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The sugar baron of Boston

The little-known story of Edwin F. Atkins, whose Belmont family’s vast cane plantations in 19th- and early 20th-century Cuba created a vast fortune and left a complicated legacy.

Edwin F. Atkins in the gardens of Soledad, his sugar plantation in Cuba, in 1923.Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

In the archives at the Massachusetts Historical Society, among images of Boston Common and Copley Square from a century ago are several dozen of Cuba. The photographs are testament to the networks of trade that brought Boston merchants to the Caribbean island for one reason: sugar. In 1900, no other country in the world consumed as much of the stuff as America, and no other country exported more of it than Cuba. Immense fortunes were there to be made — at an enormous cost in human suffering, bloodshed, and political upheaval.

Among the key figures was Belmont’s Edwin F. Atkins, who inherited the business from his father, who had shipped steadily increasing quantities of sugar to Boston through the 1840s.


As merchant families often did, the Atkins clan sent younger members overseas to consolidate their business network. And thus, in 1866, 16-year-old Edwin was dispatched to live with his father’s business partner in Cuba’s Cienfuegos sugar belt. Many of those laboring on the plantations were enslaved: In Cuba, slavery would not be abolished until 1886. Though he could not have missed the horrible conditions in which his family’s laborers lived, Atkins’s views and racial prejudices were those of the opulent planters’ class. He immersed himself in the pleasant social life of the island’s Spanish-speaking elite and went to operas and balls.

By the age of 25, Atkins was in charge of overseeing Cuban sugar purchases for the family business. Dressed in a linen suit accessorized with a sombrero, silver spurs, and a pistol belt, he shuttled between plantations on horseback. When one of the planters he dealt with went broke, he acquired the debtor’s large estate, known as Soledad, and became a sugar producer himself. In a letter home to his mother in Belmont in 1881, Atkins wrote, “It is a beautiful spot. You will have an idea of its size if I can describe a trip up a little hill which we took in order to see the lay of the land. The hill is about the middle of the estate and very near the building. It is very steep and about as high as our hill in Belmont. You can imagine about the same country as Belmont with sugar cane planted all over the valley as far as Arlington and Cambridge. . . . It is a beautiful scene and well deserves its name ‘Solitude.’”


There, Atkins upgraded the factory with state-of-the-art equipment and expanded it such that by the turn of the 20th century, it took Atkins a full week to inspect the 12,000-acre estate on horseback. His mansion, which served also as his office, munitions depot, and warehouse, was protected by armed guards day and night. The Cuban countryside was a violent and lawless place: Gangs roamed, and plantation owners knew there was always the threat of slave rebellions.

Edwin F. Atkins and his wife, Katharine W. Atkins, on the grounds of the Soledad estate in Cuba.Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

For decades to come, Atkins would stay at Soledad during harvest time, overseeing the hundreds of workers who gathered and carried the cane stalks to the mighty crushers. The rest of the year, he was back in Massachusetts, or Washington, D.C., or New York, alternately running his own Boston refinery, the Bay State Sugar Refining Co., or lobbying the rich and powerful on behalf of the American Sugar Refining Company, a powerful cartel of 17 mostly East Coast-based American sugar refiners that Atkins joined in 1887. Led by the New York refiner Henry O. Havemeyer, the cartel was known popularly as “the Trust” because of its ruthless pursuit of an American sugar monopoly. In the early years of the 20th century, Atkins played a key role in advancing American sugar interests in Cuba and those of the cartel in particular. He was helped in doing so by his status among the inner circle of American industrialists and bankers, his seat on the board of the Union Pacific Railroad alongside J.P. Morgan, and his direct line to US politicians and presidents.


Atkins lobbied aggressively for the lifting of tariffs on Cuban exports of raw sugar to refineries in the United States, and he got his wish with the passage of the McKinley Act in 1890. The McKinley Act ushered in a gilded age for US-based sugar producers, and Atkins was, yet again, the key link between American sugar interests in Cuba, Washington, and Wall Street.

It wasn’t long, though, before American trade policy was reversed. In 1894, as part of a trade conflict with Spain, the US government slapped tariffs upward of 40 percent on sugar imports from Cuba, still a Spanish colony at that point. Spain retaliated by imposing heavy duties on US imports in Cuba. The hardship inflicted by these measures on Cubans sparked an insurrection against the Spanish colonizers in 1895. Three years into the fighting, the United States intervened, declaring war on Spain and, for good measure, taking over Cuba and the Spanish colonies Puerto Rico and the Philippines. By then, the conflict had sent 200,000 Cubans to their graves.


After 1898, Cuba under US dominion was considered a safe investment for Americans who converted huge areas of rainforest into cane lands. By the mid-1920s, American nationals owned more than 60 percent of Cuba’s immense sugar production. By that time, Atkins and his two adult sons controlled the production of about one-eighth of Cuba’s sugar production — worth some $60 million then, or roughly $1 billion today.

Shortly after American troops occupied Cuba, Atkins forged another connection between the island and Massachusetts. Concerned about declining yields per acre in Cuba’s sugarcane fields, he consulted scientists at Harvard University. These scholars had learned how to improve cane on an excursion to Java, where botanical stations did groundbreaking work on breeding cane varieties. Advised by Harvard scientists, Atkins established at his Soledad estate the Harvard Botanical Station for Tropical Research and Sugar Cane Investigation. It would develop some high-yielding and disease-resistant cane varieties for Cuba. Thanks largely to his wife, Katherine Wrisley Atkins, the station also included a botanical garden, the most prominent in the Caribbean region. Atkins’s more pressing concern, of course, was likely more mundane: namely, to eke as much profit as possible out of his plantations.

Atkins, who died at the age of 75 in 1926, did not live to see how another round of US tariffs on Cuban imports in 1930 helped propel the strongman Fulgencio Batista to power. His Soledad estate survived him, enduring through the Cuban Revolution, but it did not survive the general demise of the Cuban sugar industry caused by sharply declining sugar prices in the decades following his death.


Today, what remains of Atkins’s legacy in Cuba is the botanical station, now known as the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden. Hardly remembered is the role of this Bostonian businessman in Cuba’s massive exploitation by American sugar interests.

Ulbe Bosma is senior researcher at the International Institute of Social History and professor at the VU University in Amsterdam. His latest book is “The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment Over 2,000 Years.”