THE WORK ON THE PLANTATION
(Close this window to return to the main contents)
The estate land consisted of cane-land, provision grounds, woodland and pasture. Each planter preferred to have more than 200 acres of cane land. Provision grounds were used by the slaves to cultivate root crops, plantains and vegetables for food. The woodland provided lumber and firewood and the pasture was used for grazing cattle.
The cane fields had either newly planted canes or ratoons. The ratoons were new shoots growing from old cane roots which were left in the ground after a previous crop of cane was harvested. Usually a ratoon field was less productive.
A typical sugar estate had factory buildings such as the mill, boiling house and curing house. Around these factory buildings there were other smaller buildings and sheds in which, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, masons, coopers and other artisan slaves worked. There would also be a small "hospital" for sick slaves, and a small "jail" which kept slaves who were being punished. There were storage rooms for tools and supplies and sheds which sheltered livestock or stored cane trash or bagasse which was used as fuel.
Not far from the factory buildings were small houses in which the European managers and supervisors lived. They were generally overseers, book-keepers, skilled craftsmen and office staff. In the biggest house lived the estate owner. The slave quarters were some distance away from the homes of the managers.
The Sugar Crop
The slaves were given the task to prepare the land for planting. Their normal working day began before daybreak and ended after sunset. They cleared the grass, and bushes by weeding and burning. Cane holes were dug and into these cane tops were planted. As the cane grew, gangs of slaves manured the field and weeded bushes that sprang up around the cane plants. Female slaves did much of the weeding and the manuring. After 12 to 15 months the cane was now mature. The field was set afire to burn off the leaves from the cane stalks and at the same time to get rid of snakes which lived there. The field slaves, using cutlasses, then cut the cane stalks, packed them in bundles and loaded them on to ox-drawn carts which transported them to the mill.
At the mill, the cane was crushed and the juice flowed through gutters to large metal containers. The cane trash was removed and stored for use as fuel for the boilers. The juice in the large containers was clarified by heating and the addition of a small quantity of lime. This clarified juice was then ladled into a copper boiler in which it was boiled. After a while, the juice from this copper boiler was ladled into a smaller boiler and was boiled again, and then still further in a yet smaller boiler. By then, it had changed into a sticky syrup which was allowed to cool, and then poured into wooden hogsheads standing on beams in the curing house. Through small holes at the bottom of the hogsheads, molasses seeped out and was collected in containers set below the beams. After about three weeks, the remaining syrup in the hogsheads crystallised to form sugar. The sugar remained in the hogsheads which were later packed into ships for export to Europe.
Some estates also manufactured rum by fermenting juice from the first boiling and about the same quantity of molasses.
Almost all of this specialised work carried out in the manufacture of sugar and rum was done by skilled artisan slaves who were highly valued by their owners. During the milling season, slaves worked in shifts throughout the day and night.
Even after the crop season was over, the estate owner did not allow his slaves to be idle. The fields had to be prepared for the new crop, weeding and manuring of the ratoons had to be done, and repairs to drainage and irrigation canals, fences and buildings had to carried out. Work was even found for children from the age of six years old. They collected firewood, cut grass to feed farm animals and fetched drinking water to slaves working in the fields. The plantation owners did not want their slaves to involve themselves in idle conversation since they felt that the discontented slaves may use the occasion to plot rebellion.