Updated: Nov 12, 2021
Growing up in 1950s Puerto Rico, "Sugar was everything," Jaime Montilla says. "Everybody had a friend whose family was involved in the industry.
Members of my family on both sides were involved in the sugar industry as well."
Montilla's great grandfather Antonio Francisco Negroni Mattei, owned Haciendas Florida and San Colombano. His grandfather Emilio Montilla Valdespino appears in the 1889 Paris Universal Expo Spanish section catalogue as a producer of muscovado sugar from San Juan. Emilio at the time owned Hacienda Santa Cruz in Bayamón. Another grandfather, Juan Antonio Negroni Antonmattei, worked at the Guanica Centrale, while a first cousin, Asunción Negroni Albelda, married Arturo Lluveras Rodriguez de la Seda, the owner of Central San Francisco.
An excellent researcher, Montilla launched a website dedicated to Puerto Rico's agricultural history. With his permission, we share his history of Coloso here.
"Voy a convertir este trapiche en un Coloso
It is chronicled that in the 18th. Century there was a hacienda in Aguada known as Caño de las Nasas at Barrio Guanabano that produced some 100 bocoyes or hogsheads of muscovado sugar in its mill. The original owner is unknown, but its second owner was Luis de Medina.
By 1834, Hacienda Caño de las Nasas was sold again to Angel Luis Santoni, a Corsican immigrant from Luri, and his brother-in-law Eugenio Alers Despessville, a son of french immigrants from Saint Domingue. Eventually Eugenio agreed to sell his share of the hacienda to his partner, who brought his son into the business, Carlos Sixto Santoni Alers. Father and son were joined by a new overseer also from Corsica, Bastia Emilio Vadi Benelli.
How Coloso got its name
In her book Haciendas Agricolas del Triangulo Noroeste de Puerto Rico, Haydée E. Reichard de Cardona recounts how Angel Santoni borrowed 41,448 pesos from the Aguadilla mercantile firm Schröder & Cia. to buy a steam-powered mill. Longing to return to Corsica, on June 17, 1862 he sold the Hacienda to Carlos and Emilio for 200,250 pesos.
Flush with the pride of ownership, overseer Emilio declared, "Voy a convertir este trapiche en un Coloso" -- I'm going to turn this mill into a colossus!"
And so it's been called Coloso ever since.
"I'm going to turn this mill into a colossus!"
True to Emilio's promise, Coloso was fitted with new machinery acquired from Mirlees Tait & Watson in Glagow, Scotland. This was the birth of the new Central Coloso, capable of processing sugarcane from surrounding plantations that had previously relied on small, independent sugar factories.
Four years later, in 1875, Coloso was producing 3,000 barrels of high quality raw sugar. At its zenith, it encompassed over 4,000 acres, cropping 500 acres at a time, and all the region's sugarcane processing took place there.
Investing in the latest machinery required steep financial backing, and various mercantile firms acquired a stake in Coloso over the years. In 1885 the Bremen, Germany firm L. G. Dyes & Co. consolidated all creditors and became Colo's sole mortgagee.
Throughout this time, Coloso's overseer, Emilio Vadi Benelli, remained a constant owner until, in 1897, under mounting financial hardship, Coloso shut down.
Besides his former partnership with the Santoni family, Emilio had married Rosario Santoni, the daughter of Angel Luis Santoni and a slave named Enriqueta. Now Rosario was in her 50s, and still, under the racist colonial policies that prevailed in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean, Emilio could not legalize their common-law marriage. In his Last Will and Testament, he recognized their eight children.
A Catalonian immigrant, Jose Amell Massó, acquired Coloso and annexed it with an estate he owned on the banks of the Culebrinas River. But Massó soon died, and his widow Sofia Petrel sold Coloso to the French firm Sucrerie Central Coloso in 1904.
Enter the corporations
The 20th Century heralded an age of bank entrepreneurship that reshaped the Caribbean sugar industry. Headed by a newly incarnated Credit Mobilier of Paris, the firm hired as its director Henri Dechuy, an engineer of some renown in the sugar world for his work reducing sugar losses during the evaporation process.
Coloso changed hands again in 1916, purchased by Sucsores de Bianchi, a family enterprise, for $1,400,000 and operated by Western Porto Rico Sugar Co.
Within three years, the Bianchis were wallowing in debt due to the purchase of new machinery and another acquisition, New Corsica Centrale. With $57,000 in unpaid debt, the operating company went into receivership.
Under court-appointed administrators, the 1921-1922 grinding season went off successfully. Coloso reorganized. Rafael Fabián Fabián became president of Western Porto Rico Sugar Co., acquired much of its land and assumed a major portion of the debt. Coloso overcame its financial difficulties and continued to operate as a sugar mill, and its ownership returned to the Bianci and Dominguez families.
Sugar made important strides in the decades that followed as a rising class of farm professionals emerged -- chemical engineers, sugar chemists and fabrication specialists, to name a few -- many of them trained at Louisiana State University. Known as Louisiana “sugar tramps,” they circulated throughout the Caribbean, lending their knowledge to the modernizing sugar companies.
The lights go out
In 1952, Puerto Rico's sugar estates celebrated a record sugar cane harvest. Then, faster than an elevator express, the entire industry tanked.
By 1968, 17 mills had closed. The government tried to rescue them, acquiring many of the mills and creating the Sugar Corporation, the country's principal sugar producer. Still, the mills, both private and publicly funded, ceased operating, until in 2002, Coloso, the last man standing, also shut down after nearly 100 years.
Based on an average of its lifetime production, Central Coloso was Puerto Rico's 5th. largest sugar mill and the 2nd.-largest owned by local families.
The corporatization of sugar created an agricultural commodity and gave U.S. companies enormous control over its production and profits. South Puerto Rico Sugar Company, a New York-based enterprise, established two of the most powerful sugar-producing complexes in the Americas, Puerto Rico's Guánica Centrale and Central La Romana in the Dominican Republic.
The government policies implemented to fight and eliminate the island's American-owned sugar corporations not only succeeded in their closure, but also caused the closure of more than 30 locally owned sugar mills, Montilla writes.
It was Operation Bootstrap, however -- a government program whose aim was to industrialize the economy -- that did more than anything else to wipe out agriculture, an economic engine that sustained the island for over 100 years.
"As has been the case in other sugar producing countries, the sugar industry has shrunk," Montilla says, "but there is no reason why a product so important to Puerto Rico's rum industry and the lives of everyday Puerto Ricans needs to be imported instead of locally produced."
At Raising Cane, we couldn't agree more.