The sugar industries of Cuba and Java

By 1870, more than half of all cane sugar in the world market came from two islands: Cuba in the West, and Java in the East. This was a dominance that was maintained until the 1930s. Both islands also themselves became dominated by this one crop, which overshadowed the other commodities that each also exported: coffee and tobacco.

Fig 1: Cuba and Java share of world sugar cane.

There has been an abundance of study on Cuba and Java each in their own right, but none systematically examines their parallel trajectories. Situated as they are in opposite hemispheres, Cuba is studied in the context of Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Java in that of Asian Studies. As a result, they are analysed as part of two entirely different worlds; and two distinct imperial blocks (the Spanish and Dutch). Yet the question arises as to how sugar came to dominate the agriculture, industry and trade of these two islands; and how these two islands in particular, in two different colonial systems and parts of the world, should rise to sugar pre-eminence in the way they did and when they did.

Having discovered a considerable amount of common ground in our respective work on the sugar industries of the two islands, we set out to explore the connections and similarities between the two. What were the conditions that brought this about?

Johnson's map of Cuba
Fig 2: Johnson's map of Cuba
Although topographically, Java and Cuba display a number of similarities, since they are located in opposite hemispheres little thought has previously been given to the interconnections between them, or the comparison of the historical trajectories that launched both into the forefront of global sugar production in the nineteenth century. Studies into what factors contributed to their rise to prominence so far are wanting in global perspective. Sugar was already being cultivated in both islands before they rose to global prominence, but on a relatively small, undeveloped scale, overshadowed by the principal sugar producers of the eighteenth century. However, revolution in Saint Domingue in 1791 quickly revealed how interconnected the world economy had already become: while it might have been predicted that neighbouring Cuba would benefit from this, the Dutch were also quick to grasp the opportunity to push Java into the forefront of industrialised sugar production. Although the initiative in the former appeared to come from local forces, and in the latter from metropolitan forces, what was key in both was the presence of a dynamic bourgeoisie with close links to transnational, even transimperial commercial networks, willing to take the necessary steps to advance their respective sugar industries in terms of land cultivated, scale of production and the introduction of the latest technological and scientific advances. The transfer of crops brought great wealth and power to creole planters’ families in Cuba and Java; and their entrepreneurship modernised sugar production through the introduction of advanced technology, such as vacuum pans and centrifuges, resulting in an extensive infrastructure to support commodity production. However, while this began through local initiative, the need to make the increasingly large investments that such technology implied resulted in the islands’ commodity agriculture falling under the control of metropolitan capital by the twentieth century, albeit with the continuing involvement and complicity of local elites.

A map of Java
Fig 3: A map of Java
In the process, both islands underwent significant changes in how land was controlled and cultivated; and at the same time experienced substantial demographic change, as the sugar industry demanded ever greater mobilisation and control over labour. Here there does seem to have been a significant difference between Cuba and Java, which contributed to the specific development of each: put simply, Cuba had a shortage of labour coupled with a surplus of land; Java a surplus of labour concomitant with a growing shortage of land. However, it can be seen that far from separating their paths, this apparent dichotomy was possibly the two interconnected sides of a single dynamic. It was a dynamic that was brought about by a unique combination of global capital and technology flows and the right local political conditions for massive appropriation of land and control over the labour supplies. This eventually led to cane becoming the dominant crop on both islands, and to them dominating its global supply for such a protracted period.

Interesting coincidences

Our comparative study has revealed a number of interesting coincidences between Cuba and Java:

The link between local elites and transnational trade and capital

In both Cuba and Java, the initiative for developing the sugar industry originated in the close link that connected their dominant elites not just to their respective imperial networks, but importantly to transnational, transimperial trade and capital.

Stimulation of technological and scientific innovation

The port of Havana, Cuba, with sailing ships and steam ships
Fig 4: Havana, Cuba
Both Spain and the Netherlands were late industrialisers, significantly behind in the spread of steam-based technology in the early nineteenth century. Neither was capable of equipping the emerging sugar industries with the necessary technology, leading both Cuba and Java to become heavily reliant on British, French and (in the case of the former) North American engineering. This was facilitated by the same transnational networks that were channelling investment in, and trade out. As a result, both islands were able to position themselves in the global technological vanguard – made possible not only through the introduction of machinery, but also the presence of skilled migrants from the key industrial centres of Europe and North America.

The port of Batavia, Java
Fig 5: Batavia, Java
The mid-nineteenth century was a time of growing markets and secular declining prices, and Cuba and Java were able to increase their share in world exports, whereas other Caribbean and Asian producers lost their markets. Capital goes to places where it can be made most profitable and both in Cuba and Java capital found abundant investment opportunities in railways and factory installations. Technological development in the Java and Cuban sugar industry was incremental and with fits and starts, but the overall picture is one of rapidly increasing capital intensity of the sugar industry from the early decades of the nineteenth century onwards.

Changing land ownership and use

A sugar mill
Fig 6: Manaca sugar mill, Cuba (Justo German Cantero, ‘Los ingenios’, 1857)
For the sugar industry to expand in both Cuba and Java, it was not only necessary to improve the speed and capacity of production, and the quality of cultivation. Sugar factories required cane to grind, and mechanisms had to be found to enable an extension of plantations. This was complicated in both islands, though for different reasons; but in both, solutions were found and enacted that directly contributed to growing dominance of this single commodity. A consequence of the burgeoning plantation complexes in Cuba and Java was that in spite of their completely different points of departure in terms of land ownership, more and more land ended up in the hands or under the control of less people.

Labour exploitation

A group of labourers harvesting sugar cane
Harvesting sugar cane (Image from Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam – free of copyright)
​Much of the industrial and commercial success of the Cuban and Java sugar sector was the result of a quite ruthless approach to labour mobilisation and control. In an age of spreading liberalism, they both appeared to go against the tide in terms of labour relations: with corvée labour in Java, and slave and indentured labour in Cuba until the late-nineteenth century. The two islands both demonstrated that, far from being incommensurable with forced labour, advanced modes of production could flourish despite the apparent incongruity of the relations of production employed. Even as their reliance upon forced labour waned, and they moved to the use of wage labour, the ‘unfree’ labour regime culture – of which highly effective use had been made by the sugar industry in particular, albeit with the concomitant social and political problems that it entailed – was maintained, and continued to contribute greatly both to sugarcane plantations increasingly dominating each island, and their produce dominating global trade.

Despite the apparent geographical similarities between Cuba and Java, demographically the two islands were very different. In the late eighteenth century Cuba was still very thinly populated, with the island’s total population standing at 170,000, whereas Java at that time counted 4.5 million inhabitants; and the population density of Java remained approximately ten times higher than that of Cuba throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This led to a crucial distinction between the two islands: in Cuba, a surplus of land enabled expanding cultivation, but a shortage of labour limited the capability to exploit this; while in Java, the opposite was true. Thus while in Cuba it was necessary to secure the immigration of labourers, and tie these to the sugar plantations, in sufficient numbers to fill the needs of the industry – with labour shortage being a continual problem; in Java, the problem was how to extract labour from the indigenous population.