Digital Grainger

An Online Edition of The Sugar-Cane (1764)


This project originated from a desire to create an openly accessible edition of James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane that could be used for undergraduate and graduate teaching. Although The Sugar-Cane had largely fallen into obscurity by the early twentieth century, there has been an upsurge of scholarly interest in the text in recent decades, especially as literary historians and others have focused on understanding the histories of Caribbean plantations and slavery, both of which topics The Sugar-Cane deals extensively with. Just as importantly, scholars have become interested in thinking about how Grainger’s poem also could be used to understand histories of indigenous and Afro-Caribbean resistance in the face of colonization and enslavement. Our main goal in creating this edition, then, was to translate some of these new insights into an accessible form so that students, as well as researchers, could benefit from them.

It is worth noting, however, that there are already two modern versions of The Sugar-Cane available in print. One is John Gilmore’s 1999 Poetics of Empire, a scholarly edition of The Sugar-Cane that contains a wealth of information about the poem and Grainger’s sources. In fact, we have relied on Gilmore’s footnotes to supplement the gaps in our own and want to acknowledge that debt here. When appropriate, we acknowledge Gilmore’s work in individual footnotes to the poem as well. There is also a version of the poem in Thomas W. Krise’s 1999 Caribbeana, an excellent anthology of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writing about the Caribbean. Krise’s anthology is similar to our edition in spirit, as both are designed for potential use in the classroom.

Our edition differs from Krise and Gilmore’s works, however, in that we take advantage of the flexibility of a digital platform to provide readers with multiple versions of the poem. These versions include

—A “full text” version
—A “page by page” version
—Excerpts from the poem focused on specific themes and grouped under the rubric of the “counter-plantation”

On the homepage, we have grouped the “full text” and “page by page” versions under the heading “The 1764 Edition.” We have grouped the excerpts under the heading “The Counter-Plantation.” In what follows, we will explain what we intended each version to do and why we arranged them as we did.

The 1764 Edition

What we are calling the “full text” version is a complete transcription of the first edition of The Sugar-Cane. This edition was published in London in 1764 (hereafter referred to as the “1764 edition”). The full-text version contains the entire poem on a single page. In other words, readers can read the entire poem without ever having to click backward or forward on their browsers. This version of the poem also facilitates keyword searches. To see all the uses of a particular word in the poem, readers can either use their browser’s “Find” command or use the “Search” function included on our site. Additionally, this version of the poem makes it easier for readers to print or save a copy of the poem for consultation offline. We recommend using the browser’s “Print” command to create a PDF of the full text and then saving or printing the file.

The “page by page” version of the poem is also a complete transcription of the 1764 edition of the poem, but it allows the reader to click through The Sugar-Cane page by page. Our transcriptions and page breaks strictly adhere to those found in the 1764 edition and therefore provide the reader with an experience analogous to one of reading that edition. Each page also includes a link to the corresponding page image from a print copy of the 1764 edition that we obtained for this project. Any reader who wishes to compare our transcription with the original should use this page-by-page version of the poem.

This section of the site also contains links to a glossary and bibliography. The glossary contains vocabulary lists that identify many of the historical individuals, places, and plants mentioned by Grainger. The bibliography contains a list of primary, secondary, and general reference works that we consulted to complete this project. It also contains a list of works on editing and digital editions.

Finally, it contains a link to an editorial essay on the topic of “Poetry and Slavery.” Although we believe that the poem can provide readers with valuable historical information about Caribbean plantations and counter-plantations, we also feel the need to acknowledge and address the fact that Grainger’s intention in publishing the poem was to celebrate the British Empire and particularly the wealth that was being produced by enslaved laborers. We therefore strongly recommend that readers consult this essay, in addition to engaging with the poem itself.

The Counter-Plantation

The excerpts grouped under “The Counter-Plantation” on the home page constitute a final version (or versions) of The Sugar-Cane. Each excerpt contains passages from the poem that focus on a specific theme like “Indigenous Presence” or “Obeah.” These excerpts also include short essays or headnotes prefacing each group of passages and providing key background information and guiding questions for readers.

In deciding what topics to focus on for the counter-plantation excerpts, we chose ones that would highlight Grainger’s brief yet undeniably present discussions of ongoing resistance under the system of plantation slavery. In other words, the goal of these excerpts is to enable counter-plantation readings of the poem that work against the grain of Grainger’s pro-slavery narrative. First used by Yvonne Acosta and Jean Casimir, the term counter-plantation describes those elements of the Caribbean plantation system that helped the formerly enslaved become independent cultivators after emancipation. These elements included provision grounds, which the enslaved used to grow food crops for their own survival (see our excerpt on “Provision Grounds” for more information). In the spirit of Saidiya Hartman’s call for scholars to create “counter-histories of slavery,” we also include excerpts on themes that we hope will encourage readers to formulate “counter-readings” of their own (4).1 In other words, we want these excerpts to inspire a willingness not only to read the poem creatively but also to re-arrange it and bring the everyday lives of the enslaved and other marginalized subjects of the plantation to the foreground of analysis.

Indeed, the image we have included at the top of our homepage is an original work of art by Vanessa Lee, who was kind enough to participate in our project of encouraging readers to re-arrange or “break apart” The Sugar-Cane. The piece of cane in Lee’s image is a reproduction of the frontispiece illustration for the 1764 edition of the poem, although the stalk is whole in the print edition.2 Lee’s illustration also includes the image of a rat to reference one of the most well-known, if likely apocryphal stories about critical reaction to The Sugar-Cane. In his Life of Johnson, James Boswell recalls a reading of a manuscript draft of the poem that took place at the London home of eighteenth-century painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. When the line, “Now, Muse, let’s sing of rats,” was read aloud, the audience is said to have burst into laughter. An embarrassed Grainger deleted the word “rats” from the poem and replaced it with “whisker’d vermine-race” (II.62). There is no other evidence to suggest that this incident actually happened, yet the persistence of the rat story in Grainger scholarship and the invasive presence of rats on eighteenth-century sugar plantations are reminders that the material realities of the plantation always threatened profits and likewise endangered the reception of the poem. As much as Grainger tried to contain the harsh realities of sugar cultivation and enslavement, these ultimately could not be papered over with poetic language.3 We therefore ask readers to keep these realities in mind when reading the poem. While The Sugar-Cane ought to be read carefully and with close attention to detail, Grainger should not be treated as an author or authority who must be revered.

Notes on Transcription and Language

In creating this edition, we have striven to produce a “semidiplomatic” edition that faithfully reproduces all of the important features of the 1764 edition (Driscoll 254). As such, we made no changes or corrections to Grainger’s words, spelling, or punctuation. Nevertheless, because we want to provide a readable edition of the work that will be accessible to eighteenth-century specialists and non-specialists alike, we have made the following changes to the text in our transcription:

—We modernized any uses of the ‘long s’
—We substituted standard capital letters for any large, small, or otherwise irregular capital letters
—We did not replicate ligatures between letters
—We eliminated any extra spaces in front of punctuation marks
—We did not maintain Grainger’s practice of indenting each new stanza of poetry and each of his footnotes
—We indented and centered text only when not doing so would impair readability (i.e., text on title pages is uncentered)
—We did not replicate the headers on each page that repeated the book number and title of the work
—We did not replicate printer’s marks in the footers of pages
—We did not maintain the eighteenth-century practice of repeating the first word of a page at the bottom of the previous page. This practice was followed in the eighteenth century because it was thought to improve readability.

Finally, Grainger and other eighteenth-century writers were often inconsistent in their use of terms to describe peoples and places. They also used terms for Caribbean colonization and slavery that many scholars no longer consider to be accurate, representative, or appropriate. As a result, we have made an effort to use the following terms, versus Grainger’s, in our own commentary and footnotes on The Sugar-Cane:

—”African” for people born in Africa
—”Afro-Caribbean” for those established in the Caribbean
—”British” (or Scottish or English or Welsh) for people born in Britain
—”Caribbean” for “West Indies”
—”Creole” for any non-indigenous person born in the Caribbean
—”Enslaved person” rather than “slave”
—”Fugitive person” rather than “runaway slave”
—”Indigenous” for “native” peoples
—”St. Kitts” for “St. Christopher”

Notes on Site Design

The site was designed using Ed, a Jekyll theme created by Alex Gil. The site was designed and created by Kimberly Takahata and Alex Gil. Ed was designed to facilitate the creation of easy-to-use and beautiful digital editions. It is also based on minimal computing principles, which ask site designers to reduce the size and complexity of sites in order to increase accessibility for users. Although the world is increasingly going digital, access to digital resources remains uneven. As such, we created a site that works on a wide range of devices and does not require the use or purchase of specialized hardware or software. We also have kept page designs simple so that they can be loaded with relative ease, regardless of the availability of high-speed internet. Such considerations were especially important for us to consider since we wanted to make our edition widely available to students and teachers, as well as researchers. Given that our edition deals centrally with the history of the Caribbean, we also wanted to make sure that it would be accessible to users there.

Currently v1.0 distributed with an MIT license. You can find the GitHub project for Ed here.

Contact Us

Please feel free to reach out to us at We welcome comments and responses on any part of the site. We would also be very interested in hearing from anyone who uses the edition in the classroom: Are there features that worked particularly well for lesson planning, teaching, and assignments? What could be improved or added to make the site more useful? Any ideas for future collaborations are welcome, too.


Without the generosity and expertise of those involved in digital scholarship at Columbia University Libraries, we would not have been able to build this project. In particular, Alex Gil spent countless hours advising and training all creators in the science and art of digital editing and design.

We also want to acknowledge the work of creators of similar digital projects on the Caribbean that provided us with models and inspiration. These include the following:

Early Caribbean Digital Archive
Digital Library of the Caribbean
Musical Passage
Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761
Two Plantations

Funding for this project was provided by both Columbia and Fordham Universities. We would particularly like to acknowledge the Fordham University Office of Research for initiating a Fordham-Columbia University Research Fellows Program and awarding us one of the fellowships. The fellowship funds enabled us to hire graduate students, provide them with experience and training in digital humanities, and create the project in collaborative fashion. We also would like to thank members of the digital humanities community at Fordham and specifically Shawn Hill, Instructional Technologist, and Elizabeth Cornell, Director of Communications for Fordham IT. Shawn provided crucial advice and support, and Elizabeth participated as a full team member throughout the entirety of the project. The Digital Humanities Working Group at Fordham also provided early feedback and enthusiastic encouragement.

Besides the homepage artwork by Vanessa Lee and the images from our copy of the 1764 edition, all other images on the site come from the John Carter Brown Library’s Archive of Early American Images. We would like to thank the John Carter Brown Library and its staff for making historical works of art available for use to the public.


Elizabeth Cornell supports initiatives for digital scholarship at Fordham University and serves as the director of communications for Fordham IT. She is a collaborating editor for the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project, which offers new views of William Faulkner’s works through digitized maps and timelines. She has published essays in South Central Review, Mississippi Quarterly, the Journal of American Studies, and elsewhere.

Stephen Fragano is a PhD student in the Department of English at Fordham University. He studies maritime literature, environmentalism, and the early Atlantic and Pacific worlds. He holds an MA in English from Fordham and a BA, summa cum laude, from Fordham in English, Communications, and Italian Studies.

Alex Gil is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at Columbia University Libraries and Affiliate Faculty of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is a co-founder and moderator of Columbia’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities and a Caribbeanist when no one is looking.

Lina Jiang is a PhD student in the Department of English at Fordham University. Her research interests include eighteenth-century British literature, natural history, and the colonial Atlantic world. She built a digital archive called “Oscar Wilde and Charles Ricketts” in 2016. She holds a BA in English from Fudan University and an MA in English from New York University.

Julie Chun Kim is co-editor of Digital Grainger and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Fordham University. She has published essays on Afro-Caribbean medicine, indigenous land rights, natural history, and early Caribbean plantation economies in Early American Studies, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Caribbeana: The Journal of the Early Caribbean Society, and other venues. She is currently completing a book manuscript entitled “Gardening at the Edge of Empire: Colonial Botany in the Revolutionary Caribbean.”

Vanessa Lee graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with her BFA in Painting in 2010 and currently works and resides in New York. In addition to painting and working on illustrative projects, she assists with exhibitions at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University. You can find examples of her work on Etsy at and on her Instagram, @_resetreality.

Cristobal Silva is co-editor of Digital Grainger and an Associate Professor in the Department of English at University of California, Los Angeles. He has written Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative (Oxford UP, 2011) and is completing a book manuscript entitled “Republic of Medicine: Citizenship, Memory, and Caregiving in the Early Black Atlantic.”

Kimberly Takahata is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is at work on a dissertation entitled “Skeletal Testimony: Bony Biopolitics in the Early Atlantic,” which analyzes the figural and material archives of indigenous bones within early American literature.

Ami Yoon is a PhD student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her research interests include poetry, natural history, and representations of affect in nineteenth-century American literature.

  1. Another scholar who has influenced our approach is Nicole N. Aljoe, who recommends looking for stories about the enslaved “embedded” in other narratives (21). ↩︎

  2. Interestingly, Grainger’s sugarcane frontispiece appears to have been copied in large part from an illustration of sugarcane in Griffith Hughes’ 1750 The Natural History of Barbados. See plate 23, following p. 252, in The Natural History of Barbados↩︎

  3. For a longer account of this episode, see Irlam 390-391. ↩︎