Turning Javanese: The domination of Cuba's sugar industry by Java Cane varieties

U. Bosma, J. Curry-Machado

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By the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, two islands had come to dominate global cane-sugar production. For most of the sixty-year period between 1870 and 1930, around half of the world's internationally traded crop came from Cuba and Java. The two islands had many topographical similarities that made them particularly well suited to the establishment of sugar plantations: both are relatively large islands with fertile soils and semi-tropical climate. They were also situated in regions that had been drawn into the European sphere of influence in the sixteenth century but that had only been lightly exploited before the nineteenth, when they were both well placed to assume leading roles in the satisfaction of the escalating demand for sugar in the industrialising societies of Europe and North America. However, Cuba and Java existed within two very distinct sets of imperial and commercial networks: Spanish and Atlantic, and Dutch and Indian Ocean respectively. As a result of this, while there have been a plethora of studies about cane agriculture and the sugar industry in each of the islands, there has been little effort to compare their histories or explore the interconnections between them. Only recently has a start been made to study systematically the convergence and divergence of the sugar industry in the two hemispheres and to compare the differences and similarities to be found in the paths followed by the two islands. Although the sugar industries of Cuba and Java took different directions, these were inextricably linked. While Cuban planters could exploit the availability of large areas of underused land to overcome the relative scarcity of labour, planters in Java took advantage of the relative abundance of labour to maximise yields from the more limited land available to them. As a consequence of this, Javanese planters influenced by the work of Cuban agronomist Álvaro Reynoso paid considerable attention to the development of scientific methods in cane cultivation. Meanwhile, Reynoso's ideas fell on deaf ears in his home island, where most planters ignored the need for a more scientific approach in the fields in favour of technological advances in the sugar factory and what they saw as their immediate commercial interests. Copyright © Research Institute for History, Leiden University 2013.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-120
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013


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