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2200017094203000030175207060056600centerbottomWolmer’s Girls’ School
765000Wolmer’s Girls’ School

left949363To what extent is it true to say that the changes from tobacco to sugar had political, social and economic consequences for the West Indies?
00To what extent is it true to say that the changes from tobacco to sugar had political, social and economic consequences for the West Indies?

Table of Contents
PagesRationale 3
Introduction 4
Question 5
Body 6
Conclusion 9
Appendices 10
Bibliography 12

The researcher hopes to research the economic, social and political consequences which resulted from the changeover of tobacco to sugarcane in the British West Indies in the mid to late seventeenth century. This paper will examine the consequences of the Sugar Revolution.

A revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structure that takes place in a relatively short period of time. In the British West Indies from about 1645 a change occurred in the basic cash crop. This change was so rapid and far – reaching that revolutionary seems a fitting word to describe it. It ranks in importance with Emancipation, for the sugar revolution changed the Lesser Antilles completely. The Sugar Revolution brought about demographic, social, economic and political changes in the British West Indies. Unlike more broadly based revolutions like the Industrial and Agricultural Revolution, the Sugar Revolution points to the transformative power of a single commodity. From the onset of the Sugar Revolution, production in the British colonies grew at a rate never seen before. The Sugar Revolution has also been referred to as an economic revolution. An account of Barbados in 1667 reads as follows: ‘ The buildings in 1643 were meant with things only for necessity, but in 1666 plate, jewels and house hold stuff were estimated at five hundred thousand pounds (£500,000.00), their buildings fair and beautiful, and their houses like castle, their sugar houses and Blacks hut show themselves from the sea like so many small towns, each defended by its castle’. This S.B.A / Essay will discuss the causes of the Sugar Revolution and it will also examine the impact/ consequences of the Revolution.

To what extent is it true to say that the changes from tobacco to sugar had political, social and economic consequences for the British West Indies during the mid to late seventeenth century?
Amid the early years of agriculture in the West Indies, tobacco was the main agricultural crop. Sugar was planted, yes but whenever it was, it was always in small quantities. Several factors accounted for the sugar revolution. Tobacco, the crop which the economy of the British West Indies was founded, was on a decline. West Indian tobacco couldn’t rival Venezuelan tobacco or tobacco from Virginia, so there was a fall in the demand for West Indian tobacco. This resulted in the fall in price of tobacco and therefore it became more and more impractical to cultivate.

By 1627, Virginia was shipping about 500,000 lbs. of tobacco to England. (Refer to appendix: fig: 1 for table showing sugar production from 1741-1745)
As demands for tobacco increased, Virginia had the advantage of both size and quality. Hence leaving the demand for West Indian tobacco to fall because it failed to expand its output and increase its quality to match that which was produced by Virginia. Tobacco in Virginia grew slower due to climate of the temperate zone and as a result the flavor and intensity of the “high” it brought about were both better than those produced in the warmer West Indies. As expected in production, competition arose from the Dutch trading in Curacao and Venezuela.

Consequently the price of West Indian tobacco fell, but then there soon became a high demand for sugar in Europe. The social habits of persons were changing, so then came the introduction of tea and coffee. This introduction created a demand for sweetness and as honey was too expensive, that is where sugar came into the mix.
The increase for demand in sugar provided a stimulus for its introduction and expansion in the British West Indies. It was readily accepted as an alternative crop to tobacco and their efforts were supported by the Dutch. In 1640, the Dutch came to the islands and brought with them their expertise in sugar production. They provided capital, labour and markets for the young industry. They arrived at a time when the tobacco economy was facing difficulties to teach the inhabitants the secrets of sugar cultivation and the manufacturing of it. The Dutch’s Contribution was so great that it can be said that they made the change possible.

This change that was made is known as The Sugar Revolution. The Sugar Revolution refers to the rapid and extensive changes that took place in the British West Indies as a result of change in the primary cash crop.
The transition from tobacco to sugar production changed the agricultural contest for the British West Indies. Among the changes resulting from the change were adjustments for the social and economic lives of the tobacco farmers, a change in supply also took place due to the change in the economic structure. To maximize profits the planting of sugar cane needed cheap labour which was obtained from African slaves as the sugar cane had to be produced in bulk.

There was a complete dependence on sugar and the introduction of it, restricted navigation laws by European countries. This was due to the decrease for the demand of tobacco. There was also a change in the pattern of agriculture from a diversified economy to a monocultural economy in the Caribbean territories. Also small holdings were bought out to make large plantations for sugar cultivation and the price of land increased due to this. The price of land increased dramatically during the sugar revolution. “In some parts of Barbados by as much as thirty times.” The increase in land prices was due to the increased value it attained as a result of the revolution.
The triangular trade also provided employment in a number of areas from ship building to insurance to porters and warehouse landlords among others. (Refer to appendices: Fig: 2 To see a demonstration of the Triangular Trade).

The sugar revolution brought about an increased slave population as more of the enslaved were being imported from West Africa. The introduction of enslaved Africans altered the demography of islands as there were more blacks than whites. This was also were social classes evolved from. Statistics shows that in 1645, the community of blacks on Barbados was 5,500 and by 1748 it had increased to 68,000, the society of the British West Indies had become divided. (Refer to appendices: fig 3: To see the change in population after the Sugar Revolution). This change in the racial composition was so exponential that by the mid eighteenth century, the ratio of Blacks to whites was 25:1. The rise of the sugar industry was the signal for dispossession of small farmers. In Barbados in 1645 there were 11,200 small farmers and 5,680 Negro slaves, in 1667 there were 745 large plantation owners and 82,023 slaves. This significant shift in demography as incited changes in the attributes used to judge status .Social status was now tremendously influenced by colour. It was such a rapid growth that the ratio of blacks to white by the 18th century was 25:1.
White persons became intimate with black slaves, bringing about coloured offspring. These offspring were a class above the black slaves but below the whites. “Separated by law, they had no political power and were allowed very limited control of land”. The increasing number of coloureds not only placed another social class above the enslaved but further changed the demography of the Caribbean islands.

Many rich plantation owners returned to England while still living off the profits of their West Indian estates. By doing this they introduced a practice of absenteeism. Many of them left the West Indies because they believed that the climate was degrading and harmful and there were also no schools in the West Indies for the children of plantation owners. But absenteeism led to many things that didn’t go in favour of the plantation owners. Some of these were: mismanagement of sugar estates, the declining of the estates value and destruction of the plantation system.
The introduction of enslaved Africans and the later increase in coloureds brought about a bevy of social issues. Just because of their skin colour, they were viewed to be inferior to white people despite how wealthy or how educated he or she was.

As sugar cultivation increased and wealth was obtained, there was a change in the system of the colonies which governed. Their show of wealth and the financial gains to be derived from their control, made the powers brings the islands under more direct control. Governors were sent out to govern with specific instructions and commissions. Laws such as the Navigation Acts and the Mercantile System were instituted to get tighter control of the colonies. They all had their own rules and different leaders although they were all under on governance.
The British West Indies changed from being an area that was neglected for so long to being an empire politically.

The wealth which was gained from sugar inspired greed from other European nations who wanted to fight for control of the colonies with each other. The seventeenth century witnessed the shuffling backward and forward of the colonies from one European nation to another as fortune of war changed. The West Indies became a pawn in the game of International politics and the region became a theatre of maritime warfare. Thus leading to a change in the system of governing in the West Indies. The Sugar Revolution brought the West Indian colonies under heavy watch as it was a prized possession that many European countries were fighting over.


By the 18th century, sugar became the predominant cash crop for most of the Caribbean colonies. In the seventeenth century both in the English and to a lesser extent in the French islands, a change occurred in the basic cash crop. The society became a divided one. The Sugar Revolution laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution which took place within the years 1760-1820 through the high profits that they were earning. The list of changes is almost inexhaustible. The natures of society changed from a free population to a slave population and racially from white to black as a lot of slaves were imported to work on sugar estates. Also, the African Culture was introduced by the Blacks. Sugar was now the main cash crop of the British West Indies. Subsequent to the Sugar Revolution, planters had made high profits. Absenteeism led to the overall destruction of the plantation system in the British West Indies. A host of new laws were introduced to regulate and define the relationship between masters and slaves. Wealth gained from sugar aroused greed from European nations who sought to wrest control of the colonies from each other. Of all the revolutions that occurred, the Sugar Revolution was the only one which dealt with a single commodity.

The Sugar Revolution made a way to the blacks to thrive and get their way to the top of the organizational structure. The Sugar Revolution also rescued economies which were struggling with tobacco as the cash crop.

Sugar Production in the Caribbean
Territory Output (average tons)
1741-1745 1766-1770
British 41,043 80,285
French 64,675 77,923
Dutch 9,210 10,126
Spanish 2,000 10,000
Danish 730 8,230
Fig 1: Table depicting the production of sugar in the Caribbean.

Fig 2: Demonstration of the triangular Trade
Fig 3: Picture showing the change in population after the Sugar Revolution

Heckles, H. ; Shepherd, V. (2004) Liberties Lost, Cambridge University Press Jamaica
Dookhan, I. (1971) A Pre Emancipation History of the West Indies, Collins Clear England
Greenwood. (1991) A Sketchmap History of the Caribbean, Macmillan Caribbean Thailand
Dyde, Brian, Robert Greenwood, Shirley Hamber (2008) 3rd Edition, Amerindians to Africans, Macmillan Education
Richardson, Pamella, “Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados.” H-Caribbean, H-Net Reviews. April, 2007. Sugar Revolution. (n.d.). Retrieved September 11, 2017, from


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