File-White cane sugar

Though sugar was cultivated in Louisiana from first settlement, no commercially profitable crop was made until Etienne de Boré’s success in 1797. After the slave revolt in Haiti, sugar makers left Haiti and began growing sugar in New Orleans commercially. In 1803 Louisiana became a state. Thus tariffs were removed from its products, leading to tremendous financial success for the planters along the Mississippi River; for the traders and brokers who lived in the city; and for everyone else who worked in the industry. Success, that is, for everyone except the slaves.

Historian Sidney Mintz argues that sugar created slavery in the New World. Slaves were always present in Louisiana, but after it became apparent how much money there was in sugar, their numbers soared. Prior to mechanization, sugar making was backbreaking labor at every step from planting, weeding and harvesting to grinding, and boiling. Limbs and lives were often lost. The grinding or rolling season required unending labor. Teams of slaves worked in shifts; the boiler fires were always lit.

The invention of the steam powered mill in 1822 revolutionized sugar production. Steam mills yielded a higher volume of cane juice than mills turned by mules, and this sped the processing of sugar. The vacuum pan evaporator, invented in 1846 by Norbert Rillieux, a free man of color from New Orleans, drew 25% more sugar from the molasses than kettle cooking, and minimized the risk of scorching the sugar. Finally, in 1850, steam rail lines connected the bayou sugar parishes with New Orleans to ship much of Louisiana’s sugar products to northern markets. By 1853, Louisiana was producing one quarter of the world’s sugar.

Few ante-bellum planters would recognize today’s sugar industry. The 1,400 sugar mills now number thirteen. Louisiana currently supplies 20% of the domestic market. Mechanization has reduced the workforce to 27,000, less than half of what it was in 1950. Now most fieldwork is done by Mexican immigrants who live in upgraded company housing. Contemporary growers are quick to mention constant federal surveillance and red tape when it comes to worker contracts, and though compensation is higher than the minimum wage, these workers remain un-unionized.