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Database Workshop


Rick Halpern, University of Toronto

Richard Follett, University of Sussex


Documenting the Louisiana Sugar Economy” seeks to understand the changing fortunes of the American sugar industry between 1844 and 1917.  Utilizing a unique data set on the output and performance of Louisiana’s sugar plantations, as well as other supporting materials, the project provides both micro-level and regional analyses of the American sugar economy paying particular attention to shifting patterns of labour.  Our approach centers on four historical problems: the peculiarity of the sugar sector within the slave South; the transition from slavery to freedom; the persistence of the “Old” and the novelty of the “New South”; and the economic rise and fall of American sugar during the era of imperial expansion.

The project is significant because Louisiana was the last of the New World sugar colonies, and like its predecessors in the Caribbean, Louisiana rested its fate on a sordid combination of slavery, forced labour and racial oppression.  Our study analyzes the definitive plantation crop of the Americas in one key location where free labour replaced slavery, where defeat and civil war punctuated the nineteenth century, and where empire-building brought the industry to its knees.

Louisiana’s sugar industry was unique in several ways.  Located on the northern rim of the Caribbean sugar belt, Louisiana faced acute ecological constraints to cane farming [see frost map]—the state’s sporadically icy climate delimited the physical expansion of the industry beyond south central Louisiana and imposed rigid production requirements upon slaves and planters. To overcome these constraints, sugar planters adopted a fully mechanized and industrial order that meshed slave and slaveholder, freedman and landlord into a business and labour regime that resembled in scale, scope, and complexity the advanced operations of northern capital.  More than their competitors in Havana, their predecessors on eighteenth Caribbean century sugar islands, or their neighbours in the cotton South, Louisiana’s sugar lords fused agriculture with industry and slavery with freedom.  Aggressively capitalist, yet eschewing free labour, sugar planters fashioned a path to modernity where slavery and forced labour rested at the axis of success.

Our project teases out the measure of capitalism and pre-capitalism in southern society.  It provides, in the first instance, an exceptional opportunity to examine if slavery hindered the development of a capital-rich agro-industry. The study, furthermore, allows us to examine the transition from slavery to freedom, gauge the persistence of the old-plantation elite, ask why estate managers stood resolutely against their planter neighbors in opposing the onset of sharecropping, and assess whether—in their commitment to racialized gang labour—the sugar elite echoed their slave-owning predecessors and created an island of the Old South in the New. Finally, our investigation examines American imperialism and examines the disastrous impact of off-shore competition on Louisiana.  This project is rooted in the history of slavery, emancipation, and planter ideology in the U.S. South and answers questions that continue to animate the study of nineteenth century America.