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In cane's shadow: the impact of commodity plantations on local subsistence agriculture on Cuba's mid-nineteenth century sugar frontier

Citation: Curry-Machado, Jonathan (2010) In cane's shadow: the impact of commodity plantations on local subsistence agriculture on Cuba's mid-nineteenth century sugar frontier. Commodities of Empire Working Papers (16). ISSN 1756-0098


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The fertility of the Cuban soil should have meant that the island be capable of feeding itself, yet during the nineteenth century such self-sufficiency appeared to be sacrificed in favour of spreading commodity cultivation – in particular sugar plantations, with this single crop coming to dominate the national economy. Cane plantations increasingly dominated the Cuban landscape, casting an ever longer shadow over the island's agricultural diversity as they spread, and by the early years of the twentieth century it seemed legitimate to claim that “without sugar there is no country”. Sugar exports became by far the most important element in the island's economy, generating great wealth for some but at the same time leading to considerable fragility; and by the beginning of the twentieth century, the impact of extensive sugar cane cultivation had radically altered the island's environment. However, even in its heyday, cane was just one (albeit very large scale and lucrative) agricultural product in a country where a large proportion of the rural population lived and worked on peasant smallholdings. Whether these were directly or indirectly tied to larger estates, or seeking to scratch out an independent living from the land that the plantations were unable to exploit (or had not yet reached) - along with the cultivation of food crops on the conucos of slaves and emancipated plantation workers and intercropping on estates ostensibly devoted to other commodity crops - they resulted in a hidden rural diversity belying the absolute dominance of cane.

Nevertheless, and despite the growth in the number of such smallholdings alongside the spread of the cane plantations, as the nineteenth century progressed Cuba found itself unable to meet its basic food requirements. That this was so at a national level has long been known. What is less understood is what actually occurred to the local subsistence economy in those districts where sugar-cane plantations spread. This paper makes a start at addressing this question. Drawing on mid-nineteenth century census data – in preparation for subsequent detailed local research - a comparison is made between two local cases of the nineteenth-century sugar frontier: San Juan de los Remedios, in the centre of the island; and Guantánamo, in the extreme east. Both districts saw cane cultivation rapidly rise from insignificance, though at the same time, neither district became entirely dominated by this one crop during the period (though they would be subsequently), thereby enabling the detailed relationship between the growth in sugar production and the local availability of basic food crops to be observed. The paper begins by describing the varied form that Cuban agriculture took prior to the development of ‘modern' sugar plantations, with its diverse combination of subsistence and commodity crops, before describing the spread of sugar plantations during the nineteenth century, and the increasing importance of this single crop for the island's economy, as well as its apparent dominance of some localities. The paper goes on to analyse the impact that the spread of a plantation economy had upon rural areas, both in terms of the apparent spread of smallholdings and the inability of the island to satisfy its basic food requirements. The paper ends with a discussion of the dynamic relationship between commodity and subsistence agriculture in Cuba .

Creators: Curry-Machado, Jonathan and
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Subjects: History
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Keywords: Cuba, agriculture, rural society, sugar, plantation, environment
Divisions: Institute of Latin American Studies
Collections: ILAS Occasional Paper Series
  • 2010 (published)


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