Blockades, Bounties & Beets: Sugar and Rum in the 19th Century

Rum history students know that it’s impossible to separate rum’s story from the sugar industry; Sugar was king, rum a mere prince. In the 1700s and 1800s, Caribbean sugar estates focused on making sugar, first and foremost; any additional income from rum was treated as an offset to estate expenses.

If sugar wasn’t profitable, estates weren’t making rum. Thus, the ups and downs of early rum making closely paralleled the sugar industry.

The 1800s were a particularly tumultuous time for the Caribbean sugar industry, which was buffeted by serious financial headwinds that saw many estates shuttered or consolidated. Rum making naturally suffered as well.

A particularly readable account of that era (from the British perspective) was penned by Sir Algernon Aspinall in his 1913 book, The British West Indies – Their History, Resources and Progress. A prolific writer, Aspinall was Secretary of the West India Committee for many years and exceptionally influential within the sphere of the British West Indies.

A substantial portion of Chapter Seven of Aspinall’s book is excerpted below. But first, let’s examine a few key passages.


Early on, Aspinall provides a quick overview of where sugarcane agriculture was doing well and where it wasn’t, circa 1913:

…the premier place must still be given to sugar, for, in spite of many vicissitudes to which it has been subjected, it is still the chief staple industry of the West Indies, though in some of the islands, notably Dominica, Grenada and St. Vincent, barely enough sugar is now produced to cope with local requirements. In Barbados, British Guiana, Antigua, St. Kitts, and St. Lucia, sugar is still king…

His version of the arrival and spread of sugarcane in the New World focuses on Cuba rather than Brazil, as most modern takes do:

[sugar]…was first cultivated in the West Indies in Cuba, into which island it was introduced by the Spaniards. In 1578 there were as many as twenty¬eight sugar mills in operation in that island. From Cuba, cane cultivation rapidly spread to the other West Indian islands as soon as they were settled…

Aspinall then recounts sugar’s “gold rush” era:

In the early days of the industry, sugar fetched a sum which to present day planters would seem almost fabulous. Slavery was of course in vogue, labour was cheap, fortunes were soon built up from this simple grass, and the planters lived in princely style in their palatial “Great Houses.” Costly Chippendale furniture, mirrors and china were sent out in the West Indiamen, which were to return laden with sugar, and the mahogany tables of the sugar lords groaned with costly plate.

Eventually, clouds appear on sugar’s horizon:

The first signs of trouble were the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and the agitation for the abolition of slavery, to combat which enormous sums of money were poured out by the planters. They proved of little avail beyond postponing the—for the planters—evil day, and, when slavery was abolished in 1834, the West Indians found themselves for the first time face to face with a serious crisis…

While the abolishment of slavery was the morally correct choice, the loss of inexpensive labor raised sugar production costs for plantations. In this passage we get a sense of exactly how much abolition financially impact things. In brief, sugar production costs doubled (at least) in British colonies. Meanwhile, British colony sugar was competing against slavery-subsidized sugar from non-British territories:

It was shown before the Committee on Sugar and Coffee Plantations in 1848 that the cost of producing muscovado sugar in Antigua, which had been 7s. 6d. per cwt. under slavery or compulsory labour, had risen to 16s. 6d. during freedom. In Barbados the cost of production rose from 6s. to 15s. 6d., while British Guiana was even in a worst plight, the cost of producing a hundredweight of sugar rising under freedom to as high as 25s., which made competition with Cuba and Porto Rico, where in consequence of the continuance of slavery the cost of production remained as low as 8s. and 8s. 6d. respectively, altogether impossible.[i]

The price competition naturally affected plantation profitability:

Lord Howard de Walden complained before that body that whereas in the days of slavery his two estates in Jamaica cleared £20,000 annually, Montpelier showed a loss of £2,195 in the eight years after abolition…

A second blow to sugar estate economics was competition from beet sugar, which Napoleon fostered because the British blockades prevented French colony sugar from being delivered to France:

Napoleon at the time of the First Empire conceived the idea of establishing a continental beet industry which would ensure an adequate supply of sugar for France, and at the same time render that country independent of the British colonies.

Initially, beet sugar was more costly to produce than from sugarcane. But over time, processing technology improved, reducing production costs. Furthermore, France subsidized the young industry by paying a bounty to producers for each unit weight of beet sugar made. This brought beet sugar and Caribbean sugar prices more in line:

At his fall [Napoleon’s] the industry which he started languished, but it was revived and definitely established in 1829, from which date it was fostered by a system of bounties which rendered it a formidable competitor of cane.

Sugar bounties were a significant front in the long-running 1800s-era trade wars between European powers; Caribbean sugar estate owners were caught in the middle:

The bounty system was not confined to France alone. By degrees it became almost universal. The powers competed among themselves, and an increase in the bounty in one country was followed by a similar or larger increase in the neighbouring states. Bounties varied in amount from £1 to as much as £5 per ton of sugar, and the marvel is that the West Indies were still able to produce sugar at all against such cruel odds.

The Caribbean sugar industry suffered for many decades lasting into the twentieth century until some relief came:

But, on March 5th, 1902, at a Conference at Brussels, a Convention was signed by the principal sugar-producing States, and subsequently ratified by them, by which they agreed to abolish bounties from September 1st, 1903…

The removal of bounties seems to have led to better times for Caribbean sugar:

By the abolition of bounties, confidence in the sugar industry was restored and proprietors were once more able to obtain capital wherewith to effect improvements in manufacture. New central sugar factories of the most modem description have, since 1902, been erected in Antigua, St. Kitts, and Jamaica, several proprietors in Barbados have improved their plant and adopted the central factory system of crushing their neighbours’ canes, and, generally speaking, the industry has entered upon a new lease of life.

As a final note on the above, while Aspinall focuses on the challenges the Caribbean sugarcane industry faced, he doesn’t talk about how the industrial revolution brought much more efficient sugar processing and rum distillation. Some of those technical changes, e.g., the introduction of continuous distillation, underpin the different styles of rum we have today.

The entire Aspinall book can be read here. Below is the portion which the above commentary is taken from.


Excerpt from Chapter VII of Aspinall’s The British West Indies

CHAPTER VII

WEST INDIAN INDUSTRIES

THE industries of the British West Indies are mainly agricultural. Indeed the majority of our West Indian colonies are entirely dependent upon agriculture for their prosperity. The principal exceptions are British Guiana and Trinidad, for gold, diamonds, timber and indigenous rubber and balata figure among the exports of the former colony, while Trinidad has a valuable asset in its pitch, manjak, and petroleum deposits, in the development of which very large sums of money have been invested. Again, salt-raking is practised in Turks Islands, and the salt and sponge industries of the Bahamas are of some consequence. Phosphate of alumina is recovered in Redonda and sulphur is collected in certain localities.

The principal agricultural industries in the West Indies are those of sugar, rum and molasses, cacao, coffee, fruit (including bananas, limes, grape-fruit and oranges), rubber, cotton, spices, ginger, tobacco and rice. Stock-breeding, dairying and bee-keeping are also important industries in certain islands.

In reviewing the principal industries, the premier place must still be given to sugar, for, in spite of many vicissitudes to which it has been subjected, it is still the chief staple industry of the West Indies, though in some of the islands, notably Dominica, Grenada and St. Vincent, barely enough sugar is now produced to cope with local requirements. In Barbados, British Guiana, Antigua, St. Kitts, and St. Lucia, sugar is still king, for no industry was found to take its place in the days when through a series of circumstances which is described below, the cultivation of the sugar-cane ceased for many years to be profitable.

The sugar-cane (Saccharum officinarum), which was destined to build up the fortunes of so many noble families in England, and, in the days of unfair competition with foreign and subsidised beet sugar, to bring ruin on so many of our homes, was first cultivated in the West Indies in Cuba, into which island it was introduced by the Spaniards. In 1578 there were as many as twenty¬eight sugar mills in operation in that island. From Cuba, cane cultivation rapidly spread to the other West Indian islands as soon as they were settled. When Ligon arrived in Barbados, in 1647, “sugar-making was but newly practised by the inhabitants there. Some of the most industrious men, having gotten Plants from Fernambock [Pernambuco], a place in Brasil, and made tryal of them at the Barbadoes; and finding them to grow, they planted more and more, as they grew and multiplyed on the place, till they had such a considerable number, as they were worth the while to set up a very small Ingenio [works].” The planters were not lacking in enterprise, and some of their number visited Brazil in order to acquaint themselves with the methods of cultivation and manufacture.

The first cane mill was erected in Essequibo—now a county of British Guiana—early in the seventeenth century. With the introduction of sugar cultivation, plantations rapidly increased in value. As an example, half of a plantation of five hundred acres belonging to a Major Hilliard, which had been valued at four hundred pounds sterling, was sold for seven thousand pounds sterling soon after sugar cultivation started. In the early days of the industry, sugar fetched a sum which to present day planters would seem almost fabulous. Slavery was of course in vogue, labour was cheap, fortunes were soon built up from this simple grass, and the planters lived in princely style in their palatial “Great Houses.” Costly Chippendale furniture, mirrors and china were sent out in the West Indiamen, which were to return laden with sugar, and the mahogany tables of the sugar lords groaned with costly plate.

Then came a series of disasters which must surely be unparalleled in the history of any other agricultural and manufacturing industry. The first signs of trouble were the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and the agitation for the abolition of slavery, to combat which enormous sums of money were poured out by the planters. They proved of little avail beyond postponing the—for the planters—evil day, and, when slavery was abolished in 1834, the West Indians found themselves for the first time face to face with a serious crisis, an occurrence which was of common experience in the succeeding half century.

Slavery continued in Cuba, Porto Rico, Brazil and else-where for many years later, but the tariff of the United Kingdom differentiated between free and slave-grown sugar.

In 1846, the differential duty was lowered, and a few years later the sugar duties were equalised, with disastrous results to the West Indian sugar industry. It was shown before the Committee on Sugar and Coffee Plantations in 1848 that the cost of producing muscovado sugar in Antigua, which had been 7s. 6d. per cwt. under slavery or compulsory labour, had risen to 16s. 6d. during freedom. In Barbados the cost of production rose from 6s. to 15s. 6d., while British Guiana was even in a worst plight, the cost of producing a hundredweight of sugar rising under freedom to as high as 25s., which made competition with Cuba and Porto Rico, where in consequence of the continuance of slavery the cost of production remained as low as 8s. and 8s. 6d. respectively, altogether impossible. The abolition of slavery was a policy which could be defended, but the policy of subsequently admitting slave-grown sugar to compete on British markets with free labour sugar from British colonies was indefensible. The duties should have been so arranged that British sugar could compete in its own markets on an equality with slave-grown sugar. Unfortunately, equality of competition is not regarded as synonymous with Free Trade. British producers were loaded with a heavy handicap and were told that that was “Free Trade.”

Some idea of the extent of the disaster may be gauged by the evidence given before the Committee moved for by Lord George Bentinck.[ii] Lord Howard de Walden complained before that body that whereas in the days of slavery his two estates in Jamaica cleared £20,000 annually, Montpelier showed a loss of £2,195 in the eight years after abolition, while Caymanas showed an average clearance of £700 only. Sir William Codrington, too, stated that the property in Antigua from which his father used to receive £20,000 to £30,000 per annum, only produced a revenue of £1,700 in 1847. Again, Dr. Ranken showed how Plantation Kitty, in Demerara, which was sold in 1829 with the slaves on it for £63,500, changed hands for £3,000 in 1846.

It is interesting to note, however, from the table from which the figures of the cost of production on the opposite page were taken, that beet had not yet become a formidable competitor, the cost of producing one hundredweight of beet-root sugar in Europe being 24s. 4d. A foot-note adds: “This beetroot sugar is valued at about 4s. to 6s. per cwt. below colonial Muscovado; so that colonial Muscovado must be about 33s. per cwt. to enable beet to sell in this market for cost and charges.”

Then came the competition of beet sugar. Napoleon at the time of the First Empire conceived the idea of establishing a continental beet industry which would ensure an adequate supply of sugar for France, and at the same time render that country independent of the British colonies. At his fall the industry which he started languished, but it was revived and definitely established in 1829, from which date it was fostered by a system of bounties which rendered it a formidable competitor of cane. These bounties were indirect and direct, indirect when they took the form of a system of underestimate of the duty to be levied, coupled with the full payment of drawback on exportation, and direct when they consisted of a direct bonus on exportation. The system is admirably described by Mr. George Martineau, C.B., in his work, Sugar, Cane and Beet, an object lesson,[iii] and that eminent authority in the same work deals with the steps which were taken to put a stop to this unfair competition which had for years such a paralysing effect on the cane sugar industry.

The bounty system was not confined to France alone. By degrees it became almost universal. The powers competed among themselves, and an increase in the bounty in one country was followed by a similar or larger increase in the neighbouring states. Bounties varied in amount from £1 to as much as £5 per ton of sugar, and the marvel is that the West Indies were still able to produce sugar at all against such cruel odds. Several international conferences were convened to discuss the matter, but that is all they did; the matter was discussed and duly pigeonholed. In 1897-98 the situation became aggravated, the bounties being supplemented by cartel bounties in Germany and Austria, which drove the price of sugar in Great Britain far below the cost of production. Owing to the existence of protective tariffs, cartels or trusts consisting of sugar producers and manufacturers were formed, who were able to charge the home consumer such a high price for his sugar that they could afford to export or “dump” the balance of their output at a loss and yet realise a substantial profit from the transaction as a whole. Then it was that the Indian Government could no longer endure the serious injury to its industry inflicted by hundreds of thousands of tons of Austrian and German refined sugar which were “dumped *’ on their markets. During Lord Curzon’s viceroyalty, a scale of countervailing duties was drawn up and adopted by the Indian Tariff Act of 1899.

Still, the end of the bounty system was not yet. For over a quarter of a century an active campaign had been carried on against bounties, which were condemned by statesmen of every shade of political opinion, though none had the courage to stamp them out by imposing a countervailing duty on bounty-fed sugar entering our markets, or by prohibiting it. Conferences had been held, but each one proved abortive. The reason why the earlier Conferences were abortive is very simple and worthy of being put on record. The foreign delegates at the conferences in Paris in 1876-7 repeatedly urged that it was impossible for their governments to abolish their bounties unless the British Government would give them security, in a penal clause, that they should no longer be liable to compete in British markets with bounty-fed sugar. This demand was constantly repeated, but as the British Government as constantly refused to listen to it, negotiations were of no avail. The demand was not only reasonable but absolutely imperative if British markets were really to offer to all comers— including even British producers—equality of competition. But, as in the case of slave-grown sugar, the so-called free traders of this country did not desire freedom of competition. Justice to industry is not part of their creed.

But, on March 5th, 1902, at a Conference at Brussels, a Convention was signed by the principal sugar-producing States, and subsequently ratified by them, by which they agreed to abolish bounties from September 1st, 1903, and to render the existence of cartels impossible by limiting the difference between their customs duties and excise duties. A penal clause in this Convention provided that the high Contracting States should impose a countervailing duty on, or prohibit the importation into their territories of, sugars from countries which granted bounties either on production or export. Thus equality of opportunity in British markets was once more restored to the West Indian producer, and as a result considerable developments took place in the West Indian sugar industry.

…[A few more paragraphs on bounties omitted for brevity]….

By the abolition of bounties, confidence in the sugar industry was restored and proprietors were once more able to obtain capital wherewith to effect improvements in manufacture. New central sugar factories of the most modem description have, since 1902, been erected in Antigua, St. Kitts, and Jamaica, several proprietors in Barbados have improved their plant and adopted the central factory system of crushing their neighbours’ canes, and, generally speaking, the industry has entered upon a new lease of life. But it was not only the sugar industry that benefited. For years the British West Indies had been colonies with a grievance, and this caused them to be shunned by capitalists, who have, however, recently been again turning their attention to British Guiana and the islands of the Caribbean.


[i] The prices shown are in British currency, i.e., pounds, shillings, pence.

[ii] The Sugar Question, being a digest of the Evidence before the Committee on Sugar and Coffee Plantations. By One of the Witnesses, London, 1848.

[iii] Sugar, Cane and Beet, an object lesson, by George Martineau, C.B. London : Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., 1911.

3 thoughts on “Blockades, Bounties & Beets: Sugar and Rum in the 19th Century

  1. A highly interesting – if slightly troubled – historical insight into the sugar & parallel rum trade.
    It always intrigues me why a sugarbeet rum product never took off before rum began to be locked down as a sugarcane/molasses only offering.
    I know there was an American sugarbeet rum product released which apparently got shut down pretty quickly which I think is a bit of a pity.
    Holding back the evolution & innovation of spirits is always a retrograde step in my book.

    1. The thing about sugarbeet spirit is that it’s nothing like rum. Plenty of good neutral spirit can be made from sugarbeets of course, and in fact plenty of vodkas and liqueurs use it as a base. I believe Cointreau is pretty well known to use beet alcohol. Flavorful spirits made from the byproducts of sugar production from beets however, supposedly just aren’t worth the effort. Of course, there are a few that try to produce spirits based on beets, with moderate succes, but it’s questionable if there is even a resemblance to rum.

      Should a spirit which is made from a different base and tastes as much like any rum as any whisky be allowed to be called rum? Should that same spirit be allowed to be called whisky? I think the answers to both these questions should be identical, and my answer is no.

      I understand the thinking of course, rum is made from sugar, and beets makes sugar, so why can’t we make rum out of sugarbeet? But of course, all spirits are made from sugar, as Matt has already written about here: https://cocktailwonk.com/2016/08/rum-made-sugar-bourbon-cognac-vodka-tequila.html . What has come to define rum is that it derives that sugar from sugar cane, much as whisky has come to be defined by deriving its sugar from grains. The only similarity with beets is that both can yield crystalized sugar, unlike other sources of sugar.

      The big point of course is that spirits derived from crystalized sugar are not rum. Rum must always be derived from something less refined, whether that is a precursor to or a byproduct of sugar production. Rum is therefore really not defined by the sugar, but by everything except the sugar. This of course makes it even less tenable to call beet spirit rum, as rum isn’t about the sugar, but about everything else. You can take out all the crystalizable sugar from sugar cane and make rum from what’s left over, which has no similarity to sugar beet anymore, because the only similarity was that you could make crystalized sugar.

      Should that hold anyone back from trying their hand at distilling spirits from beets? Not at all. There is plenty of beet molasses to go around and if you can make something interesting out of that, more power to you. Opening into a spirits category that isn’t yet as well-established as rum or whisky will always be hard, but it could be worth it to you. If you want to make it in an established category though, you will have to respect what has already been established. If you want to make rum, you have to make it from something derived from sugarcane that hasn’t been crystalized and won’t be crystalized. You can innovate within those broad requirements, or innovate outside them as you like, which option you choose only determines what you get to sell your innovations as.

Leave a Reply