A Sweet Story
By Claudia Colli
Sugar Cane was once the foundation of the BVI's plantation economy. Today, its legacy can be found in the islands' many delectable desserts.
From coconut and guavaberry tart, to banana bread and tamarind candy, the BVI is known for desserts that incorporate the sweetness of its locally grown fruit, coupled with ample amounts of sugar, a commodity that was once grown here in profusion.
At one time sugar cane covered our precipitous hillsides, its tall grass-like stalks as ubiquitous as our palm trees and sand beaches. From the mid 1700s to the early 19th century, sugar was the islands' most important crop and the foundation of its plantation economy. Primarily exported to England, sugar made local fortunes and fed the motherland's insatiable sweet tooth – a necessity for sweetening the afternoon tea served with sugar laced scones and biscuits.
Although much of the sugar cane was refined in local mills before being sent to England, even more was made into rum, the true basis for the Territory's economic success. Served on British Naval ships and popular throughout the British Isles, rum was a much sought after commodity that kept the BVI's sugar works and distilleries humming.
Dependent on the labor of the plantations' slave population, the colony's sugar industry was short-lived, running from the mid 18th to the early 19th century. Growing sugar here was a difficult task, made harder by steep stony soil and a harsh climate of hurricanes and drought. The abolition of slavery in 1834, followed by a series of tropical storms soon put an end to the industry. For the most part, the planters packed up and left these islands and the former slaves turned instead to fishing and small-scale farming.
Some continued to raise sugar cane, though, and several distilleries operated here until the mid 20th century, especially flourishing during the US Prohibition Era when rum from the BVI flowed to the neighboring US Virgin Islands.
Evidence of many of the plantation era distilleries and sugar works can still be seen throughout the British Virgin Islands. Most are little more than stone ruins, although the Callwood Rum Distillery in Cane Garden Bay still produces a potent brew under the label Arundel Rum. Tours of its musty stone building which dates back to the early 1700s can be taken for a small fee. Another prime example of a sugar refinery is the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works in Road Town. The recently restored building is now a museum housing local art exhibits as well as displays of local agricultural and domestic artifacts – testaments of a bygone era.
Today sugarcane is planted sporadically and the cane stalks, which can be purchased at local markets, are often chewed by young children to extract their sweetness. But most sugar is imported and the flavorful natural light brown sugar from the "Down Islands" of Nevis and St. Kitts is a favorite in locally made banana cake, carrot breads and other island desserts. And let's not forget about the rum. What island vacation would be complete without a classic rum punch, frosty daiquiri or the ubiquitous Pussers Painkiller? How sweet it is!