Sugar has been Cuba's great blessing and curse all at once, just as much as her convenient location and size, her tropical climate and her rich soil.
Legend reveals that on his second voyage to the "new world," Christóbal Colón brought sugar cane cuttings, which were planted and grown by the indigenous Taíno population, who were quickly turned into slaves. The Indies may not have been as full of gold as the Spaniards had hoped, but the islands could still provide a valuable service to the Empire.
The Taínos didn't understand why they had to clear the fields (mostly in the central plains, between Havana and Trinidad, and East towards Santiago) and do without their original crops in order to harvest cane for their new masters.
Eventually the combination of European diseases, forced labor and Spanish cruelty killed off most of the Taíno population, and this lead to the African slave trade, which lasted over three centuries.
In 16th century Cuba, "the chief industry was stock-raising which was followed in all parts of the island," wrote Hubert H. S. Aimes in A History of Slavery in Cuba, 1511 to 1868. "The meat afforded a supply for the shipping and the hides were exported. Honey and wax soon became important. The sugar industry grew slowly and chiefly in the favorable region of Habana, three ingenios being established in its vicinity in 1576. These mills were simple, crude constructions of rollers for crushing the cane moved by cattle or water power. The product obtained by simple boiling in open pans was of a very inferior quality, and was consumed in the island. The ingenios required from eighty to one hundred negroes each."
Large-scale sugar production in Cuba began early in the 19th century. "Sugar quickly became the cornerstone of the Cuban economy," wrote Ramiro Guerra y Sánchez in Sugar and Society in the Caribbean, "and a new class of wealthy planters emerged."
Sugar output was usually measured in sacks of 325 pounds or in tons (2,000 pounds). Cane production was measured per arroba (25 pounds), and land was measured per caballerías (33.6 acres).
By mid-19th century Cuba provided about a third of the world's sugar, and U.S. investors began to make moves on the island. Soon the sugar industry was under their control.
"From the beginning," wrote Guerra y Sánchez, "the sugar mills were extended protection against foreclosure for debt, an extremely important privilege that was considered an indispensable aid to this new industry. For the planting of cane, the Havana Cabildo itself ceded lands, within a radius of eight leagues, that had been reserved for growing food crops. Thus, the first sugar mills were set up very close to the municipal limits and were owned by the wealthiest and most influential colonists."