The lesser-known ugly history of sugar plantation slavery in the US

When I think of the history of slave labor in the US, I tend to think of cotton fields where slaves were brutalized. But an article by Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The 1619 Project (pages 70-77) brought to my attention the vast scale of slavery in sugar plantations, centered in Louisiana, where the working conditions were arguably even worse. Muhammad says that Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane stalks on his second voyage and that it was the presence of slave labor that shifted sugar from a luxury commodity to what it is now.

In Europe at that time, refined sugar was a luxury product, the backbreaking toil and dangerous labor required in its manufacture an insuperable barrier to production in anything approaching bulk. It seems reasonable to imagine that it might have remained so if it weren’t for the establishment of an enormous market in enslaved laborers who had no way to opt out of the treacherous work.

The enslaved population soared, quadrupling over a 20-year period to 125,000 souls in the mid-19th century. New Orleans became the Walmart of people-selling. The number of enslaved labor crews doubled on sugar plantations. And in every sugar parish, black people outnumbered whites. These were some of the most skilled laborers, doing some of the most dangerous agricultural and industrial work in the United States.

The conditions under which men, women, and children had to work were horrific.

In the mill, alongside adults, children toiled like factory workers with assembly-line precision and discipline under the constant threat of boiling hot kettles, open furnaces and grinding rollers. ‘‘All along the endless carrier are ranged slave children, whose business it is to place the cane upon it, when it is conveyed through the shed into the main building,’’ wrote Solomon Northup in ‘‘Twelve Years a Slave,’’ his 1853 memoir of being kidnapped and forced into slavery on Louisiana plantations.

To achieve the highest efficiency, as in the round-the-clock Domino refinery today, sugar houses operated night and day. ‘‘On cane plantations in sugar time, there is no distinction as to the days of the week,’’ Northup wrote. Fatigue might mean losing an arm to the grinding rollers or being flayed for failing to keep up. Resistance was often met with sadistic cruelty.

A formerly enslaved black woman named Mrs. Webb described a torture chamber used by her owner, Valsin Marmillion. ‘‘One of his cruelties was to place a disobedient slave, standing in a box, in which there were nails placed in such a manner that the poor creature was unable to move,’’ she told a W.P.A. interviewer in 1940. ‘‘He was powerless even to chase the flies, or sometimes ants crawling on some parts of his body.’’

Louisiana led the nation in destroying the lives of black people in the name of economic efficiency. The historian Michael Tadman found that Louisiana sugar parishes had a pattern of ‘‘deaths exceeding births.’’ Backbreaking labor and ‘‘inadequate net nutrition meant that slaves working on sugar plantations were, compared with other working-age slaves in the United States, far less able to resist the common and life-threatening diseases of dirt and poverty,’’ wrote Tadman in a 2000 study published in the American Historical Review. Life expectancy was less like that on a cotton plantation and closer to that of a Jamaican cane field, where the most overworked and abused could drop dead after seven years.

Most of these stories of brutality, torture and premature death have never been told in classroom textbooks or historical museums. They have been refined and whitewashed in the mills and factories of Southern folklore: the romantic South, the Lost Cause, the popular ‘‘moonlight and magnolias’’ plantation tours so important to Louisiana’s agritourism today.

The US has managed to hide so much of its ugly history so that it can tell itself that it is and always has been a highly virtuous nation favored by their god.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    My impression from 19th century literature was that every slave elsewhere in the colonies knew that being sold “down the river” (ie. to Louisiana) was pretty much a death sentence.

  2. says

    Cotton doesn’t really become a huge thing until the mechanical cotton gin comes along, and yeah, prior to that it’s sugar, sugar, sugar, molasses, and rum.

    I don’t know how deeply concealed this was, though. I certainly learned about the Atlantic triangle trade (slaves -> molasses -> rum -> money -> more slaves) in high school. I guess I didn’t get thoroughly soaked in the gruesome details of a molasses plant, but we certainly knew that slavery was bad.

  3. says

    Accounts I have read are that sugar makes picking tobacco pleasant in comparison. Which is saying something. After the slaves were officially freed, sugar plantations simply ignored that fact, eventually switching to debt peonage -- at which point the workload became worse. When someone is on their own rather than part of an organizable labor pool, they can be squeezed harder -- a lesson Uber and Amazon have learned.

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