Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680

Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680

Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680

Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680


The idea that sugar, plantations, slavery, and capitalism were all present at the birth of the Atlantic world has long dominated scholarly thinking. In nine original essays by a multinational group of top scholars, Tropical Babylons re-evaluates this so-called "sugar revolution." The most comprehensive comparative study to date of early Atlantic sugar economies, this collection presents a revisionist examination of the origins of society and economy in the Atlantic world.

Focusing on areas colonized by Spain and Portugal (before the emergence of the Caribbean sugar colonies of England, France, and Holland), these essays show that despite reliance on common knowledge and technology, there were considerable variations in the way sugar was produced. With studies of Iberia, Madeira and the Canary Islands, Hispaniola, Cuba, Brazil, and Barbados, this volume demonstrates the similarities and differences between the plantation colonies, questions the very idea of a sugar revolution, and shows how the specific conditions in each colony influenced the way sugar was produced and the impact of that crop on the formation of "tropical Babylons--multiracial societies of great oppression.


Stuart B. Schwartz

It has in recent years become something of a commonplace to say that the origins of merchant capital and slavery in the Atlantic world were intimately and intrinsically tied to the production of sugar. the transference of sugarcane cultivation and sugar production from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic islands in the fifteenth century and then to the Americas in the sixteenth century is a story that has been often told, and its implications for the interwoven history of peoples on the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas have been the subject of great interest. Since the publication of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), which argued that the slave-based economies of the Caribbean contributed directly, and even massively, to the British Industrial Revolution, scholars have become used to an association of sugar, slavery, and capitalism in which European capital and technology, American land, and African sweat were combined to produce profit in a commercial crop of great value. the Williams thesis has become an issue of considerable debate and controversy and, right or wrong, his vision of the late eighteenth century, when about 90 percent of the West Indies’ value to Europe was from sugar, has been read backward in time so that even from its origins, the production of sugar and the combination of the various factors that went into its making have been viewed as a foundational capitalistic enterprise.

Of course, that idea predated the Williams thesis. Karl Marx, by implication, had indicted sugar for “the turning of Africa into a warren of commercial hunting of black skins,” as part of the “rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production,” and a chief element in the process of primitive accumulation. the fact that sugar production called for relatively large estates, a regimented labor force, which often consisted of enslaved workers, led to a view that the plantation regime, slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, and capitalism grew simultaneously, perhaps inevitably, as part of the same complex. the process of forming large . . .

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