Exploring the History of the Sugar Cane Industries

By David Singerman 
When Columbus first discovered the New World, many settled in Puerto Rico because of its vast lands and potential in the Sugar Cane Industry. Before long, sugar production became the heartbeat of Puerto Rico’s economy.
As Jews escaped the European tyranny, many established themselves in Puerto Rico and opened Sugar Cane factories and plantations.
I have been studying sugar for years: how it’s grown and produced, how it’s bought and sold. My dissertation explores the new factories, technologies, and markets of the sugar trade at the end of the nineteenth century, so I have spent long, sleepless hours gazing at drawings and photographs of sugar mills and cane fields. Yet until that August morning, I’d never been in the presence of a real piece of the centuries-old sugar world.
I traveled east on the PR-115, from the surfing paradise of Rincón through the busy town of Aguada. I inched out of town, afraid to miss my target, but there was no need to worry; the line of fast-food restaurants and beauty salons abruptly ends, and the rusty hulk of the 150-year-old sugar factory appears. The weather-beaten Central Coloso towered over me.
DSC05490.JPGThe mill estate that became Central Coloso was founded around 1840, as Hacienda Caño de las Nasus. From January to June each year, during the period known as the zafra, the fields of Caño de las Nasus were green with ripening sugar cane. In the hot Caribbean sun slaves harvested the cane, stooping in the fields and angling their knives to cut it at the right length to capture the most sugar. At the ingenio, the mill, oxen powered iron rollers crushed the cane to release the sweet juice.
Another slave, the maestro azucarero (“sugar master”) supervised the coaxing of crystal sugar from the juice. He took care to heat, clarify, and cool the syrup in a series of kettles, until the timing was ripe to “strike” the crystals from the final pan.
The great Cuban historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals wrote that the boiling-house was controlled by sound; the sugar master listened for the “chicharrón” point, where the sugar crackled like fried pig skin.
The wet mass was poured into conical molds, through which the molasses drained from a hole at the bottom. Later, it would to be used as animal feed or for distilling rum. A few weeks later the sugar, some of it dry and white and clean, was packed into huge barrels called hogsheads.
In the 1860s, Caño de las Nasus sold a hundred hogsheads each year. While some of these were sold in Puerto Rico, as the century wore on the island exported more of its sugar to refiners in the United States and Europe. But satisfying America’s appetite for higher-quality sugar, and lots of it, could not happen without new machinery.  By 1900, machines developed by engineers in Glasgow, Scotland filled sugar factories around the world.
In 1871, Don Emilio Vadi became the new owner of Caño de las Nasus. He renamed it Coloso and transformed it from a plantation into a central factory, purchasing a powerful mill from Mirrlees, Tait, & Watson, one of the most famous of all the Glasgow firms. According to the record books of Mirrlees Watson, their Horizontal Mill No. 840, was still grinding away thirty years later, still driven by the same Engine No. 732 with which it had arrived.
The chemists who supervised production inside the factories treated the facilities like it was a laboratory. They administered immense study and experiments to improve the yield and quality of sugar.
Coloso’s sugar won the gold medal at the Ponce Exposition of 1882 and soon it produced six million pounds a year. But the uncertainties of American sovereignty over Puerto Rico led Coloso’s Spanish proprietors to sell it to a newly formed French ownership group, Sucrerie Central Coloso de Porto Rico. Many Puerto Rican centrals remained in local hands, but the largest ones required overseas money and that money meant control.
Under American rule Puerto Rico’s centrals grew rich but eventually succumbed to competitors in Brazil and India. Sugar work paid poorly, but when a central closed it could rip out a community’s heart. In the 1970s, the surviving centrals were taken over by the government, and one by one shut down. In 2002, Coloso was the last to close its doors and a chapter in Puerto Rican history.