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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Grant

The Not-So-Sweet History of Caribbean Sugar

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

In 1492, when the Spaniards first sailed into the waters of the Caribbean, they not only encountered people and places they did not know existed before, but the actions they took after their arrival changed life in the Americas forever. The Spaniards—and later the Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch—were not happy to simply live amongst the indigenous people who already called the Caribbean islands home. Instead, they forced these island people to give up the lands they were living on and to spend their days doing hard labor.

Later, when these Europeans began importing Africans from the west coast regions of the African continent, they also forced them to labor like cattle. Enslaved Africans worked in many different ways for their white masters. Some worked side by side with their owners on cattle ranches or plowing small plots of land. Others worked in the growing towns taking care of children, doing laundry, cooking, building houses or forts, and other work that supported town or city life. But as time went on many, many enslaved blacks worked on plantations like coffee or sugar estates.

The work on these plantations was hard—the term ‘back-breaking’ would not be an overstatement. They labored all day in the brutal heat with little food, trudged back to their meager barracks to tend their own vegetable plots (if they were lucky enough to have vegetable plots), and tried so hard to raise children and carve out some kind of lives for themselves. Many died young. Some were sold away from their children, parents, or partners.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could survive a life like that, but many not only survived this terrible existence, they turned to traditions they remembered from Africa and used these to help them cope with the harsh life they were being forced to live in the Americas. Check out our workbook: The Not-So-Sweet-History of Caribbean Sugar to learn more about plantation life. And stay tuned for our next blog ...

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