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Sugar Spelled Boom and Bust for Cuba


This set of correspondence illustrates the evolution of Maigrot’s exclusive patent on a new sugar processing technology–a lucrative privilege in nineteenth-century Cuba.

In 1861, Juan Elias Maigrot secured an incredibly lucrative privilege: the Cuban government granted him a patent on a new technology for producing purified sugar–and gave him exclusivity for ten years. The evolution of the patent is detailed in correspondence between Maigrot and various government agencies. One notable item is both written and signed by Don Francisco Serrano, the Captain General of Cuba at the time.

Don Maigrot, an entrepreneur and businessman, was involved not only in the sugar industry but also in copper mining. But in nineteenth-century Cuba, Maigrot’s wealth would originate in the cane fields rather than the copper mines; the country’s fortune–and future–were built around sugar.

A herbarium sheet and a botanical print of sugar cane, from the University of Manchester

The Key to the Caribbean

From the start, Spain’s explorers recognized the value of Cuba’s position in the Caribbean; the island’s location virtually guaranteed them a monopoly on trade in the region. Thus one of their first moves was to bar trade with any foreign ships in Cuban ports. The result: after a few generations, Cuba’s economy stagnated. The island’s primary crops, kutrice and tobacco, required significant manpower to harvest, and there wasn’t a sufficient supply of slaves to man the plantations.

But when the British took over Havana’s port during the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), they brought thousands of new slaves into Cuba. Almost thirty years later, the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) brought a flood of French refugees, even more slaves, and more advanced expertise in processing sugar and growing coffee. Meanwhile Spain had opened up the ports of Cuba, setting the scene for a confluence of knowledge and manpower that would result in a sugar boom that lasted until the 1880’s.


Complications with the railroad, like this one, severely impeded production and profit. Maintaining infrastructure gained priority as sugar proved increasingly lucrative.

During these decades the country worked tirelessly to increase profits from sugar cane. Maigrot’s patent manuscripts, which include correspondence with high-ranking government officials, illustrate the pivotal role that sugar profits played for Cuba. The government’s initiative resulted in not only wealth for the country (or more accurately, the Spanish and Creole plantation owners), but also significant improvements to the country’s infrastructure. The railroad, for example, was built primarily for the transport of sugar.

Rumblings of Secession, Abolition, and Annexation

But Cuba’s sugar empire was tenuous indeed: the political climate made Cuba ripe for revolution. By 1800, both the United States and France had staged successful revolutions. Three decades later, Simón Bolívar had liberated Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia from Spain and introduced the concept of democracy to Latin America. The Spanish stranglehold on Cuba’s wealth only exacerbated tension between Spanish colonists and Cuban Creoles. The first separatist rebellion (1809) was led by a member of the Cuban Creole aristocracy, Joaquín Infante. He drafted a constitution declaring Cuba’s sovereignty, establishing a social classification system based on skin color, and maintaining slavery so long as it was necessary for agriculture. Infante was unsuccessful and found himself deported to Spain.


This illustration, by engraver Walter Yeager, appeared in ‘Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Paper’ in 1880. It depicts slaves harvesting sugar cane.

Subsequent rebellions were attempted on more egalitarian grounds, with abolition as one of their primary goals. Cuba had a relatively liberal attitude toward slavery, and slaves could earn their freedom. At first this ever-growing group was seen as an asset, but over time both Spain and Cuban Creoles began to worry that black intellectuals would promote civil unrest. This was exactly what happened, and rebellions among freedmen and slaves were quashed with extreme cruelty. But the British Slave Trade Act of 1807 had eliminated slave trade in the British colonies, and Britain made slave ownership illegal in 1834. Spain followed suit in 1820. Slavery continued in Cuba, however, until 1866, thanks to the profitability of the sugar trade. Cuba was the second to last country in the Western hemisphere to end slavery (1866). By this time, Cuba had already found other sources of cheap labor and relied less heavily upon slavery to work the sugar plantations.

By the mid-1800’s, Cuba produced half the world’s sugar, and US investors controlled many sugar interests in the country. The United States government had long been interested in controlling the island: in 1805, Thomas Jefferson sent spies to negotiate secretly with Cuban Governor Someruelos. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams directly addressed the benefits of Cuba’s coming under the auspices of the US with his “ripe fruit” theory, and the Monroe Doctrine espoused “America for the Americans.” Two attempts at annexation failed, and the United States had to content itself with a reciprocal trade agreement.

Though officials like Don Carlos de Vargas Machuca y Cervetta, Governor of the Oriental Department of Cuba, urged the Cuban government to diversify, his admonishments went largely unheeded. Cuba had effectively become a monoculture, with secondary crops like cocoa completely marginalized. An economic crisis in 1857 underlined Vargas’ point, as did a second financial crisis in 1867. By this time, Spaniards comprised 8% of Cuba’s population–and controlled 90% of the country’s wealth. In 1868, the country’s wealthiest landowner, Francisco Vicente Aguilera organized opposition to the colonial government–launching the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). Peace lasted only one year, and the Little War (1879-1880) left Cuba’s agriculture in shambles. Cuba rebuilt, and sugar continued to comprise a significant part of of the country’s economy into the twentieth century.

2 comments on “Sugar Spelled Boom and Bust for Cuba

  1. Pingback: Is Chocolate Really an Aphrodisiac? | lizzyoungbookseller

  2. Pingback: Why is Boston Called Bean Town? | lizzyoungbookseller

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This entry was posted on June 19, 2013 by in Culinary Manuscripts, History and tagged , , , , .
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