Sugarcane Plantations of Louisiana

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Sugar Plantation, Louisiana, 1873-74

Photo Credit: Edward King. The Great South. Image Reference HW9-760. Hartford, Conn., 1875. p. 83. Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.


Sugar Cane

Sugarcane is the most cultivated single crop in the world. [1] A member of the grass family, it has its origins in Polynesia, where it later spread to India and eventually Europe and the rest of the world. While today we think of sugarcane purely in the context of processing refined sugar, historically it has had numerous other applications. People in New Guinea, Polynesia and India centuries ago chewed cane stalks for their sweetness, and sexually hopeful men in China even chewed on the cane as an aphrodisiac. After the introduction of sugarcane to Louisiana near the end of the 18th century, the land supported a growing number of sugar plantations and sugar mills. Before the Civil War, most sugar grown in the United States came from Louisiana. The Civil War brought great changes to the Louisiana sugar industry and serious economic losses, as many freedmen were reluctant to return to the conditions of the sugarcane fields and desperately wanted their own land. Decades of struggles between planters and laborers ensued over the changing status quo, as well as a series of devastating drops in the price of sugar. The industry slowly adjusted and modernized throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Louisiana remains one of the United States’ largest producers of sugarcane.

Sugar in the ‘New World’

Louisiana owes its transformation into a sugar economy to the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries sugar cultivation was introduced to the Americas and the Caribbean Islands. Portuguese explorers brought sugar to Brazil in the early 1500s, and similar sugar mills were constructed in Cuba and Jamaica around the same time. In the first half of the 17th century, the Dutch brought sugarcane from South America to the Caribbean Islands. Europeans continued to produce numerous small sugar mills throughout the Islands. [2] Britain established colonies in the Caribbean as its own source of production as demand for sugar continued to grow enormously throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The Caribbean soon became the world’s largest source of sugar. Slave labor provided the workforce to supply large amounts of sugarcane for both British and French colonies. The slaves were pushed to the breaking point in constant efforts to increase production. [3]

The Haitian Revolution

By 1750, the French colony of Saint-Dominigue, later known as the country of Haiti, became the largest producer of sugar in the world. This heightened production of sugar coincided with the ever-increasing demand in Europe, particularly from Britain in the late 18th century. A slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture that began in 1791 in French-held Saint-Dominingue resulted in the foundation of the independent Haitian Republic in 1804. Sugar production declined dramatically as a result of the Revolution, which led Cuba to replace the former French colony as the world’s largest sugarcane grower and producer. Cuba was not the only territory to benefit from the breakdown of sugar production in Saint-Dominingue. In addition to the rise of Cuba as a sugar producer, the disruption of Haitian sugar production provided market space for Louisiana’s sugar producers, and they gained technical knowledge of the crop from whites and blacks who had left Haiti after the fighting began. [4]

Introduction of Sugar Cane in Louisiana

In 1795, just four years after the start of the Haitian Revolution, an American-born man, Jean Étienne Boré, applied the techniques of Haitian sugar producer, Antoine Morin, to process sugar from sugarcane and started the sugar boom in Louisiana. He successfully produced 100,000 pounds of sugar crystals and earned $12,000 for the product. Jesuit planters in Louisiana had previously only been able to produce crude molasses with their techniques, and this earned Boré the title the “savior of Louisiana.” As planters constructed more and more sugar mills, French and Haitian planters continued to arrive in Louisiana and the demand for slave labor continued to increase. [5]

Growing Sugarcane

The cultivation of sugarcane is a complicated process. The implementation of technological advancements and continued industrialization throughout the 19th century allowed plantations to meet the increasing production demands while at the same time increasing them. This meant experimenting with different species of sugarcane, the introduction of steam-powered mills and new evaporators for sugarcane juice, vacuum pans and evaporators that controlled steam, and increasingly modern equipment were constantly altering the production of sugar in significant ways. [6] This period saw an increase in machines for sugar production, but the increased mechanization meant nothing without an able workforce. While work on the sugar plantations required brute force and physical stamina, it also called for skill and precision to ensure the crushing, boiling, striking, packing, and other stages of the complicated manufacturing process flowed seamlessly and with maximum possible efficiency. The ordinary schedule of the enslaved men and women demanded too much already, but plantations and mills paid wages for “overwork.” Historian Elizabeth Abbott argues that “to planters, their slaves – 125,000 by mid-century – were ‘sugar machines.’” [7]

Planting Sugar in Louisiana

Sugar planters in Louisiana faced challenges specific to the region. First, Louisiana had a very short growing season and difficult climate for growing sugarcane. During growing season, the temperature dropped, and the crop often frosted over, which severely damaged the cane. Since the sugar content increases the longer the cane stays in the ground, this required planters to calculate when the frosts would come so they could wait as long as possible to harvest. Harvesting and processing the cane took roughly six to eight weeks in the early 19th century. In addition to cold and frost during the growing season, in the summer Louisiana planters ironically dealt with both drought and swampy, coastal soil prone to flooding. [8]

In Louisiana, sugarcane planting began in January and continued for several months until April. Workers in the field used the technique of rationing, where they cut and trimmed the cane down to the lower part of the plant, which allowed the crop to mature earlier in the season. Since sugarcane grows sweeter the longer it is in the soil, quicker maturation of the plants is beneficial to the amount of sugar processed later. In September, plantation workers cut and stored a portion of the crop to use as seed in the coming planting season, while leaving the rest to continue sweetening until harvest the next month. [9]

Harvesting Sugarcane

Harvesting with machinery in the 20th century accomplished the task much, much faster than cutting by hand as slaves were forced to do. When the time came to begin cutting the sugarcane, the field workers used a “knife similar to a machete,” roughly fifteen inches long with a thin blade that required frequent sharpening by the wielder, not the actual owner of the knife. The field workers sheared the cane from the stalk and cut off the top of the stalk so that it was green. This process is illustrated in the image “Sugar Plantation, Louisiana, 1873-74,” which shows black fieldworkers reaping sugarcane under the supervision of a white overseer in the spring of 1874. Wages and working conditions for freedmen in the South improved somewhat during the post-emancipation, but the end of Reconstruction, not two years after this illustration, ensured the continued suffering of field hands. Despite the time period, this illustration seems to evoke the Antebellum period rather than a society without slaves. Once the stalk had been cleaned properly it was cut from the root and stacked on the ground where it would be loaded and transported by younger workers and women to the sugarhouse for grinding. (As shown in the illustration Harvesting Sugar Cane, Louisiana 1853)

Processing Sugar

Up until the 20th century, techniques for processing sugar continued to evolve, and planters experimented with different techniques from different regions. The processing of cane into unrefined sugar was an increasingly mechanized operation, though Louisiana produced little refined sugar before Emancipation. The processing of extracting raw, unrefined sugar took place in the sugar mill, where large rollers crushed the cane to extract their juice before transporting them to another section of the mill, the boiling room. [10] Mill workers then piped the cane juice through a series of vats that filtered it through bones or charcoal before it was boiled.


This excerpt from “The Sugar Planter’s Guide” by W.J. Evans, a British doctor in 1847, details one process of boiling the sugarcane juice after it has been crushed out. This Planter’s Guide provides a highly detailed, if dated, guide for the processing of sugar from cane detailed in this module. Evans provides an illustration of three cylinders where the juice was filtered before boiling, though in Louisiana mills there were likely to be five.

After boiling, pipes carried the cane syrup through a series of pans until the syrup was stored in coolers. Once the syrup was cooled and filtered, the molasses could be poured out to be distilled into rum or processed into brown sugar. The final product of a Louisiana sugar plantation, white sugar remained in the coolers and was packed and shipped to refineries in other areas. [12]

Works Cited

  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  • Peter Macinnis. Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar. Australia: Allen & Unwin. 2002. xix-xxi.
  • J. H. Galloway. “Tradition and Innovation in the American Sugar Industry, c. 1500-1800: An Explanation.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 75. No. 3. Sep. 1985. pp. 334-335.
  • Joshua Rothman. “The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860.” Journal of the Early Republic. Vol. 27. Issue 4. Winter 2007. p745-756.
  • Elizabeth Abbott. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. New York: Duckworth Overlook. 2009. 280.
  • Rebecca J. Scott. Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard. 2005. 26-27.
  • Elizabeth Abbott. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. New York: Duckworth Overlook. 2009. 281.
  • Elizabeth Abbott. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. New York: Duckworth Overlook. 2009. 281.
  • Peter Macinnis. Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar. Australia: Allen & Unwin. 2002. 138-139.
  • Roderick A. McDonald. “Economy and Material Culture of Slaves: Goods and Chattels on the Sugar Plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana.” Louisiana State University Press. 1993. 6-7.
  • W.J. Evans. The sugar-planter’s manual: being a treatise on the art of obtaining sugar from the sugar-cane. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. 1847.
  • Elizabeth Abbott. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. New York: Duckworth Overlook. 2009. 283.

This page was last modified on 11 April 2013, at 01:26


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