Sugar Engineer


Norbert Rillieux. Image from, http://www.frenchcreoles.com.

I am not entirely sure whether anyone associated with the American sugar plantations during the 19th century could be described as a hero but Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) transformed the refining process and his story is surprising.

Norbert was born in New Orleans and, in the language of the time, he was a “quadroon”.  His father Vincent Rillieux, was a white plantation farmer and his mother, Constance Vivant, was of mixed race. Norbert, along with his siblings, was raised in some comfort thanks to his father’s wealth.  He attended private schools in Louisiana before being sent to Paris in the early 1820s to study engineering at the prestigious École Centrale. Norbert was evidently a rather good student and published papers on steam engines.  On returning to New Orleans and applied his engineering mind to sugar production.

In the early 19th century the way sugarcane juice was made into sugar involved a lot of boiling in large open pans.  It was labour intensive and dangerous. Norbert introduced a process that was cheaper, safer and produced a  whiter sugar crystal.  The Rillieux multiple-effect evaporating process was an important improvement in the way sugar was refined.

Norbert’s education and his family’s wealth allowed him to do things that would have been impossible for the vast majority of Black people living in Louisiana at the time (slavery was not abolished here until 1865)  but they did not insulate him entirely from racial prejudice.  During the 1850s race relations in Louisiana worsened. Norbert got fed up and moved to Paris, which is where he died at the age of 88.  He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery alongside his wife, Emily.

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