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Historical Background

 As the largest of the Greater Antilles with an area of approximately 43,000 square miles, as compared to 3,550 in Puerto Rico and 18,815 in the Dominican Republic, the importance of Cuba in the history of the Western Hemisphere’s sugar industry is paramount and cannot be overlooked. 

In 1760 Cuba was a modest sugar producer without any importance to the European markets when compared to larger producers like Haiti, Jamaica, Brazil and even Martinica.  The latter part of that century was marked by a series of events all of which had important social and political effects that positively affected the Cuban sugar industry;

  • the American Revolutionary War and the subsequent creation of the 13 Colonies , which curtailed sugar exports from the British West Indies to the former 13 Colonies and opened a completely new market for Cuban sugar.
  • the Anglo Spanish War that ended in 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris and resulted in an 11 month British occupation of Cuba during which sugar exports were made to European markets previously not allowed under Spanish rule and approximately 4,000 slaves were allowed in the island providing a much-needed labor force.
  • the French Revolution , which prompted the slave uprising in Saint-Domingue that resulted in the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), at a time when Haiti was the major producer of sugar in the new world.  This caused the Haitian sugar industry to collapse creating a rise in sugar prices and led Europeans to turn to Cuba for their sugar supply.

Due to the increased demand and the availability of slave labor, by 1850 sugar accounted for ⅘ths of all Cuban exports and in 1860 Cuba produced nearly ⅓ of the world’s sugar.1  Despite economic and political instability in Cuba, the 30-year period starting around 1860 was a period of drastic changes in the Cuban sugar industry when age-old industry practices were eliminated and substituted with new production and commercial methods and a better-quality product. 

The abolition of slavery in 1886 and the price drop caused by the increase in bounty protected European beet sugar which In 1840 was less than 20% of the world’s sugar and by 1884 had increased to just over 50%, resulted in a sudden world sugar price drop of as much as 40% by 1884. The result in Cuba was a reduction in the number of sugar factories as those that did not have sufficient capital and were unable to mechanize and cut costs, dismantled their operations and became simply farmers. 

In addition to the price drop of the 1880s and the abolition of slavery in 1886, the last 30 years or so of the 19th Century were difficult years for the Cuban sugar industry.  The Ten Years War that that lasted from 1868 to 1878 marked the beginning of Cuba’s independence movement.  The Little War that followed (1879-1880) was of minor importance but ratified Cuban’s desire to gain their independence from Spain.  Even though Spain won both of these wars, the abolition of slavery in 1886 was their direct result.

The Ten year war was fought mainly on the eastern part of the island where over 100 sugar factories and many plantations were burned and destroyed.  However, the newer, bigger factories on the more densely populated western part of the island that contributed 80% of total sugar production, suffered none or minimal damage.2 

A positive effect of the war was the creation of a class of entrepreneurs that benefited from the war effort by contracting with the Spanish government for the basic needs of the soldiers and transporting of troops, food and supplies.  At the end of the war, this class was ready, willing and able to invest in the newly reformed sugar industry.

A negative effect of the Ten Year War was the exodus of prominent sugar men to the Dominican Republic.  People like Carlos Loynaz who established 2 ingenios near Puerto Plata; José Eleuterio Hatton who shortly after arrival in the Dominican Republic established the Barahona, San Isidro and La Fé sugar mills; Joaquín M. Delgado and Rafael Martín who established La Esperanza sugar estate with a steam mill, considered the first central sugar mill in the Dominican Republic; and the members of the firm Padró, Solaún & Cia. who established Ingenio Agua Dulce, later renamed Central Consuelo the finest and largest central sugar mill in the Dominican Republic.

We do not have any information regarding how many sugar factories went out of business, but it is a fact the 1880s bankrupted many individual producers.  New and more efficient sugar houses were built by owners capable of modernizing their facilities and increasing efficiency by separating farming from production, thus becoming industrialists.  In 1860, 1,318 Ingenios produced 515 m.t. of raw sugar while in 1895 the number of Ingenios was 250 with production of almost a million tons.  The old sugar planter dependent on slave labor was substituted by a new generation of sugar men, in 1895 only 17% of all central sugar mills were controlled by former plantation owners.3

The “Rewarding Truce” (1878-1895) was the 17 year period following the end of the Ten Year War.  It was a period of increased tension in the relationship between Cuba and Spain and of important changes in Cuban society.  With the abolition of slavery in 1886 and the country in a deep economic depression, many wealthy Cubans lost their properties and the separation of social classes became less apparent with a sprawling middle class.  At the same time, its population underwent a radical change with the influx of about 709,000 Spanish immigrants between 1868 and 1894.

Even with all the social, economic and political events happening at the time, Cuban raw sugar production increased 189% from 348,000 m.t.  in 1856 to 1,005,000 m.t. in 1894, the highest production year during the Spanish colonial period.

Contrary to general belief, when the Cuban War for Independence broke in 1895, Cuba’s sugar industry was controlled by Spaniards and “Criollos”.4  Information compiled by the US forces that occupied the island in 1898 indicate that 93.5% of the sugar factory owners were Cubans and Spaniards.  That number may have very well been higher as many owners in the remaining 6.5% were Cubans and Spaniards that had become US Citizens to protect their interests.5

During the pre-war years between 1890 and 1894, Cuban sugar production increased by 74% reaching its highest pre-war production level in 1894.  This was achieved in part because of the unpopular McKinley Tariff which became law on October 1, 1890.  The newly imposed tariffs increased the cost of many items of general consumption to Americans.  It boosted duties on imports to the US to almost 50% but removed tariffs on imports of sugar and molasses and other commodities like coffee, tea and hides. 

The US then became the principal market for Cuban sugar when the value of sugar exports increased from $35.4 million in 1890 to $60.6 million in 1893.6  In 1881 the value of the US-Cuban trade was over 6 times that of Cuban commerce with Spain.7  By 1894 the US was taking 87% of Cuban exports, with only 6% going to Spain.8  At the time of the war, even though US capital did not control any internal sector of the Cuban economy with the possible exception of mining, its dominance in the market for Cuban sugar was an implied economic power.

Despite the banner years of 1894 & 1895, the following factors contributed to an insurrection on February 24, 1895 started by planters and farmers in Santiago de Cuba province that led to a sharp decline in Cuban sugar prices;


  • the lack of satisfactory institutions of credit where planters could finance the required large investments in new sugar machinery to compete with other countries
  • the high tariffs imposed by the Colonial government on imports from foreign countries, mainly provisions and machinery imported from the US
  • the passage in 1894 of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act that replaced the McKinley Tariff the bounty fed competition from European beet sugar

The February 24, 1895 insurrection was the beginning of the Cuban War for Independence that destroyed many sugar mills and plantations, substantially cut down sugar production and escalated during the last few months of 1898 to the Spanish-American War.  Contrary to the Ten-Year War that took place mainly in the eastern part of the island, the war for independence was fought all over the island.

The war had an important effect in the sugar industry, as “of the 1,100 ingenios and sugar mills registered in Cuba in 1894, only 207 survived the war.”9  Other historians indicate that prior to the war some 280 sugar estates were in operation in Cuba of which 50 were large centrals, while at the cease of hostilities, only 20 centrals were in condition to grind.10

Manue Moreno Fraginal’s statements in El Ingenio, presents an interesting analysis which makes some sense in what actually happened during the war since there is no census of sugar plantations taken during the period.  Moreno Fraginals concludes that “Traditional Cuban historiography, influenced by interests of the sugar magnates, created a myth of the total destruction of the sugar industry during the war.  Of the fifty largest centrales in production in 1895, only seven were destroyed during the war, four received some damage, and thirty-nine remained standing, ready to start a new grinding season.  It is probable that the effective overall loss suffered by the industry was at most between 20% and 25% of installed productive capacity.”

In its issue of October 6, 1900, The Louisiana Planter & Sugar Manufacturer reproduces an article on the Journal des Fabricants de Sucre that states that Dr. Paasche, a member of the Reichstag who visited Cuba in 1899 reported that “…it is difficult to imagine the extent of the disaster and ruin which has been caused by the war and he gives in detail the most remarkable account of what he saw there.  Misery and ruin seem to have possession of the former pearl of the Antilles.”

The different accounts of what happened during the war vary depending on who you ask.  But the fact remains that to start up the industry anew required an extensive program of cane planting at a time when farm laborers had been widely dispersed.  The rebuilding of the Cuban sugar industry took approximately three years from the end of the war as evidenced byproduction figures which show that by 1903 sugar production reached a million tons, which was about the total production in the pre-war year of 1895.11

After the war, claims by US Citizens for damages suffered during the war were allowed by virtue of the Spanish Treaty Claims Commission established by Congress.  The Commission was the result of the negotiations between Spain and Cuba whereby the US agreed to adjudicate and settle damages caused to US individuals and corporations during the war.  A review of claims filed identify in part sugar industry investments by US nationals prior to the war.


  • Trinidad Sugar Co. – 103,016
  • The Victoria Co - $318,846
  • Narcisa Sugar Co. – 347,000
  • Mapos Sugar Co. – 378,673
  • Central Tiunucú S. C. Manufacturing Co. - $467,713
  • Andrés Terry Dorticós (Central Cayajabo) - $588,468
  • Cuban American Sugar Co. (Central Tinguaro) – 612,230
  • Hormiguero Central Co. - $768,948
  • Francisco Javier Terry Dorticós (Central Caracas) - $1,155,045
  • Rosario Sugar Co. - $1,239,523
  • Central Teresa Sugar Co. - $1,256,000
  • Patricio Ponce de León (Central Indio) - $1,266,950
  • Pedro C., Ricardo & Maria Luisa Casanova Montalvo (Central Casanova aka Central San Miguel) – $1,511,806
  • Francisco Gustavo La Rosa (Isabel Sugar Mill) - $1,716,062
  • Constancia Sugar Co. - $4,177,698

There were thirty-five total war claims submitted for $13,646,544 that included a number of foreign-born naturalized citizens including Cubans, Spaniards, British, French and others.  The claims filed with the US Spanish Treaty Commission gives us an idea of the the early wave of capitalists that invested foreign capital in the Cuban Sugar industry during the Spanish Colonial period prior to the Cuban War for independence.

The history and growth of the Cuban sugar industry of the 20th Century is better understood by looking into the individuals and enterprises that played major roles in its development.  The following pages is a compilation of these. 
____________________________________________________
1 Encyclopedia Britannica
2 Manuel Moreno Fraginals – El Ingenio 317
3 Ibid - 308
4 Cubans born to at least one Spaniard parent
5Manuel Moreno Fraginals - El Ingenio 318
6Cesar J. Ayala - American Sugar Kingdom 57
7Jules Robert Benjamin - The United States and Cuba, Hegemony and Dependent Development, 1880-1934
8Thomas – Cuba 289
9Alison Vicrobeck - A Brief Overview of the Cuban Sugar Industry from 1590 to Today
10 The Louisiana Planter & Sugar Manufacturer December 17, 1898
11Leslie Bethell - The Cambridge History of Latin America 208