Subscribe to the newsletter and get Edwardian-themed news delivered straight to your inbox!

Spanish Caribbean

The Sugar Industry in the Dominican Republic


Sugar production in the Caribbean has been on my mind as I work on the second Arroyo Blanco book, A Time For Desire. In it, Roberto Sandoval and Rosa Castillo, who you might remember as one of the suffragettes in A Summer for Scandal, team up against one of the land-grabbing American corporations that took over the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in the late 19th century.

Though sugar cane was introduced to the island of Hispaniola in the early 1500s by Spanish colonists, the sugar industry in what would later become the Dominican Republic did not develop as extensively as it did in Cuba and Puerto Rico until the outbreak of two foreign wars.

Until the mid-19th century, the Dominican sugar industry had been largely in command of criollo planters. (Criollos were the descendants of Europeans who were born in America.) Cattle ranching had been the predominant economic activity on that side of the island; during the first four hundred years of the colony, sugar cane cultivation was never as prevalent in Santo Domingo as it was in neighboring Haiti, Puerto Rico or Cuba. Various factors contributed to this, the main one being that the labor-intensive sugar production was maintained by the use of slave labor.

Slaves harvesting sugar cane.
Slaves harvesting sugar cane in the Caribbean.

For decades, limited resources in the eastern half of Hispaniola discouraged the importing of slaves. Once slavery was abolished when Haitian forces assumed control of the Dominican side of the island in 1822, sugar production decreased even more.

Political instability throughout the first half of the 19th century, from the Haitian occupation of 1822 to the War of Restoration in 1865, continued to limit sugar production.

At the beginning of the 1860s, civil war broke out in the United States. The booming sugar industry of the American South was severely impacted by the conflict. As production decreased and market demand increased, greater amounts of sugar were imported from the Caribbean.

Illustration depicting a celebration at the end of the Ten Years' War.
Celebrating the end of the Ten Years’ War. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

1868 marked the beginning of the Ten Years’ War in Cuba. Cuban planters fled to the neighboring Dominican Republic, where they contributed to the modernization of the sugar industry and became, along with Spanish and Italian entrepreneurs, the main investors in the revitalized industry.

By the beginning of the 20th century, traditional Dominican export crops like coffee, cacao and tobacco had been replaced by sugar. While Dominicans still cultivated sugar cane in their fields, ownership of the great sugar mills had passed to these foreign investors…and to large American corporations like the New-Jersey based South Porto Rico Sugar Company and the Connecticut-based West Indies Sugar Finance Corporation.

Cuban sugar refinery plant in 1857.
Cuban sugar refinery plant, 1857. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Aided by concessions and tax exemptions from the Dominican government, these corporations established large sugar estates in the eastern provinces. The land for these agricultural estates came from the independent farmers who’d lived in and worked on the land for generations. “By a combination of outright purchase, cajolery, tricks, threats, violence and legal maneuvers, the sugar companies easily wrestled homesites, farms and grazing land from their former holders or owners, leaving them landless and destitute,” wrote the American Bruce J. Calder 1 , who recounted how these suddenly landless peasants became dependent these sugar estates for wages.

Unemployment grew in the east, unrelieved by the corporations, who preferred to import labor from Haiti and other Caribbean islands during harvest time.

Hervesting sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, 1920.
Hervesting sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, 1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was these displaced farmers who would take up arms against U.S. troops during the 1916 Military Occupation (caused in part by the desire to protect American sugar interests from the constant revolutions that broke out during the first decade of the 20th century), motivated largely by their resentment of the American corporations that had driven them into landlessness and poverty, as well as the brutal aggression employed by U.S. marines. As conflicts between these insurgents and marines became more frequent and bloodier, and the marines’ reprisals to revolutionaries and pacifists alike grew more violent, the displacements continued. More and more families chose to flee the east and settle in the more sparsely populated north.

It wasn’t until well after the end of the Occupation in 1924 that sugar production in the Dominican Republic returned to the hands of Dominicans…or, that is to say, one Dominican in particular, the dictator Rafael Trujillo, whose iron control over the island’s economic interests extended to the sugar industry.


  1. Calder, Bruce. Caudillos and Gavilleros versus the United States Marines. Duke University Press, 1978.
Posted in History | Comments Off on The Sugar Industry in the Dominican Republic

U.S. Interventionism in Latin America and the Caribbean


Hi! My name is Lydia San Andres and I write historical romance set in 1911, in a fictional island in the Spanish Caribbean. Why a fictional island? Well…

As you probably know if you’ve been reading Jennifer Hallock’s posts on New Imperialism, the early 20th century saw the global expansion of U.S. power in the occupation of territories in the Pacific and Latin America, under the guise of political altruism. Claiming to seek the political stabilization of neighboring, the United States hoped to extend a “civilizing” influence over Latin America by diffusing American values and customs in order to facilitate investment by U.S. corporations.

The islands of Puerto Rico and Cuba were the first to fall under U.S. rule, as a result of the Spanish-American war that took place towards the end of the 19th century. During the next fifteen years, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Haiti suffered interventions at the hands of the U.S. Government.

Source: The New Rose & Crown

The Dominican Republic was occupied in 1916 as the U.S. government claimed to be interested in protecting Americans and other foreigners from the revolutions that had plagued the country for at least a decade. Their true motivation lay mainly in securing American banking and investment interests, as well as preventing European expansion in the Caribbean, fearing, in particular, that if Germany were to gain a foothold in the Caribbean, it would result in the establishment of naval bases far too close to U.S. territory. Which was clearly not a pretext even though the U.S. troops remained in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic well after the end of WWI.

Meanwhile, in a speech made by President Wilson in 1916, he claimed that “It shall not lie with the American people to dictate to another what their government shall be.” Obviously, Wilson was the type to practice what he preached.

The U.S. policy of interventionism would continue until the FDR administration with the implementation of the Good Neighbor Policy and Roosevelt’s announcement that “the definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention.” This policy would hold forever—or, um, at least until the advent of the Cold War.

The island in which my romances take place has so far gone untouched by U.S. interventionism (mostly because it’s fictional!) but it will not completely avoid dealing with United States’ expanding economic interests as the series goes on…

If you’d like to read more about the 1916 Occupation of the Dominican Republic, the 100th anniversary of which was commemorated this year, read this fascinating article by Lorgia García-Peña.

And if you’d like to know more about my books, A Summer for Scandal and The Infamous Miss Rodriguez, please visit my website or join me on twitter!