Digital Grainger

An Online Edition of The Sugar-Cane (1764)

Sugar Work

Book III mainly focuses on the harvesting and processing of sugarcane and frequently portrays it as an easy and even enjoyable process. For instance, Grainger writes about “mills [that] dance eager in the gale” and describes the enslaved laborers singing cheerfully while working in the fields (165). He also claims that enslavers treat the enslaved so well that manumitting or freeing the enslaved would be the equivalent of “desert[ing]” them (172).

Yet the lines excerpted here also show that Grainger could not always avoid acknowledging the extremely dangerous and fatiguing conditions under which enslaved Africans had to work. The laborers had to cut the sugarcanes into “junks a yard in length” and then tie them into “small light bundles” (127-128). They then had to hand-feed the stalks of cane into the mill. This was a process that sometimes resulted in horrific accidents, as limbs could easily catch in the mill’s cane-crushing rollers. As you read the lines in which Grainger describes such an incident, think about how Grainger describes what happens and whether the lines maintain or contradict Grainger’s fantasy of happy slavery.

Also pay attention to Grainger’s descriptions of the laborers he calls “boilers.” Boilers had to watch over the giant vats or “coppers” in which the crushed sugarcane was boiled, reduced to a syrup, and then crystallized into solid sugar. Working in the boiling house was one of the most difficult and fatiguing jobs on the plantation because the boilers were dealing with heavy equipment and high temperatures. Nevertheless, because boilers also were highly skilled—they had to know exactly when the sugar had boiled enough and was ready to crystallize—they were the laborers that planters depended on the most. Indeed, even though planters and overseers often made a show of supervising the crystallization of cane, they had to rely on the expertise of the boilers, who therefore were sometimes able to extract concessions from their enslavers. As such, when you read these lines, also think about how the boilers are portrayed and whether Grainger acknowledges their special status. Does Grainger ever point to the centrality of the labor performed by the enslaved?

Note: For further reading about the portrayal of labor and slavery in eighteenth-century georgic poetry, see Markman Ellis’s chapter on “‘Incessant Labour’: Georgic Poetry and the Problem of Slavery” in his book Discourses of Slavery and Abolition.

Lina Jiang

A Mill Yard “A Mill Yard,” hand-colored lithograph in untitled folio published by the Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Early Education of Negro Children, London, [ca. 1833-37]. Copied from William Clark, Ten Views of the Island of Antigua, London, 1823, pl. 4.


  • For now the sail-clad points,1 impatient, wait
  • The hour of sweet release, to court the gale.
  • The late-hung coppers wish to feel the warmth,
  • Which well-dried fewel from the Cane imparts: [95]
  • The Negroe-train, with placid looks, survey
  • Thy fields, which full perfection have attain’d,
  • And pant to wield the bill: (no surly watch
  • Dare now deprive them of the luscious Cane:)2
  • Nor thou, my friend, their willing ardour check; [100]
  • Encourage rather; cheerful toil is light.
  • So from no field, shall slow-pac’d oxen draw
  • More frequent loaded wanes; which many a day,
  • And many a night shall feed thy crackling mills
  • With richest offerings:3 while thy far seen flames, [105]
  • Bursting thro’ many a chimney, bright emblaze
  • The AEthiop-brow of night. And see, they pour


  • (Ere Phosphor4 his pale circlet yet withdraws,
  • What time grey dawn stands tip-toe on the hill,)
  • O’er the rich Cane-grove: Muse, their labour sing. [110]

  • SOME bending, of their sapless burden ease
  • The yellow jointed canes,5 (whose height exceeds
  • A mounted trooper, and whose clammy round
  • Measures two inches full;) and near the root
  • Lop the stem off, which quivers in their hand [115]
  • With fond impatience: soon it’s branchy spires,
  • (Food to thy cattle) it resigns; and soon
  • It’s tender prickly tops, with eyes6 thick set,
  • To load with future crops thy long-hoed land.
  • These with their green, their pliant branches bound, [120]
  • (For not a part of this amazing plant,
  • But serves some useful purpose) charge the young:
  • Not laziness declines this easy toil;
  • Even lameness from it’s leafy pallet crawls,
  • To join the favoured gang. What of the Cane [125]
  • Remains, and much the largest part remains,
  • Cut into junks a yard in length, and tied
  • In small light bundles; load the broad-wheel’d wane,
  • The mules crook-harnest, and the sturdier crew,


  • With sweet abundance. As on Lincoln-plains, [130]
  • (Ye plains of Lincoln sound your Dyer’s praise!)7
  • When the lav’d snow-white flocks are numerous penn’d;
  • The senior swains, with sharpen’d shears, cut off
  • The fleecy vestment; others stir the tar;
  • And some impress, upon their captives sides, [135]
  • Their master’s cypher;8 while the infant throng
  • Strive by the horns to hold the struggling ram,
  • Proud of their prowess. Nor meanwhile the jest
  • Light-bandied round, but innocent of ill;
  • Nor choral song are wanting: eccho rings. [140]

  • NOR need the driver, AEthiop authoriz’d,
  • Thence more inhuman, crack his horrid whip;
  • From such dire sounds the indignant muse averts
  • Her virgin-ear,9 where musick loves to dwell:
  • ‘Tis malice now, ‘tis wantonness of power [145]
  • To lash the laughing, labouring, singing throng.10

  • WHAT cannot song? all nature feels its power:
  • The hind’s blithe whistle, as thro’ stubborn soils
  • He drives the shining share; more than the goad,
  • His tardy steers impells.—The muse hath seen, [150]


  • When health danc’d frolic in her youthful veins,
  • And vacant gambols wing’d the laughing hours;
  • The muse hath seen on Annan’s11 pastoral hills,
  • Of theft and slaughter erst the fell retreat,
  • But now the shepherd’s best-beloved walk: [155]
  • Hath seen the shepherd, with his sylvan pipe,
  • Lead on his flock o’er crags, thro’ bogs, and streams,
  • A tedious journey; yet not weary they,
  • Drawn by the enchantment of his artless song.
  • What cannot musick?—When brown Ceres asks [160]
  • The reapers sickle; what like magic sound,
  • Puff’d from sonorous bellows12 by the squeeze
  • Of tuneful artist, can the rage disarm
  • Of the swart dog-star,13 and make harvest light?

  • AND now thy mills dance eager in the gale; [165]
  • Feed well their eagerness: but O beware;
  • Nor trust, between the steel-cas’d cylinders,14
  • The hand incautious: off the member snapt15
  • Thou’lt ever rue; sad spectacle of woe!

VER. 168. Off the member snapt] This accident will sometimes happen, especially in the night: and the unfortunate wretch must fall a victim to his imprudence or sleepiness, if a hatchet do not immediately strike off the entangled member; or the mill be not instantly put out of the wind.16


  • ARE there, the muse can scarce believe the tale; [170]
  • Are there, who lost to every feeling sense,
  • To reason, interest lost; their slaves desert,
  • And manumit17 them, generous boon! to starve
  • Maim’d by imprudence, or the hand of Heaven?
  • The good man feeds his blind, his aged steed, [175]
  • That in his service spent his vigorous prime:
  • And dares a mortal to his fellow man,
  • (For spite of vanity, thy slaves are men)
  • Deny protection? Muse suppress the tale….

Pere Labat says, he was informed the English were wont, as a punishment, thus to grind their negroes to death. But one may venture to affirm this punishment never had the sanction of law; and if any Englishman ever did grind his negroes to death, I will take upon me to aver, he was universally detested by his countrymen.

Indeed the bare suspicion of such a piece of barbarity leaves a stain: and therefore authors cannot be too cautious of admitting into their writings, any insinuation that bears hard on the humanity of a people.

Daily observation affords but too many proofs, where domestic slavery does not obtain, of the fatal consequences of indulged passion and revenge; but where one man is the absolute property of another, those passions may perhaps receive additional activity: planters, therefore, cannot be too much on their guard against the first sallies of passion; as by indulgence, passion, like a favourite, will at last grow independently powerful.


  • FROM bloating dropsy,18 from pulmonic ails,19
  • Would’st thou defend thy boilers, (prime of slaves,) [335]
  • For days, for nights, for weeks, for months, involv’d
  • In the warm vapour’s all-relaxing steam;
  • Thy boiling-house be lofty: all atop
  • Open, and pervious to the tropic breeze;
  • Whose cool perflation,20 wooed through many a grate, [340]
  • Dispells the steam, and gives the lungs to play….

VER. 339. Open, and pervious] This also assists the christallization of the Sugar.


  • WHILE flows the juice mellifluent from the Cane,
  • Grudge not, my friend, to let thy slaves, each morn,
  • But chief the sick and young, at setting day,
  • Themselves regale with oft-repeated draughts [410]
  • Of tepid Nectar; so shall health and strength
  • Confirm thy Negroes, and make labour light.

  • WHILE flame thy chimneys, while thy coppers foam,
  • How blithe, how jocund, the plantation smiles!
  • By day, by night, resounds the choral song [415]
  • Of glad barbarity; serene, the sun
  • Shines not intensely hot; the trade-wind blows:
  • How sweet, how silken, is its noontide breath?
  • While to far climes the fell destroyer, Death,
  • Wings his dark flight. Then seldom pray for rain: [420]
  • Rather for cloudless days thy prayers prefer;


  • For, if the skies too frequently relent,
  • Crude flows the Cane-juice, and will long elude
  • The boiler’s wariest skill: thy Canes will spring
  • To an unthrifty loftiness; or, weighed21 [425]
  • Down by their load, (Ambition’s curse,) decay.

  • ENCOURAGE thou thy boilers; much depends
  • On their skill’d efforts. If too soon they strike,
  • E’er all the watery particles have fled;
  • Or lime sufficient granulate the juice: [430]
  • In vain the thickning liquor is effus’d;
  • An heterogeneous, an uncertain mass,
  • And never in thy coolers to condense….

VER. 428. If too soon they strike,] When the Cane-juice is granulated sufficiently, which is known by the Sugar’s sticking to the ladle, and roping like a syrup, but breaking off from its edges; it is poured into a cooler, where, its surface being smoothed, the christallization is soon completed. This is called striking. The general precept is to temper high, and strike low. When the Muscovado is of a proper consistence, it is dug out of the cooler, and put into hogsheads; this is called potting. The casks being placed upon staunchions, the melasses drips from them into a cistern, made on purpose, below them, to receive it. The Sugar is sufficiently cured, when the hogshead rings upon being struck with a stick; and when the two canes, which are put into every cask, shew no melasses upon them, when drawn out of it.

  1. Windmill sails. ↩︎

  2. In An Essay on the More Common West-India Diseases (1764), Grainger writes that enslaved laborers “should not only be allowed to drink what quantity of the cane juice they think proper, but even obliged to drink it” during crop time (10). However, planters sometimes inflicted severe punishments when the enslaved ate or consumed sugarcane. For example, the eighteenth-century Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood punished an enslaved African named Egypt for eating sugarcane by whipping him and giving him “Derby’s dose,” a phrase Thistlewood used to refer to the act of having one enslaved African defecate in another’s mouth (Hall 73). ↩︎

  3. Cane juice begins to spoil as soon as the plant is cut. As a result, planters preferred to run their mills and boiling houses around the clock during crop time. ↩︎

  4. The morning star or the planet Venus when found in the sky before sunrise. ↩︎

  5. Sugarcane turns yellow when it is ripe. ↩︎

  6. Sugarcane buds. To produce new sugar cane, sugarcane stalks with buds on them were planted in the ground. ↩︎

  7. The georgic poet John Dyer was living in Lincolnshire at the time of his death. Grainger also refers to the fact that Lincoln was a center of wool production. The Lincoln longwool is a breed of sheep known for its copious and heavy white fleece. ↩︎

  8. The practice of branding sheep. Although he does not make an explicit comparison between the treatment of animals and human beings, this passage recalls the fact that enslaved persons were branded with the marks of their enslavers. See Gilmore, who credits Tobias Döring with this insight. ↩︎

  9. This is one of several places in the poem where Grainger shrinks from the violence of plantation slavery. ↩︎

  10. Grainger refers here to the common practice of enslaved laborers singing while working in the cane fields. The songs were sung in part to help establish a rhythm and pace for the work being performed, and planters also saw them as helping to lighten the burden of the labor being performed. In short, they saw music and singing as making work more pleasant and thereby ensuring compliance with the regime of plantation discipline. At the same time, the songs sung during field work often seem to have contained coded or even overt criticisms of planters and plantation discipline. For example, the Gloucestershire Archives in Britain recently uncovered an eighteenth-century slave song from Barbados that contained the lyrics, “Massa buy me he won’t killa me/Oh_ Massa buy me he won’t killa me/Oh Massa buy me he won’t kill a me/Oh ‘for he kill me he ship me regular” (see “Song of slaves in Barbados”). A recording of the song by the Christ Faith Tabernacle of Gloucester also highlights the song’s minor key, which imbues it with a sorrowful and tragic dimension. ↩︎

  11. The Annan is a river in Dumfries and Galloway, a unitary council area in southern Scotland near the border with England. During the 1332 Battle of Annan at the outset of the Second War of Scottish Independence (1332-1357), Sir Archibald Douglas attacked Edward Balliol and his army at Annan. Escaping just before being captured, Balliol is said to have fled naked to England. ↩︎

  12. Bagpipes. ↩︎

  13. The dog star is another name for Sirius, brightest star in the constellation Canis Major. Sirius rises in conjunction with the sun from July 3 to August 11, which are known as the “dog days” of summer. ↩︎

  14. Grinders in sugar mills tended to be vertical cylinders that crushed cane stalks as they were turned. ↩︎

  15. Milling cane was a dangerous activity, and it was not uncommon for enslaved millers to catch body parts between the rollers. Whether mills were powered by wind, water, or muscle, it was unlikely that the rollers could be stopped instantaneously. Instead, Grainger encourages planters to supply their mills with axes so that injured limbs could be amputated without delay. ↩︎

  16. To put a windmill “out of the wind” is to stop the mill by turning the sails so that they no longer catch the wind. ↩︎

  17. To free from slavery. Here, Grainger criticizes planters who manumit the enslaved who are too old or too injured to work. Implicit in this criticism is that such manumitted persons, though free, were abandoned to care for themselves. ↩︎

  18. An accumulation of fluid in the soft tissue of the body. The modern term is edema (or oedema). ↩︎

  19. Lung infections or diseases. ↩︎

  20. Ventilation provided by air blowing through a space. ↩︎

  21. The "Errata" list at the end of The Sugar-Cane indicates that “weighed” should read “weigh’d.” ↩︎