I should disclose that I minored in economics, so trade and business history is my jam. I got really into the weeds with my made-up documents, but it does prove something you might not expect about the hacenderos of yore: times were tough.
Even before the Americans arrived in 1898, Hacienda Altarejos took on debt to buy an expensive sugar mill—the one that Jonas Vanderburg fixes in Tempting Hymn. Of course, I had to make a bill of sale for the mill. How? Well, I found an advertisement from the Brisbane Courier and combined it with a receipt from Nambour, Queensland, and adjusted the numbers for inflation. Voilà, a sugar mill invoice from a real company that made them. (Scottish engineers were the thing at the time. They made all kinds of mills and mechanical equipment, even though sugar was not a local industry.)
Times got tougher on the hacienda. In addition to the Americans (below), there was a Rinderpest epidemic, which killed at least 75% of the carabao on Negros and other islands. (I found real articles about this while doing my research at Ateneo’s American Heritage Collection, but they were not digitized so I had to recreate them.)
Let’s look at Javier’s books. If you see the “emergency expenses” below, you can see the impact that rinderpest had on his bottom line. Where did I get such detailed financial information on sugar? The Far Eastern (Economic) Review, of course. (It has since shuttered, but this publication was a major source of my college research paper writing.) These averages might be a little off because they are from a different part of the Philippines (Pampanga), but they are still pretty good. Boy, did I learn a lot about sugar production in the Gilded Age.
All of these troubles put Javier in financial hot water, even before Ben Potter arrived on the scene. This is why he has to put up his land up as collateral for a loan to start off the 1902-1903 season. This money is mostly needed to pay for labor—and not very reliable labor, at that. According to contemporary sources, about half the workers of any given hacienda would disappear after they were paid their advance (anticipio). That’s expensive.
It is not a surprise, then, that Javier had money problems. The loan agreement he made with Guillermo Cuayzon, the pacto de retro, was a ruthless type of loan liquidation. (This was the device that allowed hacenderos to get rich in better times. Now it worked against Javier.)
Javier was skating a thin line at the start of the book. Sugar farmers in the early American period were not raking it in. Sure, they did in the 1880s and early 1890s, and they have on-and-off since. But the early 1900s were a crunch:
Javier leaned forward, hiding his clenched fists under the desk. “I don’t understand. We’re either a colony or we’re not. The Yankis don’t let us trade with the rest of the world, and now they shut us out of their home market, as well? Some ‘Open Door.’”
History had taught Javier to be a skeptic. In the last four years, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Sugar planters in Negros had sided with the Americans in the hope of keeping the peace, but their workers ran off into the hills to join the insurrectos. No labor, no harvest. The Americans punished the rebels by burning rice stores and closing the ports, but such draconian tactics ended up hurting men like Javier most of all. In the end, not only had a quarter of his crop rotted in the ground, but there had been no way to ship the harvested cane off the island. By the time the ports opened again, a freak rinderpest epidemic had killed most of the carabao. Replacing his herd put Javier so far in hock that he had been forced to put up a fifth of his land as collateral. And those were just his problems from last season.
As you can see from the exports below (real figures, by the way), sugar sales dropped dramatically with the arrival of the Americans. It does not improve until free trade is extended for sugar into the United States, a process which starts in 1909 and then is finalized in 1913. So, there is a happily ever after…eventually.