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Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680

Author(s):Schwartz, Stuart B.
Reviewer(s):Eltis, David

Published by EH.NET (December 2004)

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Stuart B. Schwartz, editor, Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xiii + 347 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2875-0; $22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8078-5583-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Eltis, Department of History, Emory University.

Well over ninety-five percent of the sugar carried from the Americas during the slave era, and well over ninety percent of the slaves ever carried across the Atlantic, most of whom were intended to make that sugar, sailed after 1650. The two centuries before 1650, when sugar and increasingly slaves, moved out of the Mediterranean and into first the “Mediterranean Atlantic,” then into the Gulf of Guinea, and finally to Brazil and the Caribbean, remain a dark period relative to the two subsequent centuries during which sugar shaped the evolution of the heartlands of the Americas in almost every sense. The last research article on the early Cuban sugar sector was written ninety years ago, its counterpart for Hispaniola (in English at least) is half a century old, and on early Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro, there is still no specialist coverage of the early sugar industry except for the Dutch period. Indeed, this reviewer was under the impression that the Caribbean produced sugar for only local consumption prior to the mid-seventeenth century.

Stuart Schwartz of Yale University has chosen to reduce this very large gap in the literature by bringing together scholars who have spent decades mining the primary sources around the Atlantic World, and providing them with a set of research questions. The result is a cohesive but wide ranging collection of essays. No single scholar could have produced such a volume — perhaps the best possible argument for an edited collection. The chapters follow the movement of sugar cultivation for export from the fifteenth-century Iberian Peninsula to seventeenth-century Barbados. They are packed with new information, not least on how the technology was transferred from one area to another and how the labor force came to be dominated first by the enslaved and then by the enslaved of African descent. There are separate essays on the expanding sugar markets of early modern Europe and the transatlantic slave trade that add to the cohesion of the volume. In the shortest of the offerings, William Phillips describes the two routes (Christian and Moslem) through which sugar-growing came to medieval Spain. Alberto Viera carries the story into the Atlantic Islands or the so-called Mediterranean Atlantic and makes novel comparisons of Madeira and the islands making up the Canaries. Genaro Rodriguez Morel charts the sixteenth-century rise and decline of sugar exports from Hispaniola, in which state intervention played a major role. Alejandro de la Fuente does the same for Cuba in the following century. Almost one quarter of the island’s exports comprised sugar, 1650-1699, despite the importance of hides and tobacco at the time. Schwartz extends his earlier path-breaking work on Bahia to bring in, on a comparative basis, what is known about Pernambuco and the south-central Brazilian sugar growing areas. Production in Pernambuco, Bahia and eventually Rio de Janeiro grew rapidly between 1570 and 1630 but was severely curtailed by the Dutch invasion from which Pernambuco never fully recovered. Here, as in the essays on the Caribbean, one of the most interesting findings is how much cultivation and production methods differed from later techniques. Eddy Stols contributes a learned survey of the uses of sugar in Europe and argues that it was far more widely used in this early period than Anglo-Saxon historians of sugar and the major economic historians of Europe have recognized. Finally, John J. McCusker, Russell R Menard reinforce the recent trend toward downplaying the role of the Dutch in the meteoric rise of Barbados as a sugar producer and provide much fascinating new detail besides, particularly a comparative sugar price series for the seventeenth century and an elegant little appendix on the value of Barbados currency.

The major omission is a separate treatment of Sao Tome, the most important source of European sugar imports in the mid-sixteenth century. The island still awaits an explanation of the rise and fall of its sugar sector. Martinique and Guadeloupe also get short shrift. The fascinating survey of sugar uses and markets in Europe might have had slightly different conclusions if the author had essayed some very rough per capita consumption estimates. On the evidence of other essays in the volume, per capita sugar consumption remained very small indeed throughout this period. Oddly, many of the generalizations in the chapter on the slave trade seem to be drawn from the eighteenth century and later, rather than the early period, and the same is true of the discussion of the direction and volume of the traffic. While the figures and maps in the volume are excellent, some of the tables are either hard to interpret (Table 3.4, 5.3), or, comprising lists of names, are insufficiently analytical. Economic historians would have appreciated an overall (even if highly tentative) assessment of the output of the various areas and when one replaced the other, and few will see the staple model, identified in the introduction as a useful framework for this early period, as having much analytical purchase. They might also have difficulty in seeing the significance of the difference between a sugar “revolution” and a sugar “boom” on which the final essay insists. But none of these caveats will threaten this book’s status over the coming years as the basic source for the early Atlantic sugar sector.

David Eltis is the author of The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000) and co-editor of Slavery in the Development of the Americas (Cambridge, 2004).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Medieval