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The Avis Black History Month Special — Thursday, February 27, 2014


Sugar When



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2014 Black History Month

Photo courtesy of St. Croix Landmarks Society from the Axel Ovesen Collection

A truck is used to transport sugarcane on St. Croix.

Sugarcane industry creates big business for Danish gov’t

TOM EADER Bureau Chief ST. CROIX — Sugarcane was a staple crop in the Virgin Islands and particularly on St. Croix for two centuries, creating big business for the Danish government until the end of the 19th century when the price of sugar dropped, slavery ended, beet sugar production increased in Europe and a hurricane devastated many small factories on St. Croix. Sugarcane was used to make sugar, which was exported off island. The byproduct of sugar manufacture is molasses, an ingredient in the distillation of rum. The conversion of sugarcane to sugar required a complicated process of milling, boiling and crystalizing immediately after it was cut, according to “The Umbilical Cord” by Harold Willocks. Sugarcane was grown on large farms (200 to 300 acres) under one ownership and management,

feeding into a single factory. The introduction of the cane industry brought drastic changes in the distribution of land, changing from a large number of people having small holdings to a small number having large holdings. The value of land rose as the industry yielded greater profits, creating an effect where the wealthy were able to buy and consolidate estates from small land owners who could no longer afford land, or find it profitable to own. While the Danish island leaders were the ones who benefitted from the sale of sugar under the rule of slavery up until emancipation in 1848, the local and federal government and island residents who worked in the cane fields and sugar factories reaped some economic benefits during the 20th century until the industry closed in 1966. The profits derived from sugarcane over two centuries would not have been possible


Sugarcane field workers at rest.

Photo courtesy of St. Croix Landmarks Society from the Blackwood Collection


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2014 Black History Month

INDUSTRY: FROM PAGE 2 without Christopher Columbus. Columbus brought the perennial plant to the New World during his second voyage, so he would have transported it in one of his caravels that anchored by Salt River on Nov. 14, 1493 before the plant ever reached the mainland, according to “Emancipation” by Erik Lawaetz. The French grew sugarcane on St. Croix from the early 1600s as a means of commerce, shipping it out of St. Thomas. The cane fields thickened with brush when the French left island in 1695, killing the crops by the time the Danes took over in 1734. The Danes most likely got new crops from St. Thomas to replant on the big island, paving the way for four decades of a thriving industry from 1780 to 1820 that earned Denmark substantial profits on the backs of enslaved Africans. The slave population under Danish rule reached its height of more than 35,000 throughout the territory in 1802 at the peak of the sugarcane industry, with about 27,000 of them on St. Croix, according to Lawaetz. The profits to be made during the time sugar was king quickly dried up and the value of the island’s estates in places like St. George, La Reine, Lower

Love, Barren Spot and Bethlehem depreciated an average of about 85 percent by the late 1800s. While it is known Spain, Holland, England and Denmark all made claims to the Virgin Islands, the Danes established plantations worked by slave labor, according to literature from the National Park Service. The wharf area of Christiansted once played an important role in the mercantilist system that linked Europe, West Africa, the West Indies and North America, according to literature from the National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks. From 1734 to 1803 the wharf was part of the infamous “Triangular Trade,” whereby slaves were acquired from West Africa for cheap manufactured goods and shipped to Christiansted to be auctioned off. Wealth derived from sugar, rum and slaves enabled an extravagant lifestyle among the upper class of St. Croix society, especially between 1760 and 1820. The main crops initially grown were tobacco, plants for the creation of dye and native crops, but production later shifted to sugar and cotton, two crops that were labor intensive but profitable, according to NPS. From 1734 until 1803, Christiansted played a critical role in the capture and sale of enslaved Africans and the sale of pre-

cious natural resources like sugar and timber to Europe and the American Colonies. Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1792, thereby eliminating the source of free labor that had helped ensure the success of the plantation economy, according to NPS. A decline in the prices of sugar and cotton in the early 1800s combined with the total abolition of slavery by Denmark in 1848 ended a cotton and sugar-based economy that was already struggling. Large land owners who had owned slaves often divided their lots into smaller farms or abandoned them to nature. After the end of slavery in the Danish West Indies, beet sugar production increased so rapidly throughout Europe that by 1880 the tonnage had surpassed that of cane sugar, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Even though sugarcane was grown for about two centuries on St. Croix and making sugar was ranked as a leading commercial industry, the area devoted to the cultivation of cane gradually diminished from 1898, and very little planting of cane was done during the decade immediately preceding World War I, according to the Virgin Islands Agricultural Experiment Station’s Bulletin No. 2, written by Longfield Smith, agronomist in charge, and issued Sept. 12, 1921.

The St. Croix sugar crop for 1916 was the largest the island had yielded since 1903, according to “The Virgin Islands of the United States of America” published in 1918 and written by Luther Zabriskie, formerly vice consul of the United States of America of St. Thomas. The first estimates for the 1916 crop placed the probable output at 30 million Danish pounds (100 English pounds equaled 90.7185 Danish pounds). The price of sugar on St. Croix in March 1916 was about $90 per ton. The average amount of sugar exported yearly from 1898 to 1921 was about 9,000 tons from an area of about 14,000 acres, Smith wrote. The economic conditions brought about by the war stimulated the growing of cane on St. Croix, noting that 13,000 acres were devoted to

cane fields in 1921. St. Croix once had about 100 sugar estates, but many of them merged into larger holdings in the early 1900s, according to Zabriskie. By 1918, the sugar cane interests were controlled by the Danish Plantation Company, West India Sugar Factory, St. Croix Sugar Factory and La Grange Sugar Factory, as well as eight small, individual concerns. A hurricane in 1899 destroyed many small factories, leaving only 17 in operation, according to Lawaetz. They eventually closed as the price of sugar and rum fell. After the United States purchased the islands in 1917, Lawaetz wrote that the more lucrative rum business stopped due to the U.S. prohibition laws. Almost all cane operations



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All in the family

Hendricksons continue sugarcane tradition TOM EADER Bureau Chief ST. CROIX — Even though the days when sugarcane was a major industry in the Virgin Islands have long been forgotten, one family continues harvesting the crop as a means of survival. Vincent Hendrickson, a native of St. Kitts, and his daughter, Jewel Hendrickson, have been growing sugarcane on their property in Estate La Grange for the past two decades. Vincent harvests purple and white cane manually with a machete to sell as

sugarcane in addition to cane juice, drawing a crowd of customers at events like Jump Up and the Agriculture and Food Fair. When asked how he got involved in growing and selling sugarcane and cane juice on St. Croix, Vincent’s response was reflective of his roots. “I come from a country that plants sugarcane and harvests sugarcane for business,” he said. In addition to growing sugarcane, the Hendrickson’s also har-


J. Hendrickson

INDUSTRY: FROM PAGE 3 ceased with the dry years of 1920 to 1930 and the onset of the Great Depression. The Danish West Indian Sugar Company, which owned Bethlehem and Central Factory, went into liquidation in 1929. Much time, effort and money was expended in attempting to rehabilitate the sugarcane industry on a self-operating basis since the general collapse of the industry on St. Croix in 1930, Norris Nichols, who served as director of the Virgin Islands Agricultural Experiment Station on St. Croix, wrote in his publication titled “Production and Liquidation of Colono Cane in Saint Croix” that he submitted in May 1940. Dr. Ralph A. de Chabert, a retired physician, was a young boy when the federal govern-

ment bought Central Sugar Factory, which was located in Estate Richmond in the area of the VI Water and Power Authority. De Chabert said his father, Ralph D. de Chabert, and his father’s cousin, Charles Andrew, owned shares of stock in Central Sugar Factory, noting that Andrew was a principle stockholder. After the Central Sugar Factory was sold, he said everything moved to Estate Bethlehem. De Chabert recalled visiting the sugarcane factory in Estate Bethlehem as a young child. He said he used to go in the mornings during one summer to see how they would grind cane and make sugar. “From what I have seen and I knew they had railroad tracks throughout the middle of the island and had a locomotive and carts, and they collected the cane from all these areas and went right to Bethlehem,” he said, adding people from other islands like Antigua came to St. Croix to help cut the cane. When de Chabert returned to St. Croix in about 1964 or 1965 after completing his residency in New York, he said he examined the migrant workers to make sure they were healthy enough to work in the fields. “There was cane all over the island until it started getting less and less because of the expense of planting the cane and harvesting it,” de Chabert said. The Bethlehem Sugar Factory provided employment opportunities for island residents until it closed in 1966. As the sugarcane fields faded away, de Chabert said a lot of residents turned to raising cattle for their livelihood. “We had a lot of cattle on island,” he said. “They were used here, but most of it was shipped off island to Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean.” When the sugarcane industry finally died, it was followed by Harvey Alumina and eventually Hess Oil, as well as tourism. The oil industry lasted more than four decades until 2012 when the refinery on St. Croix’s south shore shut down, citing operating losses of $1.3 billion over a three-year period. The government offered the owners of the refinery, Hovensa, incentives to sell just last year but the facility still remains on the market. The government has not confirmed rumors that Exxon Mobil is planning to purchase the refinery. Although sugarcane has died as an industry to make sugar, there are a couple St. Croix farmers who still grow the crop for its juice, selling cane juice on the side of Centerline Road and at cultural functions like Jump Up.


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2014 Black History Month

Sugarcane faced competition on St. Thomas JUDI SHIMEL ST. THOMAS — Sugarcane reigned only briefly on St. Thomas, for about 15 years, and was up against other crops like tobacco, cotton and indigo. According to a noted scholar and author who wrote extensively about the plantation era, neither island in the northern district of what is now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands was viewed with much promise when it came to sugarcane. “The Danes didn’t value the Virgin Islands for cultivation, it was looked at as an entrepot for colonizing European nations,” said Eddie Donahue. “Because of this, St. Thomas was not seen as promising for agriculture.” That point of view, from 1643, led to the production of varying products — tobacco, cotton, indigo and ginger. Around that time Europeans were introduced to sugar and developed a collective sweet tooth, things began to change. Donahue left his native Montserrat to attend the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and lived in that Scandinavian country for 20 years. Among his publications are “Negro Slavery: A Collection of Newspaper Articles on Slave Society and Slave Life in the Danish West Indies.” “The sugarcane boom began between 1645 to 1654,” Donahue said, 20 years after the Danish crown granted a charter to the Danish West Indian Co., forerunner to what today is known as the West Indian Company, Ltd. The company was given authority to colonize St. Thomas, and began transporting settlers. That experience produced less than favorable results. Among the settlers were a number of indentured servants, young Europeans encumbered by debt who agreed to relocate to the colonies and work for five years. Living conditions proved harsh and many died before their five years were completed. They came to be regarded as unsuitable. By 1681, as the number of estates under cultivation grew to 50, the Danish West Indian Co. began importing slaves to Tappus, the town later known as Charlotte Amalie. Donahue said at that time sugar was among the tobacco, indigo and cotton being grown on St. Thomas. Sugar production expanded as a German company came to the island. Researchers delving into Moravian Church records wrote about the Brandenburghers, who came to the island seeking a fortune through the transshipment of slaves. “The success of the Prussia in this sector of the slave trade led Governor Iverson to convince his fellow directors on the board of

Sugarcane grows on the property of Vincent Hendrickson in Estate La Grange, St. Croix. Tom Eader

the Danish West Indian Company that the corporation would benefit financially to embrace the slave transshipment business,” he said. German merchants also found St. Thomas hardwood trees, another commodity they could

profit from shipping. With revenues flowing and a steady stream of African slaves passing through on their way to other colonies, the Brandenburgs found the combination to make money from sugar plantations as

a secondary source, Donahue said. According to church documents, beginning in the year 1700, St. Thomas sugar plantations grew from 122 to 160 over a 15-year period.

“The production of sugar was now predominant,” he said. “There were 40 estates devoted to sugar production of which 32 had their own wind-powered mills.” And that, Donahue said, was about it. Records showing the price paid for sugar produced in the Virgin Islands started to drop. “The reason was because it was so labor intensive,” he said. “And remember that the soil was exhausted. They never used ploughs in the Danish West Indies.” Add to that the practice of giving slaves plots of land they could cultivate on their own, called provision grounds. “This is where slaves could grow their own food. It also became a place where slaves could get together, socialize and court,” he said. The practice also made sugar production more expensive, speeding St. Thomas plantations into further decline.

When Sugar Ruled Part 1  
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