Steam and Sugar: Diffusion of the Stationary Steam Engine to the Caribbean Sugar Industry 1770-1840

    Full details

    Authors & editors

    Tann, Jennifer [Author]

    Publisher History of Technology, vol 19 pp 63-84
    Year of publication 1997 vol 19 pp 63-84

    Medium Digital

    Food (non-cereal) processes > Sugar


    Scope & contentThe stationary steam engine is a frequently cited symbol of industrialization in Western Europe and North America, and, while steam engines were sought by some rulers and aristocrats in the underdeveloped world partly as a status symbol, the more rapid diffusion of steam power took place in the industrializing world in association with the growth of the extractive and manufacturing industries. There was one major exception.

    The diffusion of steam power to the plantation economy of the Caribbean was on a scale that far exceeded any other overseas market for British engines, the demand being almost exclusively for engines for sugar cane rolling. The Caribbean sugar industry has received attention from a number of scholars, in particular from the perspectives of slavery and the plantation economy. The technology of sugar milling has received less attention....

    Includes the follwing (page 69):
    It was in 1789 that a clear connection was drawn between the anti-slavery movement and steam engines, when Samuel Whitbreads raised with Boulton & Watt the question of the employment of steam power in the West Indies. He reported, 'Mr Wilberforce has inquired of me about [them] and I think you told me some West Indian planter has consulted you on them and that you gave some reasons why you-thought they would not answer him.'

    In the following year Whitbreads attempted to provide further information through an intermediary, later in the same year proposings a subscription scheme to which Lord Penrhyn intended being a subscriber, the underlying issue being a belief that the diffusion of steam power to the West Indies might contribute to the abolition of slavery. But sugar-mills employed a small proportion of the total plantation slave labour. An animal mill generally required five slaves. An efficient steam-powercd mill might operate with three.

    Mill capacity did, however, circumscribe plantation size, or at least the amount under cane. As the price of slaves increased from the late eighteenth century, steam power was one innovation that could, in principle, contribute to modest savings in recurrent costs, besides effecting a small reduction in the dependence on slaves.

    File attachments