Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico is a scholarly and substantial contribution both to Puerto Rico’s “new history” and to a fuller understanding of nineteenth-century Puerto Rico within the colonial Caribbean. Using archival and other primary sources, Francisco Scarano has pieced together the most precise and detailed description available of the evolution of the sugar economy around Ponce, the largest sugar-producing region on the island. For the specialist, this book complements the recent microhistorical research of Laird Bergad on Lares, Fernando Pico on Utuado, and Luis E. Díaz Hernández on life around Lares and Yauco. Together these studies provide a rich perspective of the nature of the economic base and production methods and relations and they have contributed to new insights into, and interpretations of, the historical processes of the nineteenth century.

In a wider context, Scarano makes three useful contributions. First, slavery in Puerto Rico often has been viewed as relatively unimportant compared to other Caribbean dependencies. While it is true that Black slaves as a proportion of the total population never exceeded 12 percent, in key sugar regions like Ponce, slave labor was indispensable. In 1845, for example, slave labor averaged 82.1 percent of the labor force for Ponce sugar haciendas (p. 72). Scarano’s marshalling of evidence on labor use and comparative population growth rates of slaves and jornaleros convincingly refutes the position that has held slavery to have been marginal to economic life. Sugar plantations without slaves, in Puerto Rico as in the rest of the Caribbean, were not just unthinkable, but impossible. The small size of Puerto Rico’s slave population was the result of the backwardness of production on the island and the fact that large-scale cane production came relatively late to Puerto Rico, and even then it never became as extensive as in other sugar-producing regions.

Second, though we now know much more about the role of immigrants in the economy as a result of other studies, Scarano provides new insights into the origins of many of the early merchants. Many came from the neighboring West Indies, with St. Thomas contributing the largest share. This was to change after 1815 when the Cédula de Gracias created a monopoly of trade for Spanish citizens. This merchant class was subject to rapid turnover as wealth was rapidly accumulated, permitting early retirement back in “more civilized” Europe. Earlier immigrants then were replaced by newer immigrants, very often family members taking over a business, further drawing off the surplus from one of Spain’s last remaining colonial possessions. Immigrants were not only predominant as the largest merchants, but also as large hacendados, a fact that, as Scarano speculates, may make the weakness of the creole class in Puerto Rico unique, certainly in comparison with Cuba (p. 167).

Third, despite the fact that the sugar plantations were every bit as integrated into the world market as were those in the rest of the Caribbean, Puerto Rican plantations were of significantly smaller scale. This may have been because of the scarcity of finance capital, compounded by the absence of banks and the perpetual shortage of money, which plagued the island’s producers throughout the nineteenth century. Combined with the evidence Scarano provides on the greater productivity of the Ponce plantations (Chap. 3) relative to other sugar-producing regions, including the United States, however, the smaller size also may have been the result of more intensive production, though mill technology appears not to have been very advanced.

This is a finely detailed and innovative study of the sugar economy in Ponce in all its dimensions. For both the Puerto Rican specialist and a more general audience interested in the political economy of the nineteenth-century Caribbean, this is a substantial contribution to the literature.