The Semi-Sweet History of Sugar-Making
by John Gagnon
Sam Sweitz has been a wandering scientist interested in sherds and sugar; houses, mills, and gold mines; and history unearthed.
Now settled in Houghton as an assistant professor in social sciences, he dreams of expanding the reach of Michigan Tech’s industrial archaeology program.
Sweitz is a young man with seasoned credentials. His work has spanned four time periods and four nations: prehistoric Mayan culture in Belize; eighteenth- to twentieth-century Mayan culture in the Yucatan; nineteenth-century gold mining in the US; and now the twentieth-century sugar industry in Puerto Rico.
“Everything is connected,” he says. “I am fascinated by how decisions made in one place can affect people in another place.”
The demand for sugar in the US, for instance, changed the way social status was achieved in some places where Sweitz has worked—from a tradition of age, gender, lineage, and experience to a new world of occupation and income.
In pinpointing these cultural changes, Sweitz bases his inquiry on the presumption that ordinary people matter. “One of the primary missions of historical archaeology,” he says, “is to talk about the lives of everyday people.”
A native of Yakima, Washington, Sweitz earned a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and history at Boston University; he skipped the master’s and earned a PhD in anthropology from Texas A&M; and he came to Tech’s industrial archaeology program in fall 2005. Since, he has visited Puerto Rico six times.
That country’s sugar economy was “pervasive,” Sweitz says, and the material culture, which is the warp and weft of archaeology, reflects the industry’s impact on the country. One example: Overseers had fine houses, mill workers had decent houses (rock and mortar), and field workers had simple houses (sticks and mud).
The sugar industry in Puerto Rico was based on what Sweitz calls a central, an expansive array of a mill, a company store, and a company town characterized by both paternalism and peonage, and segregated, “to some degree,” on the basis of race, ethnicity, and occupation.
In describing the central, Sweitz is the detached scientist. “My place is not to judge,” he says, “but to find out what happened in the past and what changes resulted.”
The central was the product of an infusion of capital by American investors after the US gained possession of Puerto Rico in 1898 following the Spanish American War.
Sweitz is working at Central Aguirre—the lone surviving example of a central in Puerto Rico. Located on the south-central coast, it was built around 1900, reached its peak in the 1950s, and shut down in 1990.
Ultimately, Sweitz’s inquiry will constitute a marriage of oral, archival, and archaeological histories—from recollections to maps to pottery.
In an even broader scheme, Sweitz’s work might affect the future spread and impact of capitalism.
“We’re trying to understand processes—global markets and commodity exchanges—that are still happening today in the third world,” he says. “Industry is going there, capital is going there, and it’s changing local culture there.”
In this respect, Sweitz says, the past could inform the future, that is, ameliorate the hardships and enhance the benefits of industry and capitalism.
“We hope to better the lives of the people we work with,” he says. “There needs to be some outreach. By doing studies like this, we’re understanding the evolution of not only the sugar industry but the community itself and the people in it. Aguirre is a postindustrial community. The mill is shut down. Jobs are leaving. The economy is depressed. The community is starting to deteriorate. These people are in a tough position and they are left to wonder, ‘What are we going to do with this mill that’s derelict?’ ‘How are we going to preserve our community?’ ‘What do we do next?’”
In turn, Sweitz asks, “How do we answer these poignant questions? How do we help them keep their past but move on in a new direction? How can we incorporate the past with the future? How we can help this community move on in a postindustrial world?”
So, why does he care about a small island country and the sweet and bitter fruits of its industry?
“Because,” Sweitz avows, “this is the story of humanity.”
He has high hopes for his labors.
He wants to establish a cooperative agreement with the University of Puerto Rico to collaborate on this work, exchange students and scholars, organize a field school to train American and Puerto Rican students and have them enroll in Tech’s master’s in industrial archaeology, and establish a dual degree offered by both institutions.
“It’s exciting,” he says. “It really will expand the reach and the impact of Michigan Tech. It will give us a presence—a beachhead—in the Caribbean and Latin America.”