November 2008, along the Courouaïe river, 30km downstream from Régina.

We are in the middle of an old colonial plantation, La Constance, in the district of Régina-Kaw.

Beneath the foliage of the cocoa trees an outstanding legacy from the past has been lying slumbering for more than 150 years – steam machinery for refining sugarcane. The machines were built in Liverpool and shipped out around 1830 to the heart of the ‘underwater lands’ of what used to be the ‘neighbourhood of the Approuague’. Unlike in the Antilles and La Réunion where the sugar and rum landscapes of the past have been partially conserved, the remains of these industries in French Guiana are now no more than ruins overrun by vegetation. A project to preserve and promote this heritage is currently under study for the Approuague. It is being piloted by the Municipal Eco-museum of Approuague-Kaw in Régina.

How did the Approuague become the leading sugar-producing region of French Guiana in the years running up to the abolition of slavery?

The history of sugar and the Approuague

Sugarcane was first introduced to French Guiana by Jews of Dutch origin fleeing Brazil in 1656 and who set up the first sugar mills near Cayenne. Sugar production only played a secondary role in the colony’s economic activity throughout the eighteenth century. Like most agriculture, it was confined to the ‘high’ lands, in other words those that were not flooded by the tides, unlike the ‘low’ or ‘underwater’ lands. It was only shortly before the French Revolution in 1789 that polder agriculture started to develop in the low lands, which were incomparably more fertile and thus held out the prospect of far better yields.

In 1783 colonial agriculture of the ‘underwater lands’ of the Approuague got under way with the creation of a large sugar plantation, Le Collège. This was designed by the engineer Samuel Guisan (1740-1801) and was the property of the King. Nearly 200 slaves worked there and it was intended as a model plantation. Many colonists were attracted by this fertile land and followed Guisan’s example. In 1788 there were 17 plantations on the left bank of the river.

After the first abolition of slavery (1794) subsequently reintroduced by Napoleon in 1802, and then the occupation by the Portuguese from 1819 to 1817, sugar production looked like the solution for the fragile future of the colony. It gave rise to new hope and major investment in the 1820s and 1830s, including the purchase and installation of steam machinery.

The production of Guianese sugar peaked in 1834, by which time it accounted for nearly one third of the slave population, a total of 5714 slaves working on 56 plantations covering a total area of 1861 hectares. Each plantation had at least 50 slaves, and the largest had nearly 300. Growing sugar was thus only for the wealthier colonists. The main sugar centres were the isle of Cayenne (Remire), the Torcy canal, the Kaw river, and especially the Approuague.

The sugar crisis and the end of the slave system

In the 1830s sugar became the main source of wealth of the colony of French Guiana, but this did not last long. In 1838 a severe crisis hit the global sugar economy due to overproduction. Beetroot emerged as a rival to cane. In France the preferential import duties for colonies were rapidly dismantled. The sugar system in French Guiana was far too weak to be able to withstand this – Guadeloupe for example produced 20 times more sugar.

Internal factors added to these external ones. The introduction of steam machinery did not make up for the inability of the colonists in French Guiana to produce quality sugar and rationalise their production system. The system of centralised mills which saved the industry in the Antilles was not adopted in French Guiana, which tended to stick to archaic techniques for cooking the sugar.

The decree abolishing slavery was published in the colony’s Official Gazette of 10 June 1848, and came into effect two months later. On 10 August 1848 nearly 13,000 slaves finally obtained their freedom in French Guiana, of whom 1526 were along the Approuague. Most refused the wage or association system their former masters offered them, and they left the plantations. Many went to Cayenne. Within a few years the number of people living on the plantations fell to a quarter of what it had been. And the agrarian landscape was profoundly altered, with large plantations giving way to small clearings to provide food for the newly freed slaves. Attempts by the colonists to replace slave labour by very lowly paid immigrant workers or convicts came to nothing. With a few exceptions the main sugar mills that did survive the crisis were to be found in the neighbourhood of the Approuague.

The discovery of gold on one of the tributaries of the Approuague in 1855 finally put paid to the system whose end had been hastened by the abolition of slavery, but was already inevitable ten years earlier.

Research carried out by the Eco-museum should provide further knowledge about this heritage and the remains which tell of the fascinating history of the former colony, which became a French département in 1946.

But the Approuague was not just a land of industrial adventure and human endeavour relating to sugar. Rosewood, gold, rum, and logging have all left remarkable remains along the river. The Fawcett & Preston steam engines and machinery are no doubt the most impressive examples of this heritage, and projects to conserve and promote them are currently under way. The Eco-museum of the Municipality of Régina-Kaw supports these projects, important both for the development its own cultural and tourism industry and for adding to the heritage and history of French Guiana as a whole.