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What did the sugar revolution entail?

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Many historians use the term “sugar revolution” to denote the establishment of sugar cultivation and processing in the Eastern Caribbean islands, especially Barbados, in the middle of the 17th century. Other contemporary historians, such as Russell R. Menard, prefer to talk about the “sugar boom.”

When the Portuguese expelled Dutch and Jewish settlers from Brazil, these refugees brought sugar cultivation technologies with them to the Caribbean islands, which at that time were under British and French control. British and French planters used these technologies to develop a sugar plantation system that relied on African slave labor. The huge growth of demand for sugar in Europe at that time financed this transition to an essentially monocultural economy and agriculture. As Christian Koot points out, sugar constituted 90 percent of the value of Barbadian exports in the mid-1660s (Koot 2007).

Many free white settlers gradually moved elsewhere. The slave population in the Caribbean islands grew rapidly despite high mortality due to the continuous capture and import of African slaves. The use of white indentured servants declined at the same time, because laws prevented the planters from exploiting these people as harshly as they did African slaves. When their indenture period ended, most of these former servants emigrated. As a result, there were significantly more slaves than free whites on most of the islands; for example, in Barbados, which was the center of the sugar plantation system, the number of white people went down from 40,000 in 1645 to 20,000 in 1685; the number of African slaves in Barbados increased from 6,000 in 1645 to 45,000 in 1685.

A small elite group of wealthy planters now completely dominated local politics. Some of them lived in London and hired overseers to supervise their plantations. Many planters eventually became heavily indebted to European banks.

The sugar revolution entailed the building of elaborate sugar processing facilities and created a significant demand for metal tools produced by British manufacturers. In this way, it stimulated the development of British industry and possibly contributed to the Industrial Revolution.

Christian J. Koot, Another Revolution in Need of Revising, Common Place vol. 07 No 2, common-place.org

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Sugar revolution refers to the rapid and extensive changes that took place from 1640 to 1650 in the Lesser Antilles as a result of a change in the primary cash crop. The change in cash crop from tobacco to sugarcane was triggered by factors which included a drop in tobacco prices due to competition from Virginia tobacco and an increase in demand for sugar in Europe among other reasons. This change sparked a shift of revolutionary proportion as the economic, social and political structures were altered significantly. Sugarcane previously planted on small farms was grown in plantations meaning more labor was required. This sparked an increase in the Trans Atlantic slave trade as more and more slave labor was utilized in the sugarcane plantations.

As the sugar business became more profitable, there was an increased demand for land to grow sugarcane. This caused the price of land to also appreciate majorly. In addition to that, population in the islands changed from sparse to dense settlement and the racial constitution of the population also changed to black from white. The European diet and consumption was also significantly changed as a result of sugar supply. Also, the sugar revolution is also stated to have contributed to the industrial revolution. Therefore, the sugar revolution simply refers to the rapid changes that took place during that decade in the 17th century when there was a shift in the primary cash crop to sugar from tobacco in the Lesser Antilles.

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