…should have occurred 172 years ago with passage of the Sugar Equalisation Act 1846
By Ronald Austin Jr
WITHOUT prejudice to the hard-working men and women of the sugar industry, it seems like folly for the English-speaking Caribbean countries to cry over the demise of the sugar industry at this point in history. It behooves any fair-minded apolitical nationalist who loves this country to concede that it is time to strategically embrace the notion of a post-sugar industry Guyana.
If guided by history, this should have been done a long time ago. There are many threads in the tapestry of the decline and fall of sugarcane in the English-speaking Caribbean, but for all intents and purposes of this column, coupled with the limited space and time, I will focus on the Sugar Duties Act 1846. Sugar received its kiss of death 172 years ago with the passage of the Sugar Duties Act, 1846. This column will briefly shed light on the rise of ‘King sugar’, the kiss of death received by the Sugar Duties Act and demonstrate why it is short-sighted to shed tears over an industry that was moribund centuries ago.
When Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) officials appeared before the Economic Services Committee of the Guyana Parliament in June 2017, they gave a dire update on the state of sugar. Many became very concerned about the future of the sugar industry. It was reported that sugar prices had dropped $US 250-$US275 per tonne.
This apprehensive update also included the fact that the cost of sugar on the world market is an average US$0.19 per pound, while GuySuCo’s cost is US$0.40 — more than double. These numbers would spook anybody who has an interest in Guyana’s economic stability. Some historians would not be surprised. A cursory glance at the generic history of the English-speaking Caribbean’s sugar industry would reveal that these calamitous days were centuries in the making.
During the 17th century when sugar replaced Tobacco as the main crop, the English-speaking Caribbean experienced a ‘sugar boom’ which academics have coined, the ‘Sugar Revolution’. Eric Williams, writing in his usual effortless academic excellence, aptly described ‘King Sugar’ during the 18th century: ‘Sugar occupied the place in the 18th-century economy that steel occupied in the 19th and oil in the 20th. Sugar was king’-‘From Columbus to Castro.’
The reality described above was due to the demand for tea. Tea was woven into British culture and where there was a need for tea, there was a need for sugar. Complacent planters who enjoyed unparalleled shield from Britain were never interested in investing or making their business efficient enough to compete with others. This sense of security made the English-speaking Caribbean sugar industry dangerously poised for destruction.
This is 1777 years ago, not 2018. ‘King Sugar’ made Barbados one of the richest spots under the sun. The case of Colonel James Drax epitomises the unparalleled economic rise of the British Caribbean sugar industry. According to Robert C. Batie, ‘Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World’, Colonel James Drax arrived in Barbados with $300 and by 1650, he returned to England with sufficient money to buy an estate. Sugar was the get-rich-quick scheme during the 18th century. Get-rich schemes are never fraught with long-term strategic planning.
Having reached its economic apogee during this period, the inevitable cycle of ‘boom and bust’ visited this commodity. This visit culminated in the Sugar Duties Act, 1846.The Sugar Duties Act to which I devote this column came into existence in 1846, a year of infamy and betrayal, the dreaded year for the planters of the English-speaking Caribbean. Sweet, sweet sugarcane that gave them their fortune turned bitter at the hands of free trade.
Placing a comfortable industry directly in competition with Cuba and Brazil, whom they could not match in terms of efficiency and productivity of ‘King Sugar’. No longer comforted by the Navigation Act, the planters were exposed. I can envision planters cursing the day that this piece of legislation came to the British Parliament.
The ‘Ayes’ were in the majority to make legal, the Sugar Duties Act, 1846. This Act, in one fell swoop, whished away centuries of privileged economic protection for the British Caribbean planters. Prior to 1846, they enjoyed a monopoly over the British sugar market. The Sugar Duties Act, 1846, ended this consortium. It was a sad day for planters who knew that the Sugar Duties Act was the kiss of death.
The death knell was sounded and I have no hesitation in pointing out that devastation is the apt word to describe what ensued for the British Caribbean sugar industry. The question needs to be asked, who really cared? The colonial powers and by extension, the planters, had no long-term strategic societal development plans for their Caribbean possessions. In their minds, this land mass was a grand plantation scheme, a farm strictly for production.
The discussions today on sugar are being fraught in complete oblivion to the fact that sugar, insofar as the English-speaking Caribbean is concerned, was virtually facing the possibility of extinction 172 years ago with the passage of the Sugar Equalisation Act, coupled with other factors such as the coming of Beet sugar. Again, strategic long- term planning was never on their agenda.
The onus was on the post-colonial generations of planners and policy-makers to strategically plan beyond sugarcane, once the reins of control were handed over to them. The planters exited and the colonial authorities abdicated their fiscal and administrative responsibilities.
In 2013, the European Union decided to abolish national sugar quotas and this took full effect on October 1st 2017. A long overdue reality. For me, strategic planning should have started 172 years ago with the passage of the Sugar Equalisation Act, 1846.