Antigua - How Sugar Plantations Work
Discovered by Christopher Columbus during his second Caribbean voyage in 1493, it is located northwest of Barbados in the Leeward Island chain. Antigua is roughly 108 square miles, has low lying terrain and a good deal of level farmland but has no springs and suffers from drought.
Sugar became the sole industry on the Island, the most well known sugar plantation was ‘Betty’s Hope’ founded in the early 1650's by Gov. Christopher Keynell. After the French occupation of Antigua in 1666-67 ownership was transferred to Sir Christopher Codrington. The sugar plantations relied heavily on slave labor to operate. The first part of a plantation system was planting. The land was divided into 10 to 20 acre lots. The lots were a then further reduced to 4 foot grids. The grids were aligned in rows to allow the prevailing winds to dispel moisture on the cane to lessen the chance of "blast"a fungal disease.
The work was done using the "gang" system organizing labor into 3 groups depending on their ability and strength to work. The lead gang cultivated the land with hoes setting up the grids for planting. The second gang of less able men and women would plant the young cane in the holes 6" to 8" deep and cover them with a mixture of dung and soil. The least able and children served as errand runners, helpers and rat chasers.
The cane sections were planted sequentially to keep the crews and harvests in a rotational basis during the growing season. Weeding, hoeing, replanting and burning of the past seasons cane stubble from the outer edge inward to kill the rats was continual during this time.
Harvesting season for the cane came around the 1st of the year during the dry season; till the end of July. The field gangs worked from dawn till night. They used "cane bills" or cutlasses to cut the cane into 4 foot sections to be taken to the mill. The cane had to be processed with in 20 minutes of being cut because it would ferment resulting in an inferior product. Each windmill could process about 2 acres of cane a day. The average yield was 1 ton of sugar for each acre of cane. Therefore the harvesting had to be coordinated to the milling process.
Once the cane reached the mill the cane was fed back and forth through the rollers of the press driven by the wind. The pressed cane or "begasse" was dried and used as fuel for the boiling house. The juice would then be caught in a containment and flow through a pipe to the boiling house.
The boiling house collected the juice in vats where lime was added and boiled to thicken, then it was ladled to the next smaller vat until reaching the right consistency. It was then sent to wooden flats where it was allowed to cool. The sugar in the flats would be packed into wooden hogsheads with perforations at the bottom or use clay pots. The hogsheads or pots were placed in a rack to allow molasses to drain from the bottom. Sugar refined to this stage was called "muscovado".
Once the molasses had been drained form the sugar and it crystallized it was then packed into large wooden casks and transported to the coast and loaded into small boats and taken out to waiting sloops to be shuttled to ports around the Leeward Islands for export.
Sugar and Slaves, Richard S. Dunn