King's College London
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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

The introduction of sugar cane

Map of the island of Barbados in around 1650, illustrated with figures and giving the names of plantationsMap of the island of Barbados, from: Richard Ligon. A true & exact history of the island of Barbados. London: printed for Humphrey Moseley, at the Prince's Armes in St Paul's Church-yard, 1657 [FCO Historical Collection FOL. F2041 LIG]Barbados was settled by the English in 1627 and was the first of England’s West Indian colonies to grow sugar commercially and to market it abroad.

In the early years of settlement tobacco was the main cash crop. During the 1640s, however, because of a collapse in the market price of tobacco, some Barbadian planters began switching to sugar production.

Although sugar had been brought from Guyana by Captain Henry Powell shortly after the first settlers arrived on Barbados, the techniques for growing and processing sugar as a commercial enterprise were imported by the Barbadians from the Dutch in Brazil.

According to Richard Ligon (ca 1585-1662), a number of Barbadian planters also obtained new canes from Perambuco, which they propagated, and when they had enough canes they began to experiment with making sugar. Ligon arrived on Barbados in1647 and found that the quality of the sugar produced was very poor and barely of merchantable quality.

However, by obtaining information from visitors from Brazil and by making visits to mainland sugar estates, the Barbadian planters perfected their techniques and by the time Ligon left the island three years later their sugar was of much better quality.

At the time of the introduction of sugar to Barbados, land-holdings were generally small and labour was provided by indentured servants, as well as a small number of African and Indian slaves. However, growing sugar on small plots of land was uneconomic and so a process of land consolidation began, with smaller holdings being sold off and larger plantations growing up. Sugar production was also labour intensive and this increased need for manpower could not be met by indentured labour, so large numbers of slaves were purchased - there were an estimated 50 African slaves on the island in 1629 but by 1666 there were more than 50,000.

The plate on display is a map of the island in around 1650. Most of the plantations named are along the leeward coast of the island giving them access to the sea for easy transport of their goods. The interior and northern parts of the island are more sparsely populated, with fewer named plantations, as indicated by the depictions of wild hogs, hunters and runaway slaves.

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