Trade Policies in the British Empire, Sugar Business and Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth Century Mauritius

The development of the nineteenth-century Mauritius sugar industry illustrates the ways in which trade and industrial policies shaped business activity in British colonies. British policies, although not calculated to ruin colonial producers, often gave preference to consumers and/or producers at home and this had unintended effects on colonial economies. The Mauritius sugar industry offers an ideal illustration of the challenges that British sugar entrepreneurs faced. Mauritius possessed ideal environmental conditions for sugar production and the development of the industry was shaped mostly by access to markets and credit, and entrepreneurship on the part of the sugar businesses and organisations such as the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture. This paper reflects on the theories of entrepreneurial leadership and on the arguments made by Bishnuprya Gupta (2019) and Tirthankar Roy (2007) that highlighted inadequate investment into agricultural technologies on the part of British colonial government and the limited access to financial capital as leading factors in sustaining underdevelopment. This paper complements such arguments by showing the negative impacts of insufficient financial infrastructure on the prospects of business survival in times of crises. It also shows that it limited technological upgrading. Mostly the paper adds to the debate on the role of colonial government in development by pointing towards the negative effects of sudden unexpected changes in trade policies on businesses. Overall, the paper shows that the Mauritius sugar industry had a great capacity for adaptation. Such capacity was demonstrated especially in 1847 when the industry withstood the crisis that resulted from the end of the Imperial Preference regime. It successfully adapted to the new British tariff policies by exporting to new markets. The entrepreneurial leadership of the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture was of central importance for achieving this. Yet, trading opportunities and access to markets was stilled by the imperial policies and entrepreneurship was not enough for overcoming the lack of credit in the economy.