Sugar Plantations of the Old South

Sep 2013
820
Chattanooga, TN
#1
When I was researching overseers of the Old South for my thread "Overseers of the Old South", I read information about sugar plantations that made me realize I have no idea how sugar plantations operated. I decided to create this thread about sugar plantations because this issue is totally distinct from the topic of overseers. The source that I am going to quote on this thread mentions overseers, but this thread is about how sugar plantations operated, not overseers.

I don't really know how sugar plantations on the Old South operated. An excerpt in William Kauffman Scarborough's book The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South got me thinking about this. Scarborough wrote: "In order to ascertain the relative level of overseer wages, it is necessary to compare the salaries received by overseers with those paid to other white plantation operatives. Because more white laborers were employed on sugar plantations than on any other type of agricultural unit, that region has been selected for the comparison. Aside from the overseer, the most important white employees utilized on sugar plantations were the sugar maker and the engineer. These posts were filled only during the grinding season, which normally lasted four to five months, and each required an individual of considerable skill and experience. Sugar makers were commonly paid according to the number of hogsheads of sugar produced. During the 1840s and 1850s Louisiana sugar makers received from 75 cents to $1.25 per hogshead up to a maximum salary of $400-$500. An engineer who doubled as sugar boiler and machinist could earn as much as $125-150 per month during the rolling season" (35-36).


According to my source, there was a season that lasted from four to five months on sugar plantations of the Old South called the grinding season. The sugar makers and the engineers as sugar makers and engineers only during the grinding season.


Then there was another season on sugar plantations called the rolling season. Sugar boilers and machinists worked during the grinding season.


I know that in the process of making sugar, the first thing that had to be done was for the sugar cane to be cut off the sugar tree. After sugar cane was cut off the sugar trees , what was the next step? After sugar cane was cut off the sugar trees, was the grinding season next? Or did the rolling season come before the grinding season?


What are "hogsheads of sugar?" Was hogsheads of sugar a measurement of sugar in which one hogshead of sugar would be the amount of sugar that could fit in the skull of a hog?


Please explain the process used on sugar plantations of the Old South from the cutting of the sugar to whatever form of sugar left the plantation to be sold.


On my overseers thread, historum member Nemowork wrote the following: "There might well be a white technician supervising the boiling or the shredding and milling but lifting several tons of loose cane stalks into a shredder is heavy work guess who's going to be running the risk of getting a hand stuck in the shredder wheels losing an arm?"


To me, this implies that the slaves would load the shredder with the loose cane stalks. However, I know that plantation owners placed a high value on their slaves' safety because the slaves were their biggest investment. I can imagine sugar planters hiring white workers to load the loose cane stalks into a shredder so the planter was not risking his own slaves' safety.


Who would normally load the loose cane stalks into a shredder, running the risk of getting a hand stuck in the shredder and losing an arm?
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
5,982
#2
There is no such thing as a sugar tree. The sugar cane grows from the ground and is reasonably thick.

I see no evidence or reason why planters would hire white workers for dangerous work rather than risk slaves.
 

Pedro

Forum Staff
Mar 2008
17,151
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!
#3
HOGSHEAD:

  1. a large cask, especially one containing from 63 to 140 gallons (238 to 530 liters).
  2. any of various units of liquid measure, especially one equivalent to 63 gallons (238 liters). Abbreviation: hhd
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,659
Dispargum
#4
A hogshead was not a universal measurement. It was basically one barrel, but there was no universal-sized barrel. A hogshead therefore varied from one locality to another. The size of the hogshead also varied depending on what was being measured. According to wiki a hogshead of wine was eventually stardardized to 63 US gallons. A hogshead of beer was 64 gallons. Tobacco was 145 gallons, about 1,000 lbs. Wiki also mentions hogsheads of sugar but does not say how many gallons or lbs that was. A safe assumption was probably one barrel of aprx 100 gallons / 1,000 lbs.


The only thing I can add to your sugar plantation thread is that American sugar competed against sugar from Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribean. Sugar planters like Zachary Taylor were therefore Whigs who favored a high tariff while cotton planters favored a low tarif and voted Democratic.
 
Sep 2013
820
Chattanooga, TN
#5
There is no such thing as a sugar tree.
I stand corrected. But can you help me with the OP of this thread? What was the process that sugar cane went through on sugar plantations on the old South?



I see no evidence or reason why planters would hire white workers for dangerous work rather than risk slaves.
A good, healthy abled bodied young male slave would cost well over $1,000 in 1860 dollars. That would be around $100,000 in today's money. If a slave lost his arm from a sugar cane shredder, that would be wasting a fortune.

If a white worker lost his arm, the sugar planter would not lose any investment, and the sugar planter could just replace the white worker with another white worker.
 

Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,317
South of the barcodes
#6
Sugar cane takes 14 to 18 months to mature (Dunn 1973, 190). Cane grows best in the wet months from June to November and ripens in the dry months of January to May. Planters staggered cultivation so that the cane did not all mature at once. The cane was planted either by digging a trench and lying old cane cuttings end to end, or by digging holes and inserting cuttings of cane two feet long (Dunn 1973, 191). A gang of thirty enslaved Africans using hoes could plant two acres in a day. The cane was fertilised with animal manure. When the cane was ripe, the enslaved workers cut the sugar cane by hand with broad curved machetes and loaded the stems onto carts. Mills were slow and inefficient so during the harvesting season the slaves worked in the mill and boiling house 24 hours a day to process the crop. “During crop time they work night and day almost incessantly”, wrote Revd William Smith in 1745 (Smith 1745, 232).

Sugar processing - International Slavery Museum, Liverpool museums


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugarcane_mill


There are a number of steps in producing raw sugar from cane:

  1. Cane receiving and unloading (receive the cane at the factory and unload it from the transport vehicles)
  2. Cane preparation (cutting and shredding cane to prepare it for juice extraction)
  3. Juice extraction (two technologies are in common use; milling or diffusion)
  4. Juice clarification (remove suspended solids from the juice, typically mud, waxes, fibres)
  5. Juice evaporation (to concentrate the juice to a thick syrup of about 65°brix)
  6. Syrup clarification (remove suspended solids from the syrup, typically colloid size of mud, waxes, fibres, etc.)
  7. Crystallisation
  8. Centrifugation (Separation of the sugar crystals from the mother liquor, done by centrifugal machines)
  9. Sugar drying
  10. Packaging and delivery

To give you some idea on the mechanisation involved, this is Hawai in 1860 but the technology is fairly common in the more advanced plantations,



Processing Sugar Cane in Hawaii in the 1860s ? YourIslandRoutes


That horizontal sugar press is run from a drive belt connected to a steam engine or other power supply. Its got no safety features, it doesn't stop. If the drive belt wears out and snaps the flailing end will literally slash a man to the bone at best and kill him at worst.
If something get caught in the conveyor then it literally cant be stopped, even hand cranked crusher/shredders are massive and have inertia and processing literally goes on from dawn to dusk and well into the night day after day. People fall asleep as they work, Victorian era machinery doesn't take prisoners.
 

Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,317
South of the barcodes
#8
Oh and as mentioned above, Sugar cane is a grass not a tree, individual strands can grow to a couple of metres tall and 4 or 5 cm thick.


Men do the cane cutting using machetes, then depending on how urgent the cutting is other men or the women and children follow behind making bundles of cut cane bound with either rope or more likely twisted sugar cane.


The bundles will then be loaded on carts or trucks depending on era to go to the mill. Cane bundles are heavy and unwieldy, to keep industrial processing going at speed you need to lift the bundle fast, to stop the machinery from being jammed you need to feed the cane in slowly after breaking up the bundle.


That means your doing fine manipulation on a heavy unwieldy bundle over spinning machinery thats been designed with crushing teeth.The closest thing you'll find these days is a wood chipper, its easy to picture what can go wrong.
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
5,982
#9
I don't think it would be more cost effective to hire free workers for dangerous work. You probably had to pay more to compensate for the danger. Workers or their heirs got nothing automatically if they were injured or killed. However, they could often get settlements, as they could sue for negligence.
 
Sep 2013
820
Chattanooga, TN
#10
I don't think it would be more cost effective to hire free workers for dangerous work. You probably had to pay more to compensate for the danger.
Not necessarily. This was a different era, a different world. There were no homeless shelters, no food pantries, no soup kitchens, no free clothing vouchers from Salvation Army, and no food stamps. Some people would probably be desperate enough to do dangerous work for low wages in those days.


Workers or their heirs got nothing automatically if they were injured or killed. However, they could often get settlements, as they could sue for negligence.
I defy you to show me a source that gives an example of an injured worker successfully winning a negligence lawsuit against a plantation owner in the Antebellum South.
 

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