Sitios de Memoria


The Sugar Mills

In the history of sugar production in the Caribbean, Haiti has two distinctive characteristics. In the early 16th century, during Spanish colonization, Haiti was the first territory in the Americas where slave sugar production was established. Then, under French colonization in the 18th century, Haiti became the world’s largest producer of white and brown sugar. This second characteristic implied higher concentrations of slaves and production facilities.


After the slavery system disappeared with the August 1791 insurrection of and independence in 1804, the Haitian farmer turned his back altogether on sugar cane harvesting. Sugar mills in the entire territory were practically in ruins. That explains the numerous vestiges of the sugar-related economy of the 18th century. Those vestiges are frequently abandoned, neglected and even destroyed.

This phenomenon intrigues many historians. There is so much ambiguity in the relationship with collective memory. Society seems to want to forget everything lived during slavery and is proud of the heroic work for social, racial and human regeneration. However, the vestiges will not go away, they will not stop showing up; they become sites of memory which leave no room for oblivion. Life after emancipation, conquered with much struggle at the end of the war against the biggest army in the world at that time, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, shows that even though slavery was left behind, there are traces of that past which cannot be denied without affecting the present.

The history of the sugar mills belongs not only to Haiti and the Caribbean, but also to the slave-owning West. It is not possible to ignore the relationship between the history of slavery and the history of sugar mills or plantations, which produced the big development of ports such as Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Liverpool. The sugar mill is the basic economic organization, the spine and the heart of the slave system. While the harvesting of products such as coffee, indigo or cotton are important, it is sugar that marks almost in an emblematic form, at least during the 17th and 18th centuries in the Caribbean, the centralizing character of the institution of slavery. Knowing the life of the slaves, means knowing the way in which the plantations and the sugar mills were created and organized.

Saint Domingue became the richest French colony in the Americas, thanks to sugar, which covered most of the expenses of the harvesters and required the highest amount of slaves. There were 400 000 slaves in the period prior to 1789, in 793 refineries concentrated in the North. The intensity of sugar production in Saint Domingue was such that it provoked the most important uprising of slaves. It teaches an important lesson in the history of law and freedom.

Research conducted in the wake of the slave route project, unveils the history of slavery in the Americas. This history is too frequently underestimated in Europe, and Caribbean historiography has also frequently forgotten it. This fast inventory will provide a profile of five sugar mills and we will refer to their origin, architecture and their place in the history of the slaves´ struggles. We still have to wonder about the serious deterioration of those places two centuries after the independence of Haiti. It could be argued, as it was stated at the beginning of this introductory text, that for Haiti, the disappearance of those ruins could perfectly mean the effectiveness of the emancipation achieved through their own efforts. It is important to register the continued desire for emancipation manifested in these ruins. That is precisely the reason why we must not forget, but rather acknowledge these places of memory represented in the sugar mills, not only because to strengthen the ties between the Caribbean peoples who suffered under slavery but also because it is a way of supporting current struggles for freedom.