History of the Sugar Industry in Puerto Rico

Sugar Cane

When it comes to Puerto Rico, one of its best industries outside of tourism is sugar. The Caribbean is a hotbed for sugar because of the tropical weather, making it the best climate to grow. The sugar industry has done well for Puerto Rico from desserts, juice, and rum. Here’s a brief history of the sugar industry in Puerto Rico.

Trek to the New World in the 1500s

If you’re going to a Caribbean island for family vacations, think about taking a trip to Puerto Rico, aka La Isla. Before heading to an island getaway, it’s a good idea to learn a bit about the history. Sugar played a sizable role in the economics of the islands with its natural resources.

Who brought sugar cane to the islands? Many say that Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) brought sugar cane on his second voyage to Hispanola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti) from the Canary Islands. From 1515, it spread to Puerto Rico to the banks of the Toa River.

The first grinding mill was created in Añasco, by Tomás de Castellón in 1523 and operated with oxen. By 1548, they set up hundreds of water-powered mills to create muscovado sugar. The sugar industry started with small landowners, and it wasn’t initially profitable.

Their successes and failures depended on the price of sugar in the market or how the Spanish crown monopolized things.

Late 1800s Expansion

By the 1800s, many things, such as the end of slavery in 1873, tariff wars between the United States and Spain, plagues, and hurricanes, made it hard to produce sugar.

However, things expanded after building the first sugar factory, the San Vicente Mill in Vega Baja. From 1873 to 1876, they began creating machines called “Centrales.” The factories had equipment that used steam to help develop sugar crystals, which separated from molasses.

They purchased the machines from England or France. It had a good way of capturing electricity to speed up the process of getting sugar. Also, the demand for sugar in the United States grew as its started replacing European investors.

The increased price of sugar in the world market made Puerto Rico a sugar powerhouse. Also, it became one of the principal producers of this sweet treat on a global scale.

The 1882 Exposition in Ponce saw two owners received gold and honorary medals for the high-quality sugar obtained with the new process from Vadi and Cabrera Brothers.

The 1900s On

From 1898 to Spring 2000, sugar cane was the most important cash crop in Puerto Rico. Lots of things happened as far as sugar from the market price competition, loss of labor force, and even the cost of transportation.

The sugar quota system and the need to fertilize and irrigate the land were rough. The land resources went out harshly because of the growth of sugar cane, which dries out the soil.From 1942-1977, 34 centrales stopped operating. The farmers didn’t receive the best compensation when they planted the crops and sold the sugar to the factories. Also, the 14-month period it took to grow the crop just wasn’t worth it to them.

Many colonos (farmers) sought full-time jobs and wages in other places instead of farming for the sugar industry. Even with the decline of the sugar industry, it’s still an imperative asset to Puerto Rico. Bacardi rum has been a mainstay in Puerto Rico since 1936.

It continues to thrive to this day. Puerto Rico is a sugar cane island, and it’s tough to think how they would’ve survived without it the last two centuries.

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