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When Cotton and Sugar Were King

T  hroughout the steep hills and gently sloping valleys of the BVI lie numerous stone ruins. A few of these ruins of sugar mills and plantation homes have been incorporated into restaurant buildings and into domestic landscaping. The Callwood Rum Distillery building in Cane Garden Bay built in the 18th century, is still operational, and the Mount Healthy Windmill, once part of a sugar plantation, is largely intact. But most buildings of the time are crumbling and overgrown with bush – all that remains of a formative chapter in British Virgin Islands history.

Sugar And Rum Production Were Important Industries In The B.v.l, But So Was The Production Of Cotton.

Sugar and rum production were important industries in the BVI, but so was the production of cotton. In the early 18th century, the textiles in general use were made of wool, linen or silk. Cotton was little known or used in Europe until about the time of the colonization of the “New World.” Soon after the Virgin Islands were first settled, it was discovered that the climate and terrain suited this fiber’s production. Plantations were started in Tortola and by 1750 over a million pounds of cotton were grown annually, compared to 1,000 hogsheads of sugar. This cotton, known as Sea Island cotton, which had fibers four to six inches long, supplied the looms of Lancashire, England.

As cotton textiles, as well as sugar and molasses became more in demand, the number of plantations increased throughout the Caribbean. Both crops were labor intensive, creating the need for plentiful and cheap labor that could endure the tropical sun’s heat. Slavers – boats specializing in importing slaves, found a ready market for their African cargoes.

Throughout this period, cotton prices rose. But by 1770 the British cloth producers could not obtain sufficient supplies from the Caribbean, so they started importing from the east, particularly from Egypt. Although Sea Island cotton continued to enjoy a ready market, it was finally driven out by the shorter and less expensive green seed cotton produced in the southern United States. As the value of cotton from the Caribbean declined, sugar cane increasingly covered Tortola’s steep hillsides. By 1760 the value of sugar production exceeded that of cotton and a new chapter in the BVI’s plantation era was launched.

The plantation era was in its “golden age” from 1775 to 1800 and came to a climax in 1787.

 Cotton was still being produced in large quantities and sugar, rum and molasses came to a peak with the production of 6000 hogsheads (hogsheads were large wooden barrels of approximately 50 to 60 gallon capacity and containing about 500 pounds of sugar).

In general, plantation life in the British Virgin Islands was not as luxurious as on other, more affluent islands which had greater rainfall and more fertile soil. Even so, life could be gracious. The owner’s home, or Greathouse, was usually located on a rise so there was an overall view of the plantation. For the most part, it was a rectangular building, two or three times longer than wide. The front or main entrance often had an impressive wide stairway with sweeping sides or balustrades. The lower floor had walls two or three feet thick made of stone mortar and plastered with the corners or quoins made of sawn blocks of coral. The upper floor was most often constructed of wood. The window openings were recessed and had shutters, but no overhangs, and rarely glass. With many windows and doors, the house easily captured the natural air conditioning provided by the tradewinds.

The interior had a large hall for entertaining or fan1ily living, a dining area and bedrooms. Near the rear of the house was a separate cookhouse and also an outdoor stone oven for baking (similar ones are still found in the islands). A charcoal fire would be built in this oven and when it had glowing hot coals, these would be scraped out and the bread and cakes inserted. Some homes had a large fireplace which was used instead of an outside bake oven. Most of the cooking was done in the cookhouse where there were grills or cookpots along one side of the room. These were heated by separate fires which were fed from below. The cookhouse was equipped with iron pots, tea kettles, serving plates, mixing bowls, all kinds of tinwear, forks and knives.

Life on the plantations had its ups and downs. At times, severe tropical storms would hit and the wattle and daub housing provided the workers did not give much shelter. Occasionally the weather would play tricks with the food crops causing them to dry up during prolonged drought. At most plantations, the workers were assigned private plots to grow much of their own food supply, which was supplemented by the planter, as well as to keep chickens and pigs. When a drought occurred the available food was augmented by dried or fresh fish and salt pork. If a worker was ill, he was isolated in a sick house and it was customary for the doctor to make his rounds twice a week from Road Town.

The work on the plantations was hard and hot, and continued quite often far into the evening when the cane was ready for “sugaring off”. When the last cane had been cut, it was a time for celebrating. Known as “crop over”, the celebration, which included gifts, food, drink and dance, usually occurred in January when the last cane was cut.

The production of sugar, molasses and rum required a considerable investment in buildings and equipment for processing facilities. After the cane was cut and delivered to the factory, the cane was fed into a mill with three cast iron rolls to be crushed to extract the juice. This juice flowed by gravity down a sloping trough to a series of “coppers” – large iron pots where the juice was boiled using the bagasse cuttings as fuel.

Originally, most of the crushing rolls were operated with horses or mules turning a large pole to turn the meshed gearing on the rollers. Some of the bigger sugar works built windmills with large tapered stone bases. The only such windmill to survive on Tortola is at Mount Healthy National Park, just above Brewer’s Bay.

The smoke and steam made for poor visibility in the boiling factory. Large ladles were used to remove the scum and the thickened liquid was then moved to the next copper. The skimmings were poured into a cistern. After the juice had advanced to the final copper, it was ladled into wooden cooling pans. After cooling and crystallizing, the grainy mass was put into large hogsheads. The molasses was collected and put into the rum cistern or into separate hogsheads for export shipment. The grainy mass became raw brown sugar.

After the skimmings and surplus molasses had been fermented in big wooden vats, it was distilled. The product of the first distillation was called “kill devil”, which was drunk by the plantation workers, and was considered so raw and strong tl1at it would kill the devil himself! The second distillation was considered a quality product and involved the addition of some “secret” ingredients including acid fruit juices for flavor.

By the start of the 19th century, cotton was not the only industry in decline. Another devastating influence now struck the sugar, molasses and rum industry at the same time. A new breed of sugar beet root had been produced with 15 to 20 percent

A cotton baler on display at the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum.

sugar content. These beets grew successfully in most of central Europe and the western United States and the cost of producing sugar from beet root was less than from cane. In 1834, slavery was abolished in Tortola and Virgin Gorda, but this was not the main cause for the demise of the plantations. Sugar production started its long slow decline about 1800 and was further set back by a destructive hurricane that struck in September, 1819. Over 120 people were killed, and the storm destroyed nearly all of the sugar works and homes on the islands. The sugar industry never recovered from this blow. By 1850, nearly all of the sugar works stopped operating and the plantation era had come to a halt.

Today when one sees the islands’ plantation era ruins, one thinks of its historic sugar industry. However the plantation era’s century and a half of history between 1700 and 1850 was also a time when the Virgin Islands became one of England’s most important economic assets – giving birth to the huge textile industry, which until recently was one of the largest in the world.

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