Digital Grainger

An Online Edition of The Sugar-Cane (1764)


The warm climate of the Caribbean enabled colonial cane cultivation on a widespread scale. At the same time, the Caribbean was characterized by extreme and potentially damaging weather events, including periods of intense rainfall. These periods tended to coincide with the hurricane season. Hurricane season runs from approximately June to November and peaks in August and September. During such months, up to twenty inches of rain can fall within the span of two to three days, and strong winds are apt to cause significant damage. Such tempests in Grainger’s poem cause dread for the planter, who is advised by the poet to “Remark the various signs of future rain” with “curious ken” (I.311-312). Grainger’s advice suggests that the planter cannot relax in his attention to the tropical environment, which poses a threat to the plantation. Nevertheless, it is worth asking questions like, What can the planter actually do in the face of a storm? Can the environment of the Caribbean be mastered for profit?

Grainger’s anxiety about hurricanes is perhaps expressed by the fact that he dedicated one hundred and ten lines (II.270-380)—almost a fifth of Book II—to describing the effects of one. When reading this description of a hurricane, we can consider the problems Grainger faced as a poet, too: How does Grainger deploy poetic technologies to create sensory immersion in the storm? What new affective or emotional ranges appear under such extreme conditions? Particularly worth focusing on are some passages that show human beings, animals, and plants all made vulnerable by the approach of a storm. Countervailing the colonial narrative of human domination, Grainger’s writing about the threat of bad weather illuminates how the separation between the human and non-human can disappear in certain circumstances.

In contrast to Grainger, the Antiguan-born British planter Samuel Martin dispenses with any discussion of climate in his popular An Essay on Plantership. In this major eighteenth-century treatise on the effective management of a plantation, Martin elaborates on the different types of soil to be found in the British sugar colonies and the best months in which to plant and harvest cane. But even as he comments that there “is not…a greater error in the whole practice of plantership, than to make sugar, or to plant canes at improper seasons of the year,” Martin glosses over the disruptive power of the climate and omits any detail of “the destruction [caused] by hurricanes” (18). This choice places stress on the agency of the planter and his administrative practices. How, then, might we interpret The Sugar-Cane’s very different commitment to portraying the environmental realities of the Caribbean?

Note: Matthew Mulcahy’s Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 provides a history of storms and hurricanes in the British colonial context; Grainger’s poem is mentioned in the second chapter. In his article “The ‘Long’d-for Aera’ of an ‘Other Race’: Climate, Identity, and James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane,” Jim Egan explores the influence of climate in shaping theories of identity in the colonies.

Ami Yoon

Hurricane strikes land Hurricane, engraved plate from Pieter van der Aa, Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën, Leiden, 1707, following p. 12.


  • SAY, can the Muse, the pencil in her hand, [270]
  • The all-wasting hurricane observant ride?1
  • Can she, undazzled, view the lightning’s glare,
  • That fires the welkin?2 Can she, unappall’d,
  • When all the flood-gates of the sky are ope,
  • The shoreless deluge stem? The Muse hath seen [275]
  • The pillar’d flame, whose top hath reach’d the stars;
  • Seen rocky, molten fragments, flung in air
  • From AEtna’s3 vext abyss; seen burning streams
  • Pour down its channel’d sides; tremendous scenes!——
  • Yet not vext AEtna’s pillar’d flames, that strike [280]
  • The stars; nor molten mountains hurl’d on high;
  • Nor ponderous rapid deluges, that burn
  • Its deeply-channel’d sides: cause such dismay,
  • Such desolation, Hurricane! as thou;
  • When the Almighty gives thy rage to blow, [285]
  • And all the battles of thy winds engage.

  • SOON as the Virgin’s charms ingross the Sun;
  • And till his weaker flame the Scorpion feels;
  • But, chief, while Libra weighs the unsteddy year:4
  • Planter, with mighty props thy dome5 support; [290]
  • Each flaw repair; and well, with massy bars,


  • Thy doors and windows guard; securely lodge
  • Thy stocks and mill-points.—Then, or calms obtain;
  • Breathless the royal palm-tree’s airiest van;6
  • While, o’er the panting isle, the daemon Heat [295]
  • High hurls his flaming brand; vast, distant waves
  • The main drives furious in, and heaps the shore
  • With strange productions: Or, the blue serene
  • Assumes a louring7 aspect, as the clouds
  • Fly, wild-careering, thro’ the vault of heaven; [300]
  • Then transient birds, of various kinds, frequent
  • Each stagnant pool; some hover o’er thy roof;
  • Then Eurus8 reigns no more; but each bold wind,
  • By turns, usurps the empire of the air
  • With quick inconstancy; [305]
  • Thy herds, as sapient9 of the coming storm,
  • (For beasts partake some portion of the sky,)
  • In troops associate; and, in cold sweats bath’d,
  • Wild-bellowing, eye the pole.10 Ye seamen, now,
  • Ply to the southward, if the changeful moon, [310]
  • Or, in her interlunar palace hid,

VER. 293. stocks and mill-points:] The sails are fastened to the mill-points, as those are to the stocks. They should always be taken down before the hurricane-season.


  • Shuns night; or, full-orb’d, in Night’s forehead glows:
  • For, see! the mists, that late involv’d the hill,
  • Disperse; the midday-sun looks red; strange burs
  • Surround the stars, which vaster fill the eye. [315]
  • A horrid stench the pools, the main emits;
  • Fearful the genius of the forest sighs;
  • The mountains moan; deep groans the cavern’d cliff.
  • A night of vapour, closing fast around,
  • Snatches the golden noon.—Each wind appeas’d, [320]
  • The North flies forth, and hurls the frighted air:
  • Not all the brazen engineries11 of man,
  • At once exploded, the wild burst surpass.
  • Yet thunder, yok’d with lightning and with rain,
  • Water with fire, increase the infernal din: [325]
  • Canes, shrubs, trees, huts, are whirl’d aloft in air.——
  • The wind is spent; and “all the isle below
  • “Is hush as death.”12
  • Soon issues forth the West, with sudden burst;
  • And blasts more rapid, more resistless drives: [330]

VER. 314. strange burs] These are astral halos. Columbus13 soon made himself master of the signs that precede a hurricane in the West-Indies, by which means he saved his own squadron; while another large fleet, whose commander despised his prognostics, put to sea, and was wrecked.


  • Rushes the headlong sky; the city rocks;
  • The good man throws him on the trembling ground;
  • And dies the murderer in his inmost soul.—
  • Sullen the West withdraws his eager storms.——
  • Will not the tempest now his furies chain? [335]
  • As, no! as when in Indian forests, wild,
  • Barbaric armies suddenly retire
  • After some furious onset, and, behind
  • Vast rocks and trees, their horrid forms conceal,
  • Brooding on slaughter, not repuls’d; for soon [340]
  • Their growing yell the affrighted welkin14 rends,
  • And bloodier carnage mows th’ ensanguin’d plain:
  • So the South, sallying from his iron caves
  • With mightier force, renews the aerial war;
  • Sleep, frighted, flies; and, see! yon lofty palm, [345]
  • Fair nature’s triumph, pride of Indian groves,
  • Cleft by the sulphurous bolt! See yonder dome,
  • Where grandeur with propriety combin’d,
  • And Theodorus15 with devotion dwelt;
  • Involv’d in smouldering flames.—From every rock, [350]
  • Dashes the turbid torrent; thro’ each street
  • A river foams, which sweeps, with untam’d might,
  • Men, oxen, Cane-lands to the billowy main.—


  • Pauses the wind.—Anon the savage East
  • Bids his wing’d tempests more relentless rave; [355]
  • Now brighter, vaster corruscations16 flash;
  • Deepens the deluge; nearer thunders roll;
  • Earth trembles; ocean reels; and, in her fangs,
  • Grim Desolation tears the shrieking isle,
  • Ere rosy Morn possess the ethereal plain, [360]
  • To pour on darkness the full flood of day.—

  • NOR does the hurricane’s all-wasting wrath
  • Alone bring ruin on its founding wing:
  • Even calms are dreadful, and the fiery South
  • Oft reigns a tyrant in these fervid isles: [365]
  • For, from its burning furnace, when it breathes,
  • Europe and Asia’s vegetable sons,
  • Touch’d by its tainting vapour, shrivel’d, die.17
  • The hardiest children of the rocks repine:
  • And all the upland Tropic-plants hang down [370]
  • Their drooping heads; shew arid, coil’d, adust.——
  • The main itself seems parted into streams,
  • Clear as a mirror; and, with deadly scents,
  • Annoys the rower; who, heart-fainting, eyes
  • The sails hang idly, noiseless, from the mast.18 [375]


  • Thrice hapless he, whom thus the hand of fate
  • Compels to risque the insufferable beam!
  • A fiend, the worst the angry skies ordain
  • To punish sinful man, shall fatal seize
  • His wretched life, and to the tomb consign. [380]

  • WHEN such the ravage of the burning calm,
  • On the stout, sunny children of the hill;
  • What must thy Cane-lands feel? Thy late green sprouts
  • Nor bunch, nor joint; but, sapless, arid, pine:
  • Those, who have manhood reach’d, of yellow hue, [385]
  • (Symptom of health and strength) soon ruddy show;
  • While the rich juice that circled in their veins,
  • Acescent,19 watery, poor, unwholesome tastes.

  • NOR only, planter, are thy Cane-groves burnt;
  • Thy life is threatened. Muse, the manner sing…. [390]

  1. In a 5 June 1762 letter to his friend Bishop Thomas Percy, Grainger notes that he had almost finished writing The Sugar-Cane and that this set-piece on the hurricane was one of the last sections that needed to be completed: “You may remember I some time ago mentioned my being engaged in a work of some length and difficulty. Lately I completed it, at least for the present, though no less than a Georgic, and in four books too. It is called the ‘Cane Piece,’ and was composed mostly in my rides to the different parts of the island to visit my patients. I now send you the whole; only as I have seen no hurricane, and have not yet had time to arrange my remarks on a fire by night in a cane field, those parts in the second book are incomplete” (Nichols 278). ↩︎

  2. welkin. Sky, firmament. ↩︎

  3. Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, located in Sicily. ↩︎

  4. Grainger is using astrological signs to designate peak hurricane season. The Virgin names Virgo, the sixth sign of the zodiac; the sun enters it in mid-August and exits it in mid-September. Libra is the seventh sign of the zodiac; the sun enters it in mid-September and exits it in mid-October. Scorpio is the eight sign of the zodiac; the sun enters it in mid-October and exits it in mid-November. ↩︎

  5. House. ↩︎

  6. Van is a vantage, height, or summit. The royal palm (Roystonea oleracea) can reach forty meters in height and is native to the Lesser Antilles, northern South America, and Guatemala. ↩︎

  7. Scowling, angry-looking, gloomy. ↩︎

  8. In Greek mythology, the east wind. ↩︎

  9. Knowledgeable. ↩︎

  10. Polaris, the pole star or North Star. ↩︎

  11. Engines of war, artillery. ↩︎

  12. According to Gilmore, an approximate quotation of “and the orb below/As hush as death” (Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2.485-486). ↩︎

  13. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), a Genoese-born explorer. The purpose of his famed 1492 voyage was to discover a western route to Asia. He set sight on the island of Guanahani (in the Bahamas) on October 12. Columbus completed four voyages to the Americas during his lifetime. ↩︎

  14. welkin. Sky, firmament. ↩︎

  15. Theodorus may be the Samian architect active c. 550–520 BCE. ↩︎

  16. Vibratory or quivering flashes of light; lightning. ↩︎

  17. Grainger refers to the unsuitability of some Old World plants to the tropical Caribbean climate. Europeans nevertheless transplanted as many familiar Old World plants as they could to the Caribbean and, in doing so, transformed its ecology. They transplanted animals and diseases as well. This transplantation process is now known as the Columbian Exchange and included the movement of plants, animals, and diseases in both directions across the Atlantic. ↩︎

  18. Refers to the doldrums, also called intertropical convergence zones, where prevailing (or trade) winds disappear and ships become immobile for days on end. ↩︎

  19. Sour, acidic. ↩︎