New Yorkers began refining sugar in the 1720s, first importing it from British colonies like Barbados and then from the French colony of Saint Domingue. When a slave rebellion (1791-1804) created the free republic of Haiti and disrupted the island’s sugar production, merchants and refiners turned to the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba where slavery survived until 1873 and 1886 respectively.
In the 1800s, as planters in the Caribbean installed steam-powered mills to process cane more efficiently, vast amounts of raw sugar reached the refineries of New York and Brooklyn, where it was turned into white sugar. By 1860, Brooklyn had become the world’s center of sugar refining. By 1900, its factories processed millions of pounds each day. Mass production made white sugar a household staple.
Estates like La Fortuna, located in Ponce, Puerto Rico, grew and milled sugar cane, shipping most of their product to U.S. refineries. The owner, a Barcelonan émigré, commissioned distinguished Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller to paint his house, warehouse, mill, and laborers. Oller applied the impressionist techniques he mastered in Europe to studies of his native landscape. (via Nueva York: 1613-1945 at the New-York Historical Society)