Abandoned sugar mill has oldest traces of plantation slavery

Archaeologists claim this 16th-century sugar estate on a tiny African island, São Tomé, is the earliest known example of plantation slavery.
Sade Agard
The interior of a 16th-century sugar mill at Praia Melão on the island of São Tomé, which archaeologists excavated.
The interior of a 16th-century sugar mill at Praia Melão on the island of São Tomé, which archaeologists excavated.

M.D. Cruz et al.  

Researchers have shed light on the origins of plantation slavery, tracing it back to the tiny West African island of São Tomé.

The findings, published on August 14 in the journal Antiquity, result from an investigation into a 16th-century sugar mill and estate on the island.

Significantly, the new study offers fresh insights into an industry mostly documented through 17th-century records from Brazil and the West Indies.

Sugar and slavery

São Tomé, located 150 miles west of Gabon in the Gulf of Guinea, was initially settled by the Portuguese during the late 15th century. 

The island's lush resources, including abundant wood, fresh water, and the potential for cultivating sugarcane, made it an appealing prospect for colonization. 

Despite high rates of malaria that earned it a grim reputation, the Portuguese monarchy aimed to populate the island. By 1495, convicts, Jewish children, and enslaved Africans were forcibly relocated there to supply labor for the burgeoning sugar trade.

Unlike other Portuguese sugar mills that relied on enslaved individuals solely for manual labor, São Tomé's sugar plantation system involved enslaved workers performing a wide range of tasks. 

These tasks spanned from harvesting and processing sugarcane to carpentry and stone masonry required to construct and operate the mills. 

This unique system laid the foundation for what the researchers have termed "the first plantation economy in the tropics based on sugar monoculture and slave labor."

The island's success in sugar production was so great that by the 1530s, São Tomé had outstripped Madeira, an Atlantic archipelago that was a center of Portuguese sugar operations. 

Dozens of sugar mills were established in São Tomé, with the newly analyzed Praia Melão estate being the focus of this study. 

"Sugar production was a very complex process," said lead researcher Dr. M. Dores Cruz, a historical anthropologist in the Department of African Studies at the University of Cologne in Germany, told Live Science.

"It was not packed in bags and loose as today."

The fall of the sugar mill

Her team of archaeologists explained that the sugar mill at Praia Melão, a two-story stone building, played a crucial role in the sugar production process. It featured domestic quarters on the top floor and a sugar-boiling room on the lower floor. 

They also uncovered fragments of ceramic sugar molds resembling those used in Madeira.

Abandoned sugar mill has oldest traces of plantation slavery
Access to upper floor and graffiti. Lower level shows evidence of scorching.

However, São Tomé's success was not without challenges. The island grappled with the demands of sugar production due to high humidity, rapidly growing forests, and slave uprisings. 

Ultimately, the Portuguese shifted their operations to Brazil in the early 17th century, taking the plantation model with them.

Although the São Tomé mills deteriorated by the 19th century, the authors advise that the research would be vital in understanding the sugar-slave link. 

The complete study was published in Antiquity on August 14 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Praia Melão, the largest sugar mill and estate in São Tomé, active from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, is the first archaeological site ever investigated on the island. It embodies the inception of the plantation economic system predicated on the labour of enslaved people and of local resistance.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board