The sugar mill is an icon of American sugar production.  Called ingenio (engine) in Spanish and engenho in Portuguese, these words were used to describe entire sugar estates, rather than “plantation.” In print culture the mill signifies white ingenuity (from the same root as ingenio). What remains invisible in these images is the knowledge of sugar production possessed by the slaves who did the work.


The Edge Runner
"Pernambuco," engraving. In Reys-boeck van het rijcke Brasilien, Rio de la Plate ende Magallanes. [Dordrecht], 1624.

In this view of the chief sugar region of Brazil, the river traces a map-like course, dividing the composition in half: the fort, the city, and the fields on the right are all shown from above. The scene of sugar processing (lower right) is dominated by an edge runner—the most primitive type of wheeled sugar mill used in the New World. The circular motion of the mill is animated through the repetition of its form across the composition—in the swirls of smoke coming from the boiler and from the huge fire in the distant mountains.


The Vertical Roller Mill
[Three roller sugar mill], woodcut. In Willem Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae: auspicio et beneficio illustriss … adornata. Leiden and Amsterdam, 1648.

By the seventeenth century roller mills, rather the edge runners, were being used in the Americas to express the juice from sugarcane. This in an early woodcut of a vertical three-roller mill, in which the rollers are placed in a triangle, rather than in line. The bold lines of the curved walking beams frame this vignette, emphasizing the power generated by the ensemble of the machine, animals, and slaves, including the white men who closely oversee the process.


The Horizontal Mill: from Coinage and Cotton to Sugar
"Moulin a eau couché," engraving. In Jean Baptiste Labat, Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amerique. Paris, 1742.

This technical engraving seems to offer all there is to know about the construction of a water-driven roller mill. The parts, clearly delineated and labeled, are presented for inspection without sugarcane or laborers obscuring any part of the machine. There has been much speculation about the origins of the horizontal roller mill. Leonardo da Vinci devised a two-roller horizontal mill that was the model for a machine to roll metal for coinage. Horizontal mills were also used in India for processing cotton—and provide perhaps the most likely source for those developed in the West Indies.

Labat was a Dominican missionary who was in the Antilles from 1693 to 1706, and his Nouveau voyage contains many mill images. Catholic missionaries like Labat were crucial sources for information about sugar technology; several religious corporations, especially the Jesuits, owned sugar mills in Brazil in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Softening Slavery
A. W., "La Figure des moulins a sucre," engraving. In Charles de Rochefort, Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l'Amerique. Rotterdam, 1665.

In this composite view a three-roller vertical sugar mill is theatrically framed by banners containing the labels for the various parts of the illustration. Two slaves thread the cane through in front and back of the rollers. Working long shifts during harvest, slaves were always at risk for losing fingers or worse in the rollers. The path of the cattle and attendant slaves in their endless journey around the mill forms a circle that orders the rest of the vignettes showing various stages of purification.

Two scenes on the right suggest a positive relationship between masters and slaves. In the lower right a slave looks out and smiles at viewers to engage their attention. Behind him a white man looks solicitously at a slave carrying a bundle of cane.


Centering the Mill
"La Figure des moulins a sucre," engraving. In Charles de Rochefort, Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l'Amerique. Lyon, 1667.

The engraving for this smaller edition is less bold, and also evidences less concern for slaves than the version of the print from the Rotterdam edition (above): the image of the white man looking with concern at a slave (on the right) has been eliminated in this edition, as has the smiling slave in the lower right.

The vertical roller mill may have come to the Americas from China; if so Jesuit missionaries would have been likely conduits for this innovation.


Technology Trumping Labor
[Water-driven three-roller sugar mill], engraving. In José Rodrigues de Mello, De rebus rusticis brasilicis carminum libri quatuor. Lisbon, 1798.

This plate is a celebration of the combined power of technology and water. The three roller vertical mill is placed within a grid-like space where everything seems measured and under control. The image suggests that the human labor needed to work this mill is so minimal that one white woman, dressed as a servant, can operate it—although one might worry about that dainty hand, so close to the powerful rollers.


Women and the Mill
"A Sugar mill," hand-colored etching and aquatint. In Henry Koster, Travels in Brazil. London, 1816.

The previous plate improbably imagines a white woman operating a mill. Black women did perform this labor, although they are seldom pictured working at the rollers in early modern prints. This nineteenth-century image of a mill in Brazil puts black women in the picture, drawing the viewer's attention to them by showing them wearing brightly patterned skirts.


Space not Place
“Plano da reforma das moendas, epicadeiro dos engenhos de assucar por Jeronimo Vieira de Abreu, vizinho da cidade de S. Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro,” engraving.  In José Mariano da Conceiçao Velloso, O fazendeiro do Brazil.  Lisbon, 1798.

This plate displays innovations in the rollers and the system for delivering the cane to the mill.  Unlike other compositions, which imagine some kind of physical location, this engraving sets the mill in the notional space of the technical drawing.  Lines form corners in the background that denote the idea of space, but not a place. As for scale: How could the diminutive slave feed cane into these huge rollers? Where would he stand?


Milling Cane to Make Lemonade
“Petit moulin a sucre portatif,” lithograph. In Jean Baptiste Debret, Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil. Paris, 1835.

This lithograph shows a portable sugar mill used for making liquid sugar extract.  This liquor was used to sweeten lemonade made in Brazilian cities. Debret turns the conventional image of an agro-industrial sugar mill into an urban curiosity.  The three-roller mill appears simply to have been miniaturized, with the powerful bodies of slaves taking the place of cattle or horses.  And yet, because of the mill’s scale and placement, it looms large, resisting domestication. It is hard to imagine that the slaves could fully turn the long walking beams driving the rollers.


Working around the Clock
“Grinding,” hand-colored wood engraving.  In Cuffy the Negro’s doggrel description of the progress of sugar.  London, [1823].

Speed is a factor in processing sugar cane. The juice goes sour quickly, so the mill and boiling houses operate around the clock during harvest time.  Mill images tend to be static, because they are conveying a technology and a process, not the experience of human labor.  This plate of a three roller wind-driven mill from an anti-slavery children’s books uses doggerel verse to convey the speed and human effort (including that of children) involved in grinding.


Exhibition may be seen in Reading Room from SEPTEMBER 2013 through december 2013.

K. Dian Kriz (Professor Emerita of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University), guest curator, with assistance from Susan Danforth (Curator of Maps and Prints); Elena Daniele (JCB Stuart Fellow 2012-13), curatorial assistant.