Sugar and Tobacco in Virginia and the Caribbean
Products and Slavery: The Common Trade

Expanding Empires
The colonization of new lands by European Nations was for the purpose of bringing money into the nation’s coffers and expanding their empire. The desire for items from Asia, India, and other far off lands, such as gold, silver, and spices, created a need for exploration and discovery of shorter routes to these lands. The discovery of North America and the islands in the Caribbean, also known as the West Indies, held promise of wealth and riches. When gold and silver were not found in the colonies such as Virginia, and the Caribbean, another option to make the colonization profitable for the empires and those investing in the colonization was needed. Sugar and tobacco were two products that were highly desired. They also would bring in great revenues for those that invested in these ventures if they could be produced at a cheap cost. Both of these products, sugar and tobacco were extremely laborious to grow and produce. Some of the labor was provided by indentured servants who could pay off their debt after a certain time of labor and were promised land and an opportunity for a start of a new life. Another source of labor was provided by slaves with only the promise of death to relieve them of their obligation.
Figure 1 Virginia 1612 map. Source:
Tobacco’s Prominence
Tobacco was an integral part of the success and wealth of the Colonies. Prior to the introduction of tobacco, the early Jamestown colonists had very little success at their efforts in farming. The introduction of tobacco in the early 1600’s was the needed crop to make the colony successful. Tobacco was originally grown in both Virginia and the Caribbean. It was a cash crop for plantation owners. However, the tobacco grown in Virginia eventually ended it in the Caribbean. The Caribbean tobacco was a lesser quality than that grown in Virginia. Laws and regulations were passed to keep the quality and the price high for the producers. Virginia plantation owners were made wealthy and held prominence in society because of tobacco.{Vignette: Success! [[#mce_temp_url#|Succes!]]} It became a source of currency to the Colonials.Virginia's economy was dominated by tobacco for over three centuries (Grymes). Everything could be paid with tobacco. Fines and taxes levied, services rendered by clergy and other professions, and other goods were paid by a set number of pounds of tobacco. The amount of tobacco produced on a plantation owners land directly corresponded to his personal wealth and status.
Figure 2 Painting of Virginia tobacco plantation. Source:
A Sweet Transformation
Sugar, like tobacco in the Virginia colonies, was the saving crop and wealth producer in the Caribbean. Sugar cane was introduced to the West Indies by Columbus on one of his subsequent voyages. Columbus was skilled in growing sugar cane and the production process of sugar. However, the production of sugar from the cane in the Caribbean was not performed until the process was introduced by the Dutch and helped develop it into the main crop produced. The Dutch, at the time, were one of the largest producers of sugar. Not only did sugar bring in revenue, but molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, was used to make rum, which was also sold. The Dutch were also in the business of trade. They would trade anything including human beings as slaves. Because growing sugar was more laborious than even tobacco, the Dutch knew that they could also profit from the slave trade. It would be a wise move for the Dutch to teach sugar production. The production of sugar relied on slave labor ("Spanish rule, sugar," 2003). “Caribbean islands became sugar-production machines, powered by slave labor. In pursuit of sugar fortunes, millions of people were worked to death, and then replaced by more enslaved Africans brought by still more slave ships.”(1)
Figure3 Slaves working in sugar cane fields. Source:
Labors Unrewarded
Indentured servants and slave labor became inexpensive ways to produce crops. Harsh attitudes and treatment of slaves were brought over to Virginia and other colonies from the Caribbean. To say that slaves were not treated well is an understatement. The voyage from Africa was long and difficult, “…at best a voyage that was very unpleasant and dehumanizing. At its worst it was an ordeal that led to a slow and painful death.”(2) Land owners who migrated to the mainland brought their ideas of harsh treatment and inequalities of slaves with them. The cost of a slave was initially higher than an indentured servant. In the long run, it proved to be an investment by the plantation owners. An indentured servant had the possibility of being released of his servitude, but a slave was owned property. Reproduction among slaves and slave families eventually provided a renewable supply of slaves thus offsetting the initial cost. Also, as in Virginia, the land producing tobacco would be depleted of its nutrients in a few short years. This would cause the transfer of the plantation to new land and the slaves, being owned property, would be easily moved to the new location with no added expense.
Concluding Roles
Sugar and tobacco played similar roles in the Caribbean and Virginia. Each became the money producers and saving crops that helped stabilize and ensure the success of those colonies. It was also the labor intensive crops that would bring the harshness and inequality of slavery to Colonies of North America that would last into the 19th century. The success and prosperity of plantation owners, transformed into hardship and misery for those enslaved to perform the labor.

Cited WorksBritish Colonies: The Caribbean: Information from
Economic Aspects of Tobacco during the Colonial Period 1612-1776. Economic Influences-Lesson Plan Tobacco and Slavery in the Virginia Colony. Voyages of Exploration: The Sugar and Slave Trades.
Grymes, C. (n.d.). Tobacco in virginia. Retrieved from
On the Water-Living in the Atlantic World, 1450-1800: New tastes, New Trades. The Sugar Trade.

Plantation economy: Information from Tobacco and Virginia economy.

Spanish rule, sugar and slaves. (2003). Retrieved from


(1) On the Water-Living in the Atlantic World, 1450-1800: New Tastes, New Trades. The Sugar Trade. Web site:

(2)European Voyages of Exploration: The Sugar and Slave Trades. Web site:


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