Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

Economic context

The sugar industry in the Caribbean

The sugar cane plant was the main crop produced on the numerous plantations throughout the Caribbean in the 18th, 19th and 20th century. Most islands and settlements were covered in sugar plantations and sugar mills. Sugar dominated the economy in colonies run by French, Spanish and British owners and, in turn, the sugar produced in these colonies accounted for between 80 and 90 percent of the sugar consumed in Western Europe. While the cultivation of other crops during the colonial period such as coffee, indigo and rice were also prominent in the history of the Caribbean region, no crop had the impact on economy and society that the sugar culture brought along; sugar was the reason for the dramatic increases of the ratio of slaves to free men and the average sizes of slave plantations.

Demerara (British Guiana) was of key importance to the British Empire due to its size and the number of plantations in it. Its location (coastal, with a port) also made it a trading epicenter. Demerara, being in the Caribbean region, was also influenced by the sugar culture and, in fact, more than 75% of the plantations in Demerara in the late 19th century were dedicated to the cultivation and processing of sugar. 

Depression in the sugar industry

There was a depression in the sugar industry in the last two decades of the 19th century. The main cause for this depression came from the other side of the world. Competition from subsidized European beet sugar depreciated the value of cane sugar in the British Empire. This had immediate repercussions in the living conditions and, more specifically, the wages of indentured labors in Demerara, among other British colonies in the Caribbean. 
                                                     Value of sugar exports of British Guiana
 Year    Sugar exported    Values of exports (£)Value of exports ($)      Price paid per ton of sugar ($)
187193,506 tons2,190,51010,623,973.50113.62
188191,942 tons2,019,2579,813,589.02106.74
1891116,109 tons1,662,7418,097,548.6769.74
1901105,695 tons1,038,1635,066,235.4447.93

It can be observed from the previous table that although the amount of sugar that was exported increased, the priced paid for it considerably decreased. The price of sugar depreciated by 58% in a span of 30 years. This had a severe impact on the economy of the plantations and as a result, the wages of indentured laborers.

Measures taken

It can be gathered from the previous table that the measures taken by the owners of the plantations in British Guiana in order to tackle the depression in the sugar industry involved producing and exporting more sugar each year. The production of more sugar served as counteraction to the decrease in price paid per ton of sugar due to the reasons mentioned above. The aimed increase in production was backed by an overflow of indentured laborers. The overcapacity of indentured laborers in plantations and decrease in the price paid per ton of sugar, due to the depression, led to the decrease in wages of indentured laborers in British Guiana, to be discussed in the next page. 


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