Saint Lucia Travel Blog

From cane to sugar: the process

From cane to sugar: the process

Sugar cane grows as a tall bushy grass with sharp edged blades and juicy fibrous stalks. The canes take between twelve and eighteen months to mature. Planting occurred during the wet season (June to November) while harvesting took place eighteen months later, during the dry season (January to May). Canes naturally grow fresh roots but to optimize the sugar content, stalks were replanted every two to five years. Pieces of stalk, one foot long, were buried in holes three feet square and one foot deep and covered with soil and manure. A gang of 30 field slaves could plant about two acres in a day. However, digging and covering the stalks in muddy conditions was an arduous job.

The most deleted job however was manuring which required slaves to carry baskets filled with animal dung and cane trash which weighed up to 8 pounds. The job of child gangs were to weed the canes and kill rats and vermin. Manually harvesting sugar cane is tortuous work, as the sharp blades of cane lacerate the skin and cause it to itch painfully. The slaves used hooks to gather to gather together stalks which were cut with a sickle. The leaves were slashed off and the bare stalks bundled together and loaded onto ox-carts to be taken to the mill. They used cane trash for fuel, manure and bedding in the stables. At modern day ruins of sugar estates, the most eye- catching feature is usually the mill. Animal-drawn mills were the simplest ones to construct.

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There was repair of animal mills but mobile ones were in use from the earliest days of sugar cane cultivation. At Morne Courbaril Estate, (south of Soufriere, owned by Phillippe Devaux), slaves used mobile cattle mills from 1771 until 1778. During this time a water mill, received power from a reservoir and canal on nearby Terre Blanche Estate. At other estates, mobile animal mills were continuously used for much longer, sometimes even after permanent mills were built. A popular horror story is one of the slave feeding canes into the rollers while another stood guard with a machete. The other slave was ready to cut off his arm and save his life should his fingers get caught. The chosen sites for sugar factories were usually on slightly sloping land. Almost literally worth its weight in gold, West Indian sugar was king and tyrant all at once.

“A History of St. Lucia – Jolien Harmsen, Guy Ellis, Robert Devaux”

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