The Role of Sugar and Tobacco in Virginia and the Caribbean Colonies

While it is not hard to see how tobacco and sugar affected both Virginia and The Caribbean colonies during the colonial period, the history of how this came to be is lengthy and intricate. Civilization has always relied on trade of some sort. From cotton to tobacco to rum and sugar, these products became means of buying and selling and/or trading for whichever product had risen to popularity during that particular period. In early colonial times, the people of the “new world,” depended greatly on tobacco and sugar as their two major commodities. Not only did Virginia prosper from tobacco but the Caribbean was able to flourish from sugar as well. Here, we examine the similarities of how the Caribbean and Virginia changed economically and socially due to the growth of tobacco and sugar plantations.

John Rolfe's Discovery

Tobacco made its way to America via an Englishman named John Rolfe, who had been sent by the London Virginia Company as they set out to look for gold. Jamestown, Virginia became the first English settlement thereafter, with its main purpose being the creation of income. The history of the colony, up until that point, had been tainted with disease and starvation resulting in high rates of death and general misery. In 1612, John Rolfe discovered a strain of tobacco native to the Caribbean that could be grown in Virginian soil. Although the first years had been extremely arduous for the colony, with Rolfe’s discovery, the colony was able to survive and flourish by turning tobacco into a major cash crop (History of the United States: Early Colonization to 1877, 2004). Thanks to tobacco’s potential as cash, the crop was soon planted in every available clearing while indentured servants tended to the harvests.

Figure 1. “Tobacco Production” by Sidney King. This illustration shows harvest by indentured servants.

The Rise of Tobacco As Currency in Virginia
Virginia’s export economy was largely based on tobacco by the late 17th century. More and more settlers of influence came to the colony to take large portions of the land and create and maintain large plantations. With larger plantations came the need for more help, but after seven years of free service, an indentured servant was able to live as a free citizen in Jamestown, thus resulting in the replacement of servants with African slaves. Whether morally correct or not, as gold and silver continued its scarcity within the colonies, the cultivation of tobacco by the slaves rivaled the production of sugar in the Caribbean. Tobacco had become the securest and most established currency the colony could have, and even more importantly, it held value in exchange for gold (Scharf, 1967).

The Fall of Tobacco for The Caribbean
The Caribbean, unlike Virginia, did not benefit from the rise of tobacco harvests. The farming economy in the British West Indies was primarily based on the cultivation of tobacco and faced a severe crisis. For one, Caribbean tobacco could not contend with the production of tobacco in Mid Atlantic colonies, in value or magnitude. Since the Caribbean’s economy had once thrived and depended on tobacco farming for financial sustainability, they were rapidly losing population to the mainland.
Figure 2. “Cane Cutters in Jamaica.” This image illustrates the slaves in the sugar plantation in the Caribbean.

The Sugar Revolution
The Caribbean’s economic salvation came from what has been called the “sugar revolutions.” The Dutch introduced the sugar plantation system to the Caribbean after they were expelled from Brazil in 1640 (Sharkey, 1988). The arrival of such altered Caribbean society due to the influx of slaves and the creation of bigger plantations. Now, not only was the ratio of slaves to free men drastically larger, but the rapid expansion of sugar plantations were leading to socio-economic changes as well. A prime example: more than three-quarters of the islands’ populace had been white before 1650. By 1680, in Barbados the average size of a plantation had developed to about 60 slaves. The plantations persistently grew with every decade and by 1832, the average plantation in Jamaica held roughly 150 slaves. To top it off, nearly one in every four bondsmen lived on units that had about 250 slaves (Fogel, n.d.). So, not only did the sugar culture change and help the economy, it also transformed the cultural and racial structure of the islands.

The Growth of Both Colonies
The evolution of both Virginia and the Caribbean during the colonial period was based on the rise and implementation of tobacco and sugar plantations respectively. These locations managed to reach economic salvation from the devastation they had both faced before these cash crops were implemented, and they also brought forth the beginning of a new era of workers: slaves. For Virginia, the arrival of slaves progressed into the history of America that we know today. Had these crops never arrived, it holds very likely that the Civil war would have never taken place. As for the Caribbean colonies, the rise of sugar plantations managed to switch the racial compilation of the islands from a majority white populace to a majority African society; changing the cultural aspect and creating the rich history and pride that the Caribbean holds to date. In turn, tobacco and sugar managed to alter the agriculture, demography, society and culture of both the Virginia colony and the Caribbean region, transforming them both into political and economic vessels.

Works Cited
Fogel, R. W (n.d.). Slavery in the New World. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of
American Slavery. p. 55-56

History of the United States Early Colonization to 1877. (2004). New Jersey:
Research & Education Association.

Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Maryland: From the Earliest Periods to the Present Day. Hatboro,
Pennsylvania: Tradition Press, 1967.

Sharkey, N., (1988, December 11). A Barbados Synagogue Is Reborn. New York Times, p. 34.