In the West Indies, tobacco was considered a "poor man's crop," while sugar was a "rich man's crop." The reasons for this are numerous, and are closely tied to the socioeconomic conditions of Jamestown in the 1600s. The use of the West Indies as a cultivation center for many cash crops was a significant determinant of the European and American economies, as well as the practices they undertook to gather these crops. The West Indian economy was chiefly centered around these two crops, which utilized completely different and uniquely intensive methods of cultivation. Regardless, they still used significant amounts of slave labor to fuel their cultivation, leading to a primarily slave-led economy in the West Indies.
The use of the phrase "poor man's crop" when referring to tobacco refers directly to the way in which they are cultivated as international crops. Tobacco cultivation is comparatively easy to accomplish, as it is easy to plant, quick to cultivate and does not require extremely complicated processing. Within a year of planting, it is possible to have commercially marketable tobacco leaves. It does not require very many workers to harvest tobacco per acre, requiring much less acreage to maintain to gather shippable amounts of tobacco crop for export to Europe or the Americas. As a result, it allows farmers to create profitable tobacco farms without much investment. The ideal climate for tobacco cultivation was found in the West Indies, which is why it became a large cash crop for them (Goodman 167).
Sugarcane, on the other hand, has to be planted extensively in order to get the amount of sugar that makes the crop commercially marketable; as a result, vast amounts of land has to be cleared and many sugarcane plants cultivated. Unlike the cheap refinement of tobacco, sugar has to be refined in a sugar mill using a very elaborate and capital-intense process; it takes a lot of money to create a finished, viable sugar product to export to other countries (Henretta 79). This is what makes it a 'rich man's crop'; it takes a substantial amount of manpower and resources to create a sufficiently large operation to make a living at cultivating sugar. It took three times as many people to cultivate sugarcane as it does tobacco, making it extremely manpower-intensive as well. However, it was also incredibly profitable, making it the chief cash crop of the West Indies and its economy. The increasing popularity of sugar in European countries such as Spain in the 18th century made the pressure even higher to deliver higher quantities of sugar (Henretta 80). As a result, major economic and social changes to these tropical islands occurred, including the colonization of the West Indies as a primarily sugar-centric cultivation area.
Sugar being a 'rich man's crop' led directly to the proliferation of slavery in the West Indies. In order to meet the incredible demand for sugar, as well as the expensive nature of its cultivation, cheap and docile labor was required in order to get this sugar crop in on time. As a result, the African slave trade proliferated and expanded in order to bring slave labor to the West Indies for the direct purpose of cultivating sugarcane. This allowed the costs of expensive land use and processing of the sugar to be offset by having access to substantial numbers of unpaid workers in a nearly unlimited supply. This allowed those who successfully created large sugar businesses to become 'sugar lords' of the West Indies, carrying substantial economic and political weight; their plantations were home to nearly a quarter million slaves in the space of 50 years in the mid-1600s (Henretta 79). Due to its popularity and the ideal climate the West Indies provided, these sugar lords were able to offer an exclusive, in-demand product for a high price, making it also very expensive to purchase.
Many tobacco farmers also used slave labor; however, it was not often as contingent to the operation of successful tobacco farms (Goodman 191). As tobacco was a 'poor man's crop,' it was easier for smaller operations to be successful; however, sugar plantations had to be large and sprawling, employing a large number of slaves, in order to make a sufficient return on investment. This made the sugar industry a much more centralized and exclusive enterprise, as only the richest could afford to make a living at it.
In conclusion, tobacco is called a "poor man's crop" because it is relatively cheap to cultivate and produce, while sugar is a "rich man's crop" due to the expensive means of production. This great expense led to the proliferation of slavery and the slave trade in the West Indies, and the establishment of rich sugar lords who had a significant amount of power in this area. The difference in production between these two trades led directly to the involvement of Europeans in the West Indies, and the African diaspora altogether.
Goodman, Jordan. Tobacco in history. Psychology Press, 1994. Print.
Henretta, James A., Brody, David, and Lynn Dumenil. America's History: Volume 1: to 1877.
Macmillan, 2010. Print.