a portrait of the farmer in the fields. Changing how ubiquitous and cheap we expect commodities like this to be would mean, yes, a whole new world where no one is worried about meeting their most basic needs.

The interdisciplinary artist and chef Krystal C. Mack wrote in the poem “i don’t wanna talk about it,” for the zine palatePALETTE, “You still wanna talk about capitalism for the cause/ And I don’t wanna talk about it.” This is what I consider when I look at important efforts in South Africa and Paraguay to empower small farmers to sell their fair-trade sugar at a fair price: Is this the best we can do, when it comes to sugar and when it comes to sugar and, more broadly, global foodways? Or can we decolonize? What would the decolonization of sugar look like? Looking at abandoned mills around the Puerto Rican archipelago requires mourning, but it’s not the industry that should be mourned: It’s the lives lost and the potential for a different world untouched by the exploitations of slavery, colonization, and capitalism. We don’t know how we would eat without the sugar industry; we can’t say for sure that we’d rely on regional sweeteners such as honey or agave or sorghum. But it is in acknowledging sugar’s bitter past that we can imagine a sweeter future for all. I like to think about that farmer who thinks nothing of the sugarcane that grows wild on her land like a weed. I like to think about that sugarcane itself, growing tall for its own sake.  


by Alicia Kennedy
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