Sugar: The Sour Story Of How The Same Crop Meant Different Things For Two US Territories


Food and politics

We have all heard about the Spanish-American War of the late 1800s. We have all heard about the United States of America acquiring territories. At some point or another, you have heard about Puerto Rico. We may be missing the actual reasons that the USA acquired territories.

I hear food podcasts, read food books and read other food blogs and food history writers that talk about the history behind a dish, a way of cooking, an ingredient, a plant, an herb, a spice, and even about flavors. Almost every major political and social change has food in common, maybe as an excuse or a reason.

The history

The year was 1898. Puerto Rico was an autonomous region of Spain, with voting rights, delegates to the Courts, a great sugar industry, and even a better coffee industry.

What changed it all? The invasion of Puerto Rico by the United States of America. 

I am not saying everything was perfect, in fact, it was far, very far from it. I am just talking about food, specifically, sugar.

Sugar culture started way back in 1523 with the establishment of the first sugar mill in San German. One of the oldest towns in Puerto Rico. 

While America was busy establishing the Republic in 1776, Puerto Rico was undergoing various agrarian reforms that affected the sugar industry. The Spanish monopoly ended and another big consumer and investor appeared in the sugar playground. 7

The demand for sugar from the US grew as the revolution in Haiti affected the trade.

By the middle decades of the 19th Century, Puerto Rico had 789 sugar plantations. Sugar plantations coexisted with coffee plantations, at one point our Black Gold. 

A Tariff War (sound familiar?) between Spain and the US prompted a bigger war, the Spanish-American War. That war ended up with the acquisition of Puerto Rico by the Americans. Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by Americans in Hawai’i at around the same time. Hawai’i being a big sugar producer was kinda going through the same situation as Puerto Rico. Finally, both tropical islands become American Territories.

The Hurricane of 1899

On the evening of August 8, 1899, a category 4 hurricane made landfall in Guayama, PR. The storm crossed the island pounding it for six entire hours, leaving behind deaths and destruction. Sugar plantations were wiped out all over the new American Territory.  A year later, as the sugar industry was not recuperating, a group of Puerto Rican sugar workers arrived in O’ahu in 1900. The two territories shared many similarities. And as sugar plantations in the Atlantic territory were crumbling down, in the Pacific side of sugar madness, existed a demand for workers. So the boats from San Juan, Ponce, and Mayaguez departed New Orleans bound. A train took them from the Big Easy to Los Angeles and to San Francisco. From there to O’ahu or to Hawai’i Island. Men first and then entire families.

A boost to the sugar industry came a few years later and even reached its peak in the first half of the 20th Century. New companies were emerging; Fajardo Sugar, Guanica Central, and Utuado Sugar Company to name a few. Not all of them survived, actually by the late 1960s 17 sugar mills had closed due to the industrialization process of the island. By the year 2000, the last two mills closed down, Coloso in Aguada, and Roig in Yabucoa. With that, there was no more Puerto Rican sugar, a crop that gave Puerto Rico worldwide recognition.

The Borinkis

In the Pacific, Puerto Ricans were already part of the Hawaiian culture. Influencing it and affecting in a good way, the sugar industry. They were called the Borinkis.

As sugar declined in Puerto Rico, the pressure now was on Hawai’i. Prompting Puerto Ricans to migrate to that side of the world. However, things were short from beautiful for the Boricuas that first arrived. Discrimination, starvation, and other poor conditions were happening to those first families in the Pacific.

Sugar in Hawai’i boomed!

The territories part ways

Coincidence? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. The coup d’etat by Sanford B. Dole was ignited by the American domination in all things Hawai’i. The political status was affecting the sale of sugar, so, something had to be done, right? Well, that is debatable and of course, it depends on what color of the glass you are using to look at it. 

Hawai’i and Puerto Rico’s stories started out similar and it ended, well, very different. Here are two archipelagos, one in the Pacific, the other in the Atlantic. Both with great sugar industries. Both with the eye of the Americans on it. Sugar investors invaded the one on the Atlantic backed by the mighty military force of the United States of America.  The other had its government overthrown by pretty much the same people.

Congress passed a law giving permission to Puerto Rico in 1952, to draft a constitution and making it a Commonwealth under the Territorial Clause. Seven years later in 1959, Hawai’i becomes a state.


How The First Puerto Ricans Arrived On Hawai’i Island –

Sugar in Puerto Rico –

Puerto Rico’s Complicated History with the United States –

Americans overthrow Hawaiian monarchy –

1899 San Ciriaco hurricane –


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