Sugar, Ships, Speculators and the American Revolution

Young America Post #7

“Make everything as simple as possible,” said Albert Einstein, “but not simpler.”

We like to think of the American revolution as having been caused by King George III’s antagonistic policies, particularly with respect to taxation. Then one thing led to another and pretty soon, BOOM! That’s simple. But too simple.

The Revolutionary War started decades before Paul Revere’s famous ride and ended only decades after the Treaty of Paris was ratified in 1783. Its foundation lay in dozens of causes and hundreds of places. As I’ve been studying, traveling, ruminating, and trying to put things together about why it happened and why the period following the revolution was so difficult for the new American Republic, I’ve come to part of a conclusion of sorts. It’s not simple, but it’s as simple as possible.

It starts with human nature. Duh! Doesn’t everything? Yes, but in this case, with a few specific aspects of human nature, some normal, natural and good, some extreme, unnatural, and not good. The normal? People wanting to make their own choices, live their lives in peace, bother no one, and contribute to society––though not to their own detriment or the detriment of those they love. The extreme? People wanting to make other people accommodate to their desires, people wanting to demonstrate their superiority to other people, and people wanting to have their own way despite the cost to others.

So let me introduce sugar, ships, and speculators. These three icons represent one particular object of desire, the means of obtaining that object, and the possibility of getting rich by manipulating the first two.

It was not without reason that ‘commoners’ resented the ‘nobility,’ and particularly ‘royalty.’ Those uppity-ups had the sugar and controlled the ships. They often didn’t have the sugar so much to enjoy it, as to demonstrate that they could have it and the others could not. We probably think it was primarily those ‘haves’ being opposed by the ‘have nots’ that brought about rebellion and revolution. But two other major factors were 1) those who made the sugar (slaves) and 2) those who brought it to the ‘haves’ from far away across the sea (sailors).

Over the course of these posts, we’ll be looking at sugar, ships, and speculators, then, but also at the people who bought the sugar, the people who made the sugar, and the people who brought the sugar to the buyers.

Today we’ll look primarily at sugar and the people who made it. The sugar known to the American colonies came from a plant called, um, saccharum _(blank)_, because it has plenty of last names. We don’t really know who the parents were. But, anyway, it’s really just tall grass. Very tall. Sometimes twenty feet tall. Which means the stems have to be pretty tough in order to hold up all that tallness. They can be about two inches in diameter and they’re tough enough so the best cutting boards can be made from them.

Now you might think it would be a simple thing to just cut those suckers down and shake the sugar out––you know, that white stuff we like to put in our coffee and in cakes and cookies and anything else we can get away with. Not so.

Unfortunately, way not so. It had to be cut, up close and personal, by people with scythes and other sharp instruments. Then it had to be carried to a place where it could be ground and forced to release its juice, maybe 15% of its total weight. Then the juice had to be boiled. And boiled. And have lots of sticky hot stuff made from it in unbearably hot places––by somebody––before it came anywhere near looking like that white powdery stuff.

And therein lay a problem. It was hard work. Not everyone could do it. Actually, no one really wanted to do it. So the owners of the acres and acres of sugar cane brought people in to do it. It was too expensive to pay them, since they didn’t want to do it anyway, so they just forced them to do it. They enslaved people to work the sugar cane fields.

And another problem was that these people kept dying. Sometimes they died of overwork and underfeed. But more often they died of disease. Malaria and Yellow Fever were the big ones. Eventually, the planters discovered that dark-skinned people had a higher resistance to malaria than other races, so they fixed on them to do their work. Hence the slave trade. It didn’t seem to bother the planters that, on average, the working life-expectancy of a slave was one year. Or that each ton of exported sugar product cost the life of one slave.

And, of course, there were those who built the ships, those who manned the ships (who sometimes got pretty unhappy about their working conditions and paltry salaries), those who financed the ships, those who profited from the ships, and those who protected the ships. Regarding the latter, the 18th century warship was the most sophisticated and lethal machine of that century. For example, the Spanish first rate ship of the line, Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad, had one-hundred and forty cannon with a combined throw weight (that means cannonballs) of approximately 14.3 gazillion pounds. But I digress.

It wasn’t all about sugar, of course. Spices, tea, coffee, chocolate, wood (for the ships), and a host of other products constituted the commerce that primarily benefitted the upper crust These things, in addition to the sugar, were inter-related with it and its supply chain.

The acquisition and maintenance of all this led to an exhibition of the worst in human nature––and finally, inevitably, to rebellion and revolution. Then resolution (sort of), and resolve. Resolve to do better. It wouldn’t be quick and it wouldn’t be easy. But it would come. Eventually.

Illustration credit: “Untitled Image (Cutting Sugar Cane)”, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed July 8, 2022,

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