Sugar: a bittersweet history, by Elizabeth Abbott

The sour taste of struggle behind a sweet sensation
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The Independent Culture

Sugar was to the geopolitics of the 17th to 19th centuries what oil has been to the 20th and 21st. It was one of the building blocks of the British Empire, silting up vast colonial wealth and transforming our culture, diet, health, environment and economy. Sugar was the first super-commodity, and its rise has been documented by scores of cultural historians, anthropologists and medical professionals. Some notable examples are Noel Deer's influential two-part The History of Sugar in the 1940s, Sidney Mintz's seminal Sweetness and Power and John Yudkin's bestselling Sweet and Dangerous.

Elizabeth Abbott's "bittersweet history" is a worthy addition to this pantheon. This is a highly readable and comprehensive study of a remarkable product. The sugar-cane crop is indigenous to the South Pacific, where it had a starring role in the creationist myths of that region. It travelled from there to India, on to China and then via the spread of Islam to Africa, the Mediterranean and the New World.

It was introduced to Europe by returning Crusaders between the 10th and 13th centuries, and became a costly rarity used as a spice and a medicine.

For centuries the conspicuous consumption of sugar was a mark of wealth and social power; hence the extraordinary "sugar sculptures" at the court of Elizabeth I. Over time, it filtered through society - largely as a sweetener of other colonial products like tea, cocoa and coffee - until it became accessible to virtually everyone. Sugar is now so ubiquitous and cheap that we cannot imagine life without it.

But it is Abbott's handling of the "slave-sugar complex" that lifts this book into a must-read. With rare eloquence and passion she demonstrates how sugar enriched Europe while denuding the African continent of its population and retarding its economic development. Her treatment of the scarifying effects of slavery on intimate relationships is particularly enlightening. She exploits first-hand accounts, slave narratives and journals by plantation managers like Thomas Thistlewood, who kept detailed records of his sexual abuse of female slaves and the cruel punishments he inflicted on workers. She argues that sugar forged a type of slavery whose scope and brutality had never been seen before. That slavery – and its sugar profits – was justified by the development of a racist ideology that still reverberates through contemporary life.

In discussing the abolition movement, Abbott redresses the historical focus on Wilberforce et al by reminding us of the role of ordinary people – especially women and the working class – in the fight for emancipation. Abbott, who discovered while writing this book that her own Antiguan planter ancestry included African antecedents, also points out that, for many years, "blacks were the only abolitionists", struggling daily to undermine the institution of slavery.

The progress of sugar remained brutal and bloody. After emancipation, tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese indentured servants were sent to places like the Caribbean, Fiji, and Mauritius to "a new system of slavery". In Australia, one in four of the Melanesians lured into similar kinds of cane-cutting arrangements died of neglect, poverty and poor nutrition. Sugar was even implicated in the Cuban Bay of Pigs débâcle in 1961.

Sugar continues to be linked with racism, exploitation and violence. In some parts of the world planters still use child labour. In the US, workers from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands are lured to the "sugar gulags" of Florida, forced to cultivate cane in conditions Congress has declared entirely unacceptable for US nationals.

The impact of sugar on our environment has been epic and irreversible. In Barbados, the introduction of sugar cane cultivation precipitated the destruction of "a complete, natural, island ecosystem", and prompted the extermination of numerous animal species. Sugar's impact on our health is no less significant.

Quite apart from our seemingly endless hunger for soft drinks, sweets, chocolates and ice cream, sugar is also used as a condiment and preservative in virtually all other foodstuffs, including soups and ketchup. In a populace increasingly riddled with sugar-induced diabetes, one New York endocrinologist creates an apocalyptic vision of the future: "The workforce 50 years from now is going to look fat, one-legged, blind, a diminution of able-bodied workers at every level." A bittersweet legacy indeed.

Andrea Stuart's 'Josephine: the Rose of Martinique' is published by Pan