[Marxism] A Fate Worse Than Slavery, Unearthed in Sugar Land

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 28 12:57:38 MDT 2018

NY Times Op-Ed, Oct. 28, 2018
A Fate Worse Than Slavery, Unearthed in Sugar Land
By Brent Staples

The blood-drenched history that gave the city of Sugar Land, Tex., its 
name showed its face earlier this year, when a school construction crew 
discovered the remains of 95 African-Americans whose unmarked graves 
date back more than a century. The dead — some of whom may have been 
born in slavery — are victims of the infamous convict leasing system 
that arose after Emancipation. Southerners sought to replace slave labor 
by jailing African-Americans on trumped-up charges and turning them over 
to, among others, sugar cane plantations in the region once known as the 
Sugar Bowl of Texas.

A bitter debate has erupted in Sugar Land, a fast-growing suburb 
southwest of Houston. Sugar Land officials, who want to move the remains 
to a nearby cemetery, are at odds with members of a city-appointed task 
force who rightly argue that a historical find of this magnitude should 
be memorialized on the spot where it was discovered.

Against this backdrop, archaeologists, who are constructing an 
increasingly detailed portrait of the injuries and illnesses suffered by 
these inmates, have opened a window onto the murderous nature of sugar 
cultivation, an industry that earned its reputation as the 
slaughterhouse of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by killing more people 
more rapidly than any other kind of agriculture.

Lives of Living Death

The historian David Eltis, a co-editor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade 
Database, estimates that at least 70 percent of the 12 million or so 
captives who left Africa for the Americas on slave ships were destined 
for sugar colonies. Most sugar was cultivated in the Caribbean and South 
America, but the Southern colonies of British America and subsequent 
states like Florida, Texas and Louisiana — the most infamous of the 
sugar states — entered the brutal cash crop sweepstakes as well.

The most well-known portrait of the Louisiana sugar country comes from 
Solomon Northup, the free black New Yorker famously kidnapped into 
slavery in 1841 and rented out by his master for work on plantations. In 
his memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,’’ Northup recounts the hectic and 
barbaric scene that unfolded during harvest season, when enslaved people 
were pushed around the clock to gather and process the highly perishable 
sugar cane before it rotted.

Northup writes: “The hands are not allowed to sit down long enough to 
eat their dinners. Carts filled with corn cake, cooked at the kitchen, 
are driven into the field at noon. The cake is distributed by the 
drivers, and must be eaten with the least possible delay.”

The harvesters worked relentlessly in blistering heat, hacking down 
10-foot cane with machete-like knives and transporting it to the 
plantation mill to be processed, until they passed out from what 
appeared to be heat stroke. Then, Northup tells us, they were dragged 
into the shade, doused with buckets of water and ordered back into their 
places in the cane.

Slaves in the Louisiana sugar cane world lived what the former slave and 
civil rights activist Frederick Douglass termed a “life of living 
death.” The average life span of a mill hand was said to be only seven 
years — a message that circulated widely among enslaved people who 
feared being sold into bondage in sugar fields.

The former slave and memoirist Jacob Stroyer wrote in the 19th century 
that enslaved people saw Louisiana as “a place of slaughter.” When a 
train lurched out of a South Carolina station carrying slaves to 
Louisiana, Stroyer wrote, “The colored people cried out with one voice 
as though the heavens and earth were coming together, and it was so 
pitiful that those hardhearted white men who had been accustomed to 
driving slaves all their lives shed tears like children.”

As the historian Richard Follett shows in his book “The Sugar Masters,” 
growers were in the vanguard of mechanization, using steam-powered 
rollers to crush sugar cane into juice that was then boiled and rendered 
into sugar. Mechanization sped up the tempo across the plantation, 
making it harder for slaves who cut the cane by hand to keep up with the 
demands of the mill.

Taken together, haste and fatigue and lengthening work hours heightened 
the risk of accident already endemic on the plantations. Unlike cane 
workers today, who wear heavy, protective clothing, the enslaved workers 
were vulnerable to being gouged and cut by the lacerating leaves of the 

The fiery boiling house — where the cane was pressed into juice that was 
then heated and crystallized into the coveted sweetener — had what the 
writer Adam Hochschild describes as a “satanic ring.” Men and women who 
were scalded found themselves unable to shed the sticky burning 
substance that clung to their skins.

Bone-tired slaves — who fed the cane stalks into the mechanical rollers 
that pressed them into juice — lost hands or were pulled into the 
rollers and dismembered. This outcome was common enough that a slave was 
often stationed nearby with a sword to sever the mill feeder’s arm 
before she could be pulled to her death in the rollers. The death rates 
on such plantations were compounded by malnutrition and disease, and 
were so obscenely high that the ranks of the enslaved needed constant 

Mr. Hochschild likens the rusting hulks of the sugar mills that he 
visited in the Caribbean to the remnants of the Russian gulags where 
millions of anonymous people were put to death during the Stalinist era. 
When he came upon the remains of a sugar boiler in Jamaica, he asked 
himself: “How many slaves were worked to death feeding this boiler? How 
many had their arms crushed in the rollers of the mill that must have 
been next to it?”

Replacement Bodies

The Texas sugar plantations were profitable because they depended on 
slave labor. Abolition crushed the industry, but the convict leasing 
system resurrected it in a form that can legitimately be seen as more 
pernicious than slavery: Slave masters had at least a nominal interest 
in keeping alive people whom they owned and in whom they held an 
economic stake.

By contrast, when a leased inmate died in the fields, managers who had 
contracted with the prison system for a specific number of bodies could 
demand a replacement. Beyond that, as Michael Hardy wrote last year in 
Texas Monthly, the working conditions on the plantations in Fort Bend 
County, where the Sugar Land dead were discovered, were “as bad or worse 
than they had been on the slave plantations. Mosquito-born epidemics, 
frequent beatings and a lack of medical care resulted in a 3 percent 
annual mortality rate.”

The dead have much to say about the cruelty and disregard for human life 
through which the sugar baron families built their fortunes. One burial 
that stands out is that of a man who died after having a leg amputated — 
a possible side effect of wearing shackles that dug into the skin, 
causing what inmates referred to as “shackle poison.”

Prison records show relatively young people succumbing to edema, heart 
failure and symptoms that indicate sun stroke and extreme dehydration, 
also documented by Solomon Northup in his Louisiana memoir. Beyond that, 
researchers have turned up bone infections, healed breaks, bones 
contorted by heavy labor and muscles torn away from the bone.

When the forensic report is finished, Texans will have a clearer vantage 
point on how the sugar barons enriched themselves by systematically 
working people to death. The city of Sugar Land, which keeps a 
deliberate distance from this history, needs to make room for it in the 
upbeat narrative it uses to promote itself.


Brent Staples joined the Times editorial board in 1990 after working as 
an editor of the Book Review and an assistant editor for metropolitan 
news. Mr. Staples holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of 
Chicago. @BrentNYT

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