Sugarcane both founded and colonized the Caribbean. It arrived on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. The first known sugar cane mills in the region began operating in 1506 in the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, while the English began producing sugar in Barbados in 1627.
In 1639, the French followed suit, first in Martinique and then in Guadeloupe. The sugar plantations accelerated the slave trade and the colonial enterprise. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, European travelers and amateur painters – not seldom financed by the plantation owners – painted and narrated the sugar plantation as the protagonist of a colonial and idyllic Caribbean landscape. A picturesque idea that began to be challenged in the 18th century in anti-slavery discourses.
The plantation has intensively occupied the Caribbean imagery. In the first decades of the 20th century, Caribbean and Latin American intellectual elites engaged in a search for a national identity which, ultimately, brought them back to the sugar plantation to construct a national narrative. The book El contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (1940), by Cuban writer Fernando Ortiz, and Casa Grande e Senzala (1933), by Brazilian author Gilberto Freyre, are two canonical examples of sugar essays. Throughout the 20th century, more critical or conflictive images of the plantation appear in the pictorial work of Albert Huie, the poetry of Nicolás Guillén or the painting of Wilfredo Lam.
The last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st have seen a revival of sugarcane plantations for biofuel production as well as a proliferation of debates on the colonial legacy in the Caribbean. In this context, a growing number of Caribbean artists – often in dialogue with intellectuals such as Édouard Glissant from Martinique or Sylvia Wynter from Cuba – is interrogating the plantation’s past and present. These artists examine imaginaries stemming from colonialism, explore the material possibilities of sugar, and discuss the environmental effects of the plantation and the ways in which the violence embedded in the sugar system persists.
Adrift Patrimony: Sugar Refineries, (2004) (Los ingenios: patrimonio a la deriva), by Cuban artist duo Atelier Morales, is a photographic series of the ruins of the twenty-five sugar mills painted by Frenchman Eduardo Laplante for the book Sugar Refineries: Views From The Most Important Sugar Refineries in Cuba (Los Ingenios: colección de vistas de los principales ingenios de la Isla de Cuba), published in 1857. Laplante’s watercolors were an ode to the machinery of the plantation, which appeared surrounded by a landscape of rivers and palm trees.