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Open Access Two Islands, One Commodity: Cuba, Java, and the Global Sugar Trade (1790-1930)

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Two Islands, One Commodity: Cuba, Java, and the Global Sugar Trade (1790-1930)

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image of New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Sugar had become, by the eighteenth century, a global commodity. Originating in East Asia, plantations in the Americas fed the growing taste for its use in Europe, with its consumption increasingly popularised. The 1791 Revolution in Saint Domingue (Haiti) and the 1807 British abolition of the slave trade prompted shifts in the epicentres of sugar, the most important of these being arguably to Cuba and Java. These two fertile islands saw the burgeoning development of sugar-plantation systems with major inputs of foreign capital and forced labour. In the process the two islands each, respectively, became central to the very much truncated Spanish and Dutch colonial empires left after the Napoleonic wars and the Latin American wars of liberation; and by the mid-nineteenth century in the case of Cuba, and by the late nineteenth century in the case of Java, they had been catapulted to global sugar pre-eminence. There has been an abundance of study on the two islands each in their own right, but none systematically examines their parallel trajectories. Yet the question arises as to how sugar came to dominate the agriculture, industry and trade of these two islands; and how these two islands in particular, in two different colonial systems and parts of the world, should rise to sugar pre-eminence in the way they did and when they did. Are there connections and similarities between the two that help explain this phenomenon? This article analyses the conditions that led Java and Cuba to become the prime cane-sugar exporters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Initiative for this came from the linkages between their dominant elites and the transnational, transimperial networks of trade and capital. This furthered the stimulation of technological and scientific innovation in both, enabled not only through the introduction of the latest advances in machinery and method, but also the immigration of technical skilled workers from Europe and North America. New sugar frontiers were opened that offered room for expansion at a time of rapidly growing demand for sugar in Europe; but for this to occur, radical changes needed to be made to the system of land ownership and use. At the same solutions were needed for how to mobilise and control sufficient labour without jeopardising the colonial order. This question eventually came to dominate the political system through which social control could be ensured – particularly, because Cuba and Java came to be ever more closely tied to global capital and trade; and both islands become dominated by sugar while at the same time coming to dominate global sugar production.

Affiliations: 1: International Institute of Social History, 1019 AT Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


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