Keeping Time with Colombian Plantation Calendars

This is the thirteenth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—an alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

In the opening scene of Gabriel García Márquez’ masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, a mysterious foreigner introduces the residents of a sultry and long-isolated town to the wonders of ice, foreshadowing the region’s integration into global networks of technology and trade. García Márquez’ fiction resembles the techno-origin story of Colombia’s first steam-powered sugar mill, wherein a Russian emigrant by way of San Francisco orchestrated a monumental effort to import Scottish machinery to the Cauca Valley for the milling of cane. Shipped to the Pacific port of Buenaventura, the machinery and equipment then survived an arduous transport by ox and mule through jungles and over mountains en route to the fertile plain along the eastern bank of the Cauca River. The packers had to rebuild roads and fortify bridges to handle the heavy industrial load as they inched across the landscape. The entire haul took two and a half years at enormous cost.

With the machinery finally installed on the property of the Manuelita estate, Don Santiago Eder launched the first industrial production of refined white sugar in Colombia on the “first day of the first month of the first year of the twentieth century.” Such deeds, mythologized and heroic in their retelling, earned Santiago Eder respect as “the founder” and his sons as “pioneers” in the industrialization of provincial Colombia. Their enterprise, Manuelita, S.A., remained the country’s largest sugar operation for much of the twentieth century.

The contemporary debate about epoch terminologies, including Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, or others, is at its core a conversation about how to conceptualize changes over but also in time.

In 1967, British Marxist E.P. Thompson described the evolution and internalization of disciplined concepts of time as intimately tied to the rise of wage labor in industrializing England. His famous treatise on time serves as a reminder that the rise of industrial agriculture affected a reorganization of cultural and social conceptions of time. The contemporary debate about epoch terminologies, including Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, or others, is at its core a conversation about how to conceptualize changes over but also in time. As the Manuelita steam-powered machines turned on on the “first day of the first month of the first year of the twentieth century,” the company foretold a self-conscious narrative about the rise of industrial agriculture and modernity in Colombia—a self-representation which contrasts with that of other agricultural endeavors that overlapped in time and in space.

In the following paragraphs I present a series of images to juxtapose two agricultural calendars issued in Colombia during the twentieth century. The first calendar, issued by the National Federation of Coffee Growers in 1934, depicts time instructionally. The calendar is an educational text, reflecting state efforts to modernize the countryside during the global Great Depression. The second calendar, or set of calendars, depicts time authoritatively. These calendars celebrate the Manuelita sugar corporation in the early 1950s at a moment of expansion for industrial sugarcane production in Colombia. The triumph of industrial-scale refined sugar in mid-century Colombia captures the modern acceleration of the Plantationocene despite the persistence of competing visions of agricultural futures.

A 1934 calendar issued by the National Federation of Coffee Growers. Image courtesy of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden.

Instructional Time

The large size of the calendar issued by the National Federation of Coffee Growers in 1934 suggests its functionality as a wall piece in the homes of middle class cultivators in the country’s mid-altitude coffee axis. At center, the calendar features an iconic image of national hero Simon Bolívar, an image of a cup of coffee, and the certificate of the Federation, merging all three in the Colombian imagined community. At top center, the text serves as propaganda for the Federation, explaining its significance nationally through patriotic proclamations such as “Coffee should be the preferred drink of all Colombians” and “To consume pure coffee is to defend the national economy.”

Around the margins, the calendar features beautifully-illustrated instructional material about the preparation, sowing, and harvesting of coffee. These images and the accompanying text walk the viewer through the annual coffee cycle and include information about recommended complementary activities, such as companion plants and mixed-use agriculture with plantains as well as oxen, pigs, poultry, rabbits, and bees. Other illustrations suggest proper shading techniques, including useful species of trees and models for constructing shaded platforms for seedlings. The calendar likewise provides illustrated examples of the selection of coffee cherries, the washing of the coffee beans, and depictions of soil conditions. The illustrations are accompanied by text that describes the entirety of the coffee process and the final step: depositing the beans at the Federation’s collection warehouses.

A fascinating and detailed text, the National Federation of Coffee Growers 1934 calendar shows saints’ days and key moments in the Federation’s history, as well as instructional illustrations depicting a Federation collection warehouse, plantain trees, preparation of the coffee cherries, and the use of shade trees.

This calendar reflects broader trends in Colombian agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a period of active efforts of state formation in the Colombian countryside. In the late 1920s, the Colombian national state negotiated with departmental governments to create three new agricultural experiment stations, each of which were geographically strategic and engaged in not just research and breeding, but also extension services. Extension joined overlapping efforts to found new schools, printing presses, hospitals, veterinarian clinics, and hygiene laboratories, often as part of an integrated regional campaign pursued by newly formed government offices such as the Secretariat of Industries. Departmental printing presses issued agricultural extension bulletins that featured the research conclusions drawn at the various agricultural experiment stations. Roaming extension agents and new rural technical schools offered seed packets and instruction to the populace.

The National Federation of Coffee Growers, as the country’s most important guild and political lobbying organization, took active part in these efforts, and participated in the distribution of seedlings and extension literature. In the calendar, the Federation is patriarchal, instructing the viewer in its cultural and political significance to Colombian identity and prosperity. Similarly, the calendar suggests the Federation’s engagement with the Catholic Church and religious organizations as part of its social engineering campaigns. This aspect of the Federation is discernible in the way the calendar overlays three presentations of time: a Gregorian calendar, an agricultural calendar specific to the cyclical tasks of coffee cultivation, and a Catholic calendar of saints’ days. Significantly, the calendar intermixes Catholic saints’ days with key dates in the history of the Federation and its role in advancing the political economy of coffee in Colombia.

The 1934 calendar is an educational artifact of an active state and its allies: the National Federation of Coffee Growers and the rural Catholic Church. It offers time-specific instruction for patriarchal Catholic families that eke out a livelihood from their own semi-autonomous labor.

Authoritative Time

A Manuelita S.A. 1951 calendar with image of contemporary sugar mill (“el ingenio”). Image from University of Miami Libraries.

Colombia’s mid-altitude foothills are deeply associated with coffee production in Colombia’s cultural, social, and political imaginary. Likewise, there remains a tendency in Colombia to associate the Cauca Valley lowlands with sugarcane and to assume that this relationship has existed since time immemorial. Such assumptions overlook a much more recent history. Unlike plantation sugar economies in Brazil and the Caribbean, the industrial production of sugar in Colombia is a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Although the Spanish brought sugarcane to the Cauca Valley in the sixteenth century, it remained a relatively small-scale endeavor in the region until the 1930s. As late as the 1920s, sugarcane remained by-and-large a product of secondary importance to the land-extensive hacienda cattle economy in the valley. In the early 1930s, despite limited industrial-scale production of refined white sugar at three ingenios—Manuelita, Riopaila, and Providencia—sugarcane was overwhelmingly grown to produce unrefined blocks of sucrose, panela, as well as alcohol, especially aguardiente. Like maize or cacao, sugarcane for panela was grown across the property spectrum in the 1920s Cauca Valley, as large haciendas, parceled family farms, and colonos (typically squatters or tenant farmers without title) vied for timber from the mountains to operate their simple trapiches (wooden roller mills) and water from the rivers and streams to irrigate their fields.

A 1952 calendar issued by Manuelita S.A., with commemorative image of the first steam-powered centrifugal sugar mill in Colombia on January 1, 1901. Image from University of Miami Libraries.

During the first decade of the Palmira Agricultural Experiment Station (1927-1937), a period that overlapped with the global economic Depression, the ascendency of Liberal populism in Colombia, and a tariff policy of agricultural protectionism, sugarcane represented just one of many crops emphasized in state-sponsored scientific research in the Cauca Valley. However, the few large producers of sugar, especially capital-rich Manuelita, became the most ready and enthusiastic partners of the Palmira station and its transnational collaborations with agronomists in Puerto Rico, Argentina, and Panama. Manuelita vigorously supported research into foreign varieties while their more economically vulnerable competitors, especially panela-producers, remained hesitant and skeptical. The devastation wrought by the sugarcane mosaic virus in the mid-1930s unleashed a crisis on the entire sugar sector in Colombia and compelled the national government to rebrand the Palmira station as a national sugarcane research center in 1937-38. The ensuing entrenchment of state-private collaborations between the Palmira station and corporations such as Manuelita, with its capacity to employ foreign experts in sugarcane-breeding, linked the growing but still small refined sugar sector in Colombia to the international vanguard in breeding research and development. A new partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, forged via the new opportunities unleashed by international airmail, such as the exchange of flowering plant stigmas, put the valley’s largest sugar growers in a position to breed, distribute, and harvest sugarcane hybrids, propelling the refined sugar sector into a period of sustained growth.

The 1940s and 1950s thus became a period of disproportionate growth in the refined white sugar sector relative to panela. Industrial sugar also benefitted from a Tennessee Valley Authority-inspired autonomous regional hydroelectric and irrigation project, the Cauca Valley Corporation (CVC), which became a reality when the TVA’s own David Lilienthal visited the region and endorsed the newly operational project in 1954. The CVC would further accelerate the budding corporate sugar industry’s expansion throughout the fertile floodplains of the Cauca River valley by regulating and controlling the distribution of water. Not unrelated, the national tragedy of rural violence, known simply as La Violencia (1946-1958), caused a sharp depreciation in land values and an increase in small-holder precarity, filtering more and more land into the expanding property registers of the well-guarded corporate entities. The growth of the industry during this period generated considerable international attention. For example, Manuelita was featured in a National Geographic article about modernity in the Colombian countryside in 1947. The Manuelita company calendars of 1951 and 1952 reflect this atmosphere and indeed seek to advance an authoritative narrative of technological triumph and modernization.

Like the National Federation of Coffee Growers’ 1934 calendar, the 1951 Manuelita calendar featured the Catholic saints’ days on its pages. This practice was dropped in 1952, however, which lends greater authority to the corporation as a time-organizing force. Unlike the 1934 calendar, the Manuelita calendars from the early 1950s are not intended specifically for the walls of workers’ family dwellings. Certainly once in workers’ homes, these calendars infiltrate family space with benevolent images of technological authority and power. But their target is also the office walls of company managers, as well as the suitcases of foreign visitors and the mailboxes of investors. Before the eyes of this audience, the calendars showcase economic and agricultural confidence and stability.

A 1951 Manuelita S.A. calendar depicting employees with “20 to 52 years of service.” Courtesy of University of Miami Libraries.

The January 1951 image is especially suggestive of this narrative of confidence and stability. It shows a group photo posed in front of the orderly staked and numbered fields of cane. Manuelita employees with 20 to 52 years of service stand and kneel together flanked by crew leaders on horseback. Fifty two years of service in 1951 indicates that the longest-serving employee(s) in the image had worked for Manuelita since the 1899 beginning of the massive operation to import Scottish machinery to the Cauca Valley, the immortalized techno-origins story of Manuelita that opens this essay. The suggestion of individual employee lives bridging 1899 and 1951 offers a not-so-subtle narrative about the company’s central role in the rapid transformation of the Colombian countryside in the timeframe of a human career.

Further, there is a diverse range of people on display, from the company executive at center with sport coat, tie, and sunglasses to Afro-Colombian cane cutters brandishing machetes and other tools. Some of the workers, especially those from the mill, wear the soiled uniform of their work. These juxtapositions emphasize both hierarchy and harmony: a modern, smart corporate entity with an educated managerial class and hard-working laborers but also a benevolent corporation seemingly free of labor conflict and unrest. It is a sign of assurance to potential investors in New York City, where the company scion Phanor Eder lived at the time. It is also a moment of (perhaps mandated) convivencia amidst a tumultuous and violent Colombian countryside mere years before major labor strikes gripped the valley’s sugarcane sector.

Employees with “20 to 52 years of service” as pictured in the January 1951 calendar.

The contrasts evident in these calendars reflect different industries in adjacent regions less than two decades apart, but they also offer contrasting narratives of agricultural futures. Both calendars are patriarchal in the omnipotent ways they depict time and agriculture. Designed for an audience of middle class, semi-autonomous family farmers at a time of agrarian populism, the National Federation of Coffee Growers’ 1934 calendar instructs about civics, Catholic devotion, and modern cultivation techniques. What’s more, the method of agriculture instructed is integrated and diversified: coffee is properly cultivated beneath the correct shade trees and beside other sources of food, companion plants, and pollinators, while livestock and poultry fertilize, work, and provide protein within the system. The Manuelita calendars from the early 1950s, in contrast, are authoritative. They are not intended to instruct anyone in the autonomous lifeways of growing sugar, but instead, offer muscular images of technological prowess and company benevolence.

Together, these calendars remind us of the Plantationocene as process, one changing over time and following different paths in distinct places or for particular crops. Both discipline the viewer’s internalization of time. The global ascendency of the Manuelita model of work contracts and monoculture in the second half of the twentieth century underscores the acceleration of the Plantationocene, but the historical presence and persistence of alternative agricultural time should serve as a reminder that capitalist futures and the demarcation of epochs are never as simple as a neatly organized calendar.

Featured image: A 1934 National Federation of Coffee Growers calendar. Image courtesy of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden.

Timothy Lorek is preparing a book manuscript tentatively titled “Making the Green Revolution: Agriculture and Conflicted Landscapes in Colombia.” He is co-editor of Itineraries of Expertise: Science, Technology, and the Environment in Latin America’s Long Cold War (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020). In 2017-18 he held a Mellon Fellowship with the Humanities Institute of the New York Botanical Garden, during which time he found the coffee calendar for this essay in the library’s uncatalogued vertical files. Contact.