A Brief History of Cuba’s Sugar Industry
You may not know it but Cuba used to be one of the most prosperous nations on earth.
The prosperity of the nation was transformed in the 1790s when sugar traders fled the slave rebellion in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic) for their much bigger neighbours.
They found conditions in Cuba perfect for growing sugar cane and with a ready source of slave labour available and a huge worldwide taste for all things sugary, the GDP of the nation exploded to mainly Spanish colonial profit.
At its height around 100,000 slaves worked the fields in baking hot conditions. The rich grew richer and all but the forced labour in the country prospered under Spanish rule.
It all came crashing down for two reasons:
Firstly slavery was abolished freeing the workers of African origin. Many of them chose to settle, forming an integral part of modern Cuba’s cultural identity.
The lack of enforced labour and having to pay workers a wage for the first time was a huge hammer blow for the despicable sugar industrialists.
The death bell was tolled with the ‘discovery’ of sugar beet in Europe. The West’s sweet tooth could now be satisfied more easily and cheaply.
We witnessed a demonstration on how cane was turned to ‘sugarcane juice’ by it being fed through a hand-turned mangel at the sugar museum situated in a former sugar mill in the valley near Trinidad.
It was easy to imagine the monotonous tasks carried out on an industrial scale by the poor unfortunate slaves.
Sugar cane is still grown in large quantities on the island and in fact until the late ’80s was still easily Cuba’s biggest export (mainly to the Soviet Union).
However, with the collapse of trade with the Iron Curtain countries, this now mainly satisfies local and neighbourly demand and as the main ingredient in Cuba’s next big cash earner, rum.
Cuban Rum (Ron)
The rum industry is big business in Cuba.
(Facundo) Bacardi started his refined white rum empire there in 1862 right up until a year after the 1959 revolution at which time the business was nationalised along with all other private enterprise.
The Bacardi family rapidly upped sticks to The Bahamas and then to Bermuda where their business remains to this day.
The Bacardi Symbol inspired by the bats in the roof of the original Bacardi factory
The recipe also got seized by the new regime and the brew was renamed ‘Ron de Santiago de Cuba’ as it remains named today. Their great rival brand ‘Havana Club’ vies for top shelf supremacy in bars throughout the world, along with Bacardi of course.
There is a huge array of cocktails that have rum as their main ingredient, many of which we tried including of course mojitos, plus ron collins, daiquiri, pina colada, cuba libre, cuba bella, mai tai, el presidente & blue hawaii.
Bacardi’s Santiago de Cuba mansion has been converted into a museum stuffed with all the families many treasures that were left behind when they ’emigrated’ at a moment’s notice.
Their splendid Art Deco HQ in Havana also ceded to the State and is now housing government offices.
You can also see the grave of second generation family business supremo Emilio Bacardi close to Fidel’s tomb just outside Santiago.
There is also the Ron Museum in Havana (dedicated to rum, not anybody called Ronald!) and of course Hemingway’s bar where the controversial but brilliant writer used to enjoy a rum cocktail or several.
Coming Next – Cuban Cigars