Sugar Standard of the West Indies

From the mid-seventeenth century sugar became the reigning monetary standard on the Leeward Islands, and to a lessor extent on Barbados and Jamaica. Jamaica, because of its importance as a naval base as well as a favorite of the buccaneers, was always furnished with a plentiful supply of coins, but nevertheless made use of sugar money. Barbados and the Leeward Islands perennially wrestled with coinage shortages, forcing the expedient of commodity money. Before sugar rose to the forefront, tobacco met the need for a medium of exchange and unit of account in the West Indies.
A Barbados law of 1645 concerning family prayers provided that “whomsoever shall swear or curse, if a master or freeman he shall forfeit for every offense 4 pounds of sugar; if a servant, 2 pounds of sugar” (Einzig, 1966). Fees and wages were also measured and sometime paid in Muscovado or brown sugar at rates established by an act of the legislature. A rate of 10 shillings per 100 pounds of sugar prevailed for a while as the monetary standard of Barbados.
Sugar displaced tobacco a bit later on the Leeward Islands. Laws enacted in 1644 and 1688 declared that a fine of a 1,000 pounds of good tobacco in a roll awaited anyone found guilty of commerce with the heathen or Sabbath breaking by “unlawful gaming, immoderate and uncivil drinking—or any other prophane and illicious Labours of the Week-days, as digging, hoeing, baking, crabbing, shooting and such like indecent actions” (Einzig, 1966).
The Leeward Islands turned to sugar as the monetary commodity after midcentury. In 1668 Montserrat paid an “able preaching Orthodox Minister” a salary of “fourteen thousand pounds of sugar or the value thereof in Tobacco, Cotton Wool, or indigo.” The going rate for sanctifying a marriage was 100 pounds of sugar or “the value thereof in Tobacco, Cotton Wool or Indigo.” For about 30 years the sugar standard on the islands maintained a stable parity for sugar, equating “five score pound of good dry merchantable Muscavado Sugar” to 12 shillings and 6 pence.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century metallic currency had made inroads into the Leeward Islands’ monetary system. An act of 1700 provided that coinage could be substituted for commodities in payment of debts at a rate of:
  • 12 shillings and 6 pence for 100 pounds of muscavado sugar
  • 2 shillings for one pound of indigo
  • 9 pence for one pound of cotton wool
  • 1 1/2 pence for one pound of tobacco or ginger
  • (Einzig, 1966)
Sugar played a modest monetary role in the eighteenth century. On 24 August 1753 the assembly of Nevis considered, but failed to enact, legislation making sugar and other commodities legal tender for debts in an attempt to ease a shortage of metallic currency. In 1751 Jamaica, which did not have a coin shortage, enacted legislation making sugar legal tender “where both parties agree for payment in sugar and other produce of this kind.” In 1756 up to two-thirds of a tax obligation in Antigua could be paid in
sugar. In 1784 St. Christopher enacted revenue legislation stating that, “And whereas it may be burdensome and oppressive to the inhabitants of this Island to pay the amount in specie, be it enacted that the payment of the taxes aforesaid may be in cash, sugar, or rum at the option of the person or persons liable to pay the same” (Einzig, 1966).
By the end of the eighteenth century coins had edged out commodity money in the West Indies.
See also:
Einzig, Paul. 1966. Primitive Money.
Nettels, Curtis P. 1934. The Money Supply of the American Colonies before 1720.
Quiggin, A. Hingston. 1949. A Survey of Primitive Money.