Colonial Sugar Production
Sugar cultivation was a lot more labor, capital and expertise intensive than either cotton or tobacco crops in the new world. This led to a highly specialized agricultural/industrial system, many years before the industrial revolution. Many of the processes learned in sugar mills were later applied to factories in Europe and North America. The cane had to be cut at exactly the right time (January to June) to maximize the production of sugar and the juice had to be extracted before the cane spoiled. This required the sugar estate owner to have a sugar mill near the fields.
The cane was fed through rollers that were powered by either animals, men, wind or water. If the green juice was left for a long time before processing, it would begin to ferment. The juice was then sent to the boiling house, usually by chutes where it was boiled down in a series of copper kettles over the furnace, each one smaller then the last. This was a highly skilled and dangerous job. The juice went into the largest kettle and here the operator skimmed off the impurities and then ladled the contents into the next smaller kettle. The ingredients became hotter as the kettles became smaller and the final kettle resulted in a thick, brown, ropy material called muscovado, a mixture of brown sugar and molasses. At his point, quicklime was added to aid in granulation and at exactly the right moment, the fire was cooled and the sugar ladled into a cooling cistern. The head boiler needed to know where the sugar was grown, how it was harvested and transported in order to get the process right.
The muscovado was placed into clay pots and the molasses was allowed to drain for up to a month. The brown sugar was then sun dried and packed into hogsheads, large barrels that held 1,500 pounds of sugar.
Auxiliary operations of the harvest included the cutting of the cane, hauling of the cane, usually by ox cart, and hauling the expended cane stalks after the rolling process to the trash house. The trash house was an important part of the operation. The expended cane was placed in the trash house to dry and then was later used to fire the furnaces. The skimmings and molasses were converted into rum in the distillery.
Work in the sugar mill was extremely dangerous and stressful. If the mill-feeder got any part of his hand caught in the rollers, he was drawn in and crushed. An axe was kept handy to chop off the limb before it was too late. The boiling house was extremely hot and sometimes water had to be poured on the shingled roof to keep it from catching fire. If the boiler operator got any boiling sugar on his skin, it stuck like glue and many times resulted in death.