Oct 292013
 

vieques sugar mills

When I was a little kid, I wanted nothing more than to be Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Or Pip from Great Expectations, or an orphan in a musical, but mostly Mowgli. Like most kids with a fondness for outdoors, adventure and animals, The Jungle Book was the perfect fantasy life. At least until he encountered society, but I only liked the beginning of the story, when he was just dickin’ around in the jungle with his animal buddies, running around and singing and dancing in ancient ruins. I was obsessed with those ruins. In high school, we hung out in some old castle ruins up in the hills, but I didn’t encounter real ancient ruins until a trip to Guadalajara I took when I was 16, and I didn’t get to explore jungle ruins until I was an adult.

vieques sugar mills

Those ruins were the Playa Grande Sugar Plantation on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico.  For the sake of honesty and full disclosure, the ruins are open to the public during tourist season, and are legally accessible as long as you stick to the path.  However, if you go off-season and off the path, you can find some sketchy tunnels and disregarded areas that aren’t part of the tour. And if you go in the state that I did -alone, during a heavy rainstorm, mere minutes after getting dumped by my boyfriend on my 30th b-day, right after Christmas- it’ll be an entirely different experience than tourists who go ‘on season,’ make the $30 required reservations and follow the rules. Suckers. (Although I do support the financial contribution that makes to the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, but 30 bones is a lot to drop on trip easily done for free.) So, yeah, not quite the mysterious ruins I fantasized about as a kid, but I’ll take what I can get.

vieques sugar mills

From the early 1800’s to the early 1900’s, Vieques Island’s main source of industry was sugar. The island had five plantations -Arcadia, Esperanza, Playa Grande, Santa Elena and Santa María- all of which began to close during the decline of sugar exportation in the 20’s and 30’s. The last mill, Playa Grande, was closed in 1941. (I know that means they’re not “ancient ruins” but beggars cant be choosers, I’ll take what I can get!)

Illustrated scene from the sugar cane harvest, c/o colonialthreehalfpence.net

Illustrated scene from the sugar cane harvest, c/o colonialthreehalfpence.net

Centuries earlier, Vieques (and all of Puerto Rico) had seen the arrival of the Spanish, the enslavement and eventual decimation of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Island, as well as the importation of slaves from overseas.The earliest sugar mill workers were mostly slaves, primarily from Africa, until Puerto Rico abolished slavery in 1873.  Although the terms of abolition were that slaves had to buy their way to emancipation, so many stayed on as workers, unable to afford to leave. In the mid to latter half of the 19th century, plantation workers consisted local workers, ex-slaves from English colonies and black immigrants from nearby Caribbean islands, both enslaved and independent, although the latter term was used loosely, due to the poor working conditions at the mills.

vieques sugar mills

“In 1874, hundreds of black workers at the Playa Grande Sugar Central rebelled against their mistreatment by the plantation owners and the government. The Spanish Civil Guard intervened, killing one worker and wounding several others. The protest lasted several weeks. Men, women and children attacked the soldiers with sticks and stones and burned the sugar fields. Dozens were arrested and incarcerated at the fort.”

Sugar plantation owners and workers' children c/o isla-vieques.com

Sugar plantation owners and workers’ children c/o isla-vieques.com

In the following decades, local and imported laborers ran the mills. Local laborers were given small plots of land on the plantation, which they used to supplement their income through small crops and fishing. Unfortunately, they were not given deeds or titles to their property, which posed a huge problem later. Imported workers were housed in barracks and moved around on a regular basis, depending on where they could find jobs.

vieques sugar mills vieques sugar mills

Work at the sugar mills was inconsistent, since crop farming is seasonal. The brunt of the work happened during harvest, between March and June. For 50 cents a day, workers put in 12-14 hours, cutting and loading the cane, then processing, packing and shipping the sugar. In July and August, the land was prepped for the next crop, which would grow from September to February,  a period known as “invernazo” aka “dead time.” During invernazo, there was no work available and workers scrapped by on tiny amounts of money garnered from personal crops and fishing.

vieques sugar mills

In 1898, the United States took control of Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American war. Sugar prices dropped drastically over the next 20 years, and the mills began to close. Playa Grande was the last to go, closing in 1941. By that time, poverty and unemployment had forced many workers and citizens to leave Vieques.

That same year, the US Navy took over two thirds of Vieques during WWII, and most workers lost their land and could do nothing about it, as they were never given the original deeds. The island was then essentially held captive by the military until the 1990’s, but I’ll get into that history later when I do a full post on Vieques, since I’m getting ahead of myself now.

vieques sugar mills

If you got this far into reading this post because you wanted to hear the story of the breakup, I apologize for disappointing you, but it’s a story I’m saving for another day. *puffs smugly on a wooden tobacco pipe and closes an old, leather bound book.*

vieques sugar mills

The vines were really dense in some areas of the jungle.

vieques sugar mills

vieques sugar mills

Always love a good set of stairs to nowhere.

vieques sugar mills

I usually never do black and white photos, but I really messed up the  color in some of these, on account of the rain storm and my  tragic case of women’s hysterics.

vieques sugar mills

There were some tunnels I wanted to go in SO BAD but somehow I showed a rare and remarkable feat of restraint and did not. Mostly on account of I hadn’t told anyone were I was going, which is never a good idea, and I knew two bad ideas do not a good idea make.

vieques sugar mills

GUH. Just look at that tunnel!! Fuck it, I should have just gone in.

vieques sugar mills

The tunnels had a fair amount of  harmless ‘cave crickets’ in them. Plus after crawling through this tunnel in the woods of New Jersey, that smattering of cave crickets seems negligible now.

vieques sugar mills

Like I said, you can go here with a paid reservation on a boring-ass official tour, of you can do what I did and go off-season on your own. Here’s some crudely made maps, if you want to do that:

maps

Haha those maps are totally unnecessary, I just like making them is all. Look, here’s an actual map of the ruins from back when it was still functioning:

sugar_mill_map

See more photos of the Playa Grande Sugar Plantation on the flickr set.

Now I’m gonna spend the rest of the day thinking about that PG sex scene in Romancing the Stone where Michael Douglas slides his hand down Kathleen Turner’s body while they’re lying directly on top of each other, post coitus, and slides the map from under the mattress into his bag. It was scandalous on so many levels!

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