A Bittersweet History of Sugar

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
Somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

Elizabeth Abbott’s “bittersweet” history of sugar is heavy on bitter, light on sweet. Slavery and exploitation dominate her compelling 400-page narrative. The suffering of the enslaved is wrenching to read; the inhumanity of the planters as astounding as it is infuriating. This is a history of gross and prolonged injustice, a documenting of the human capacity for evil.

The link between sugar and slavery started early, when Greek, Bulgarian, and Turk captives were made to work in Mediterranean cane fields in the Middle Ages. In 1492, the Spanish were growing cane in the Canaries possibly with Jewish slave labor. (The Portuguese were using them in Sao Tome). On one of his later voyages, Columbus brought sugarcane to Hispaniola where the misnamed indios were forced into “cane holing.” The Taino could not survive exposure to European microbes, let alone the harsh working conditions. They were driven to extinction in less than half a century. Africans were imported to replace them, at first exclusively from Spain, then directly from Africa itself. By 1550 there were an estimated 30,000 Africans laboring on Hispaniola and another 100,000 elsewhere on the islands of New Spain. [36]


Slavery in America would not have grown as it did without sugar. (Almost half of 13 million Africans forcibly brought to the New World ended up in the cane fields, says Abbott.) And sugar would not have grown without the increase in its demand in Europe. (Has anything ever been more assured?) Abbott shows how sugar, as with any novel product, began as a privilege of royalty and nobility. She limns three scenes of sugary decadence from 16th century European courts, including a memorable one of Elizabeth I. Diana’s “sweet tooth” left her with more than a few black teeth, which she kept hidden for portraitists behind a tight smile. [44]

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well….

The “proletarianization of sugar” over the next two centuries clinched its world historical significance.  Gladys, Abbott’s composite for a working class housewife, made more of an impact on British diet and economy than did the Virgin Queen. Gladys and her ilk flavored their puddings (which were not desserts) with sugar, but it was their daily sweetened tea that had the greatest impact. The two stimulants became the most reliable consolation for the working men and women of Industrial Revolution England. As one 18th-century observer wrote, “Sugar, and the inseparable Companion of Tea, came to be in the Possession of the very poorest Housewife,” and, of course, her factory- or mine-drudging husband. [67]


The democratization of sugar relied on steeply and steadily declining prices, which were themselves dependent on cheap, exploitable labor: slavery. From its New World inception in the 16th century, there was at least one European whose conscience was troubled. Bartolomé de las Casas began his career in Hispaniola as a sugar planter, but soon found his complicity in human bondage repugnant. (Abbott points out he took longer to appreciate the humanity of Africans than he did the Taino.) The record is bereft of other abolitionist voices. Sugar planters, if they suffered any pangs of conscience, swept them aside with ever more tortured–that is, racist–reasons for slavery. Abbott quotes another historian’s conclusion which seems irrefutable in the context of her narrative: “Slavery was not born of racism, rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” [189] In other words, racist justifications were necessary make the planter’s inhumanity conscionable, as inhumanity to fellow man would not have been.

Greed and ignorance played their part, too. Abbott tells us repeatedly that sugar planting required large capitalization. As prices fell, profit margins became paper thin if not outright ruinous. Hurricanes or drought could wipe out a crop and leave the planter owing money and without access to cash. So “greed” did not have to be of the glint-of-gold-in-the-eye kind, but of the do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-ahead sort. Maintaining a planter’s lifestyle and all that entailed was not on the bargaining table, so wringing every last ounce out of (sub-human) slave labor was non-negotiable, too. The planter, as investor, took all the risks, so why not pass them on to his workers–if he  could…which he could. Abbott also talks a lot about absentee planters, living the high life in the “metropolis,” Europe, and leaving the management in the hands of an employee, who left the management of field workers in the hands of an overseer: layers of oversight which kept the ugly reality of sugar planting from the planter’s daily consciousness. “Ignorance” was of a willed and institutional kind: ignorance of their worker’s humanity.

Interacting with the slaves on a daily basis hardly helped overseers see them as worthy of respect. In their degradation at his hands, they became subhuman beasts, deserving and requiring the whip, a pernicious circular logic. How else but the lash was he to meet–or exceed–the production quotas foisted upon him? How else to maintain his job and his standing? This was the willed ignorance of self-interest, first and foremost.


We read of the ship captain of the slave ship Zong who threw 132 slaves overboard to prevent a disease from infecting the rest of his “cargo.” Upon returning to shore, he filed a claim with the insurance company for loss of property! (He won his claim despite abolitionist opposition.) [222] Martinique sugar planter Pierre Dessalles insisted that “the Negro” did not understand “reason.” He only understood the language of “the whip.” In his view, they were inveterate malingerers. His case in point, a slave called Toussaint, who, “in order to get out of work and to die, keeps up a stomach ailment that puts him into a horrible state….” Moving from the particular back to the general, Desalles ranted: “These are things the abolitionist would not understand. They would not fail to say that the despair at being a slave drove this negro to destroy himself. Laziness and dread of work, these are the motives that cause him to let himself die.” This is heartless self-justification. When Toussaint did die at his own hand a month later, Dessalles wailed, “The criminal! He is the fourth member of his family to do this to his owner!” [197]

Abbott wants her readers to understand that the first abolitionists were the black captives, themselves, when they resisted and rebelled in any number of ways. She recounts the life of Phibbah as emblematic of the way individual slaves could resist captivity, gain self-respect, and even earn a degree of freedom. Phibbah became the mistress and common law wife of an overseer who had previously beaten her savagely. She nurtured her relationship with “this prickly, cruel, hard-working and lonely” man, such that he left her money in his will to allow her to gain independence. After his death she became a “propertied, slave-holding freedwoman…[who] understood how slavery operated and, in that context, set her goals and achieved them.” This included, apparently, punishing her own slaves when they “defied her authority.” In a rare moment of speculation, Abbott says that Phibbah “must have  experienced her life as a personal triumph. It was also a triumph over slavery, and an indictment of the premises of racial inferiority that underpinned it.” [141-143] Perhaps, but I suspect she was too busy staying one step in front of adversity and potential disaster to feel much triumph. But I’ll allow her quiet moments of satisfaction. We can hope she enjoyed some.


The planter class produced no more de las Casases that Abbott lets us know about, but the Gladyses of Europe  began learning of their sugar’s origins and having serious qualms. Voltaire’s Candide included a scene designed to tug at his readers’ conscience. A crippled New World slave, minus a leg and hand, tells visiting Europeans, “C’est à ce prix que vou mangez du sucre en Europe.” This is the price of eating sugar in Europe. [90] Evidence of the cost began popping up in newspapers and periodicals. The educated classes, especially women, took note.

…If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment….

While reform-minded British men turned to Parliament and the legal system to promote change, women resorted to the power of the purse. From their position as chief purchasing agents of their households, they boycotted, finding sweetening alternatives in honey and East Indian sugar. Elizabeth Heyrick made clear their complicity. The overseer might be “the original cause, the first mover,” she argued, but British housewives, as consumers, “were participants in the  crime.” Another boycotter admonished, “As he sweetens his tea, let him reflect on the bitterness at the bottom of the cup. Let him say, as he truly may, this lump cost the poor slave a groan, and this a bloody stroke with the cartwhip….” An brochure advocating the abolition of slavery quoted a New World slave: “You no think, Massa, when you eat our sugar, you drink our blood?” [220]


Abolitionists succeeded in their goal. The Emancipation Act of 1833 ended–began the process of ending–slavery on August 1, 1834. On that date children under six were freed immediately. All others would have to wait six years of “apprenticeship.” The period of transition would allow planters time to prepare for the loss of free labor and for the laborers to prepare to live free. That was the idea. The reality was an extension of slavery that Abbott shows “created a doomsday recklessness among planters”: their exploitation became if anything worse. Emancipation on August 1, 1838, though greeted with fanfare by enslaved and abolitionist alike, made depressingly little change in the freed peoples’ life prospects.

…We must have
The stubbornness to accept the gladness in the ruthless
Furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

Desperate planters, though they were compensated for the loss of their “property,” resorted to new tricks to exploit their former slaves–and control their lives. Freedmen and women were told they must sign work contracts in order to live in homes they had constructed themselves or to cultivate provisional lands they had cleared and planted on their own highly limited time. When they signed, rent would be deducted from their pay, charged per head rather than per household and increased for any days missing from work in the fields. Slavery by any other name.


The importation of indentured field workers from India post-emancipation perpetuated near-slave conditions for a new demographic and perpetuated low wages for the recently freed. The competition between black- and brown-skinned Trinidadians led to animosities and distrust that plague the country even today. Adding insult to injury, the cost of importation was covered, in part, by taxpayer money, a form of what we would call “corporate welfare” today. Even the governor of Jamaica groused that planters “like Oliver Twist, were always asking for more.” [321]

Were the political activism of the abolitionists and the active resistance of the enslaved for naught? The powerful always seem to find a way to come out on top. Bernie Sanders may go after the billionaires, but they will do what is necessary to hold onto what is “theirs.” The disadvantaged will stay that way. Can it be otherwise?

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
Somewhere else….

Still, we know that the labor practices have improved in the past 180 years. Socio-economic mobility has become a possibility. In fact, Abbott tells us, “emancipation crushed many planters who, despite compensation money, were forced to sell their estates;” [258] there were freedmen and women who moved to the cities, gaining wage jobs on the docks or in stores, and eventually higher levels of education. Civil service and teaching jobs opened to the ranks of former slaves and their descendants. The inhumanity of the sugar plantation slipped steadily into the rearview mirror of the past.


Except where it didn’t. As late as 1942 in the constitution-girded United States, sugar planters in Florida and Louisiana were abducting blacks off the streets and forcing them to work in the cane fields, modern press gangs. Or, they lured workers with false promises of free transportation and six dollars a day. They held them on site, already in debt for their bus ticket, at less than one-third the promised pay, simply because they could. Their high living depended on it, as did their self-concept, apparently, as ruthless businessmen. Abbott also tells of Haitian contract workers in 1980s Dominican cane fields, making clear that it was a form of neo-slavery that has persisted into the new century. Similar brutalities, she tells us, are evident in the El Salvador and Brazil.

C’est ce prix, encore, qu’on mange du sucre.

True, much of our sweetening we get from our own subsidized, big-business farmers in the form of high fructose corn syrup. The numbers toiling in cane, coffee and assorted fields worldwide are relatively small compared to the seven billions on earth. But many millions more labor in dehumanizing conditions free from broiling sun and stinging whip. Today’s call and fulfillment centers keep workers’ every movement under surveillance, their every bathroom break timed to the second, their every utterance pre-scripted. These, too, are the price we pay for iPhones and an abundance of cheap consumer goods.

Sweet for many; bitter for many more.

…To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
Comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
All the years of sorrow that are to come.


Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. London: Duckworth Publishers, 2009.

Gilbert, Jack. “A Brief for the Defense.” Refusing Heaven: Poems. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007.


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