During the time period that most of our buildings here at the Cabin Restaurant, the Cajun Village, and Bernadette’s were built, sugarcane was king in south Louisiana (1800-1861). In fact, it still is today, acting as the most profitable crop to grow along the banks of the Mississippi. But what prompted planters in the late 1700’s to introduce this crop to Louisiana, and how did it become so successful? A culmination of events, people, and geography eventually led to the explosion of sugarcane from the mouth of the Mississippi River all the way to St. Francisville:
1. The Decline of the Caribbean Sugar Trade – About 175 years before sugarcane made its way to Louisiana, the British (and in some areas, the French) had succeeded in turning any available land on just about every Caribbean island into a sugar plantation. However, after decades of planting a mono-crop, the soil eventually became exhausted. There was no equivalent to the Mississippi River on islands such as Antigua or Barbados; massive annual floods did not replenish nutrients in the soil. Thus, business savvy men began to look for new land to grow their crop. Behold Louisiana, with abundantly fertile soil and a climate just mild enough to support sugarcane. (The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker is an excellent source of information on the English sugar industry).
2. Etienne de Boré – The first person to hold the title of “Mayor of New Orleans,” de Boré is most famous for his modernization of the sugar granulation process. He owned a plantation a few miles above the New Orleans, roughly where Audubon Park is today. De Boré had originally cultivated indigo. But when this product lost its market as a result of competition from Guatemala, and after a couple of years of drought and insects attacking the plants, the issues of the bare stalks in the indigo fields were discouraging planters. De Boré and other planters were on the verge of bankruptcy. So he decided to gamble on sugarcane. He set up a sugar mill on his estate and there, in 1795, had, with the aid of two Spaniards, succeeded in producing the first granulated sugar ever known in the Louisiana colony, with the result that agriculture was completely revolutionized. De Boré sold his first crop in 1796 for $12,000 (an very large sum at the time). Seeing the profit that de Boré made, other planters followed suit, and the sugar industry spread like wildfire across Louisiana.
3. The Mississippi River – As mentioned above, the Mississippi River was a geographical boon for sugar planters in Louisiana. Not only did the river replenish the soil annually during its spring floods, but it also provided the water necessary to quench the thirst of the sugarcane plant. Sugarcane naturally requires large quantities of fresh water, more so than any other cash crop that was planted in the South. Even in a drought year, the Mississippi still has large quantities of water that can be used to irrigate farm land. Last but not least, the river was used to transport the sugar crop to market in New Orleans, where it was then shipped all over the world, to the benefit of the sugar planters’ bank accounts.
In sum, the confluence of three different subjects led to the boom of the sugar industry in Louisiana. Without the decline of the sugar trade in the Caribbean, the existence of de Boré, and the natural environmental habitat of the lower Mississippi, it would have been decades, if not centuries, before sugar became successful in south Louisiana.