By making what many people consider to be the most significant technological advancement in the history of sugar refining, Norbert Rillieux, a free octoroon (a person who is one-eighth black), dramatically changed the nature of labor on nineteenth-century sugar plantations. Having been born the son of a Louisiana sugar planter, Rillieux was familiar with the refining process. Later as a student at L’Ecole Centrale in Paris, he devoted himself to the study of engineering and developed expertise in the emerging steam technology. Returning to Louisiana in 1840, he applied his knowledge of steam technology to sugar refining—gaining patents in 1843 and 1846 for variations of his multiple-effect vacuum pan evaporator.
Before Rillieux’s technological breakthrough, plantations employed a wasteful and dangerous sugar-refining system known as “the Jamaica train.” In this process, a series of large, open kettles were heated, and a line of slaves stood beside the hot steaming kettles pouring boiling sugarcane juice from one kettle to another. As the juice was passed along, it gradually became thicker and eventually crystallized. It was extremely uncomfortable work, and many slaves received disfiguring scars from the boiling juice. The process was slow, labor intensive, wasteful of fuel, and produced a poor-quality sugar.
Rillieux’s adaptation of the vacuum pan distillation process applied the latent heat in the steam to economize on fuel. Using a partial vacuum, he was able to heat a number of kettles with the steam produced by the first. In addition to the obvious fuel savings, the system produced higher-quality sugar. Initially, there was some resistance in implementing the new system. There was a significant start-up cost, and many plantation owners were concerned that their uneducated slave labor force would be unable to run the equipment. Although, in the end, most plantations had to hire a skilled laborer to maintain and oversee the operation of the machinery, the new technology was compatible with the slave system, and the enormous savings the process brought, made sugar production very profitable. Producers were able to lower prices and thus make fine-quality sugar affordable to a much larger market, which in turn drastically increased demand.
In order to feed this growing market, sugar plantations expanded, and thus the demand for slaves to grow and harvest the sugarcane increased. Although Rillieux’s technological advancement ended the unpleasant and wasteful system of the Jamaica train, it caused the sugar industry to expand and resulted in greater economic incentives to defend the plantation economy. It serves as an interesting contradiction to the prevailing notion that technological evolution minimized the economic attractiveness of the slave economy.
As the slave system became progressively more difficult to maintain, greater restrictions were placed on all people of color, which made life in Louisiana increasingly difficult for Rillieux. Having profited significantly from his patents in the United States, Rillieux returned to France in 1854 and developed an interest in Egyptology. His interests in evaporation and sugar machinery were rekindled later in life however, and in 1881 he patented a system for heating juice with vapors in multiple effect, a system that is still used in sugar refineries today.
See also: Louisiana; Octoroons; Sugar Cultivation and Trade.
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