Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley, Elizabeth Abbott's "Sugar: A Bittersweet History" (London: Duckworth Overlook, 2009)

Sep 16, 2010 11:57 am

Ron Briley, Elizabeth Abbott's "Sugar: A Bittersweet History" (London: Duckworth Overlook, 2009)

[Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.]

Elizabeth Abbott, research associate at Trinity College, University of Toronto, is the author of broad historical studies targeting more general readers. For example, she has written A History of Mistresses and balanced that study of sexual activity with A History of Celibacy. In her current work on the sugar industry, Abbott focuses much of her attention upon the West Indies, an ancestral home for the author. Sugar: A Bittersweet History is a readable account which should remind consumers that the sugar which sweetens our cakes, pies, soda, ice cream, and candy not only contributes to obesity and diabetes also has a long and troubling history based upon the exploitation of human labor.

Europeans initially relied upon honey to sweeten their food, but the Crusades introduced them to the delights of Mediterranean sugar which became a luxury item for the upper class. The expansion of sugar cultivation and refineries reduced prices and placed the product within the reach of the European working class who used sugar to sweeten their cocoa, coffee, and tea—as well as rum. This growth of sugar consumption was based upon colonialism and the search for a labor supply to harvest sugar cane in the West Indies.

Colonialism proved disastrous to the indigenous populations, and European planters initially relied upon the labor of white indentured servants. This work force proved unstable, and a permanent labor solution was apparently found in the African slave trade. The bulk of Abbot’s book concentrates upon the history of African slavery in the West Indies, as well as efforts by enslaved peoples and their European abolitionist allies to end the slave trade and slavery. Although Abbott discusses the impact of the Haitian Revolution upon slavery and sugar cultivation, her major concern remains with the British West Indies. Condemning the harsh nature of racialized sugar slavery, Abbott writes, “Whites relied on blacks to produce their sugar, counted them as their biggest capital investment, enslaved and mistreated them, vilified their race, sexually assaulted and fell in love with them, and lived dependent on and surrounded by them” (122). The labor and sexual exploitation was made worse, Abbott argues, by the absentee owners who could not abide the climate of the West Indies and left even more unscrupulous overseers in charge of their estates. In London, the West Indies planters lived a life of luxury, and the sugar lobby assured that Parliament would protect the industry from foreign competition.

Yet, the sugar lobby was challenged by the rise of abolitionists, who drew support from East Indian planters whose labor practices were exploitive but not dependent upon the institution of slavery. While Abbott tells her readers little about the East Indian sugar industry, she does emphasize an expanding role for middle-class women in the sugar boycott movement dedicated to ending slavery in the British Empire. Abbott argues, “By boycotting slave-grown sugar, that homemaker could make a moral statement and wield her economic purchasing power as a weapon to bring down the enemy. As her family’s chief food buyer, she and millions of other women could lead the war against sugar slavery” (251).

The British abolition of slavery in 1838, of course, did not end the exploitation of sugar workers. Slavery remained legal in Spanish Cuba and the American South, where Louisiana became a major producer. Meanwhile, desperate planters in the West Indies used “indentureships” to import laborers from India and China. Although technically free labor, these Indian and Chinese workers often suffered the degradation once reserved for African sugar slaves. “Indentureship,” however, failed to restore West Indian sugar to its once dominant position in the sugar trade.

The last two chapters of Abbott’s volume focus upon the twentieth century. She chronicles how a growing consumer dependence upon sugar in the diets of North Americans and Europeans have contributed to health problems as well as a sugar diaspora which has expanded the world production of the commodity. Nevertheless, in a brief examination of sugar cultivation in such diverse areas as Australia, Brazil, and Fiji, Abbott notes that earlier trends of racial division and exploitive labor remain dominant. Nor has the growth of the sugar beet industry altered these conditions as the harvesting of this crop also calls for cheap labor. In addition to the issues of labor and health, Abbott documents the ecological damage of sugar cultivation in regions such as the Florida Everglades. Abbott also examines the feminization of sugar and chocolate, which she insists has “objectified women and, like cheap abundant sugar, undervalued them” (373).

Abbott, however, does hold out some hope that the potential of sugar cane-based ethanol will allow the sugar industry to become more versatile and reduce dependence upon fossil fuels. She concludes, “Although it will continue to delight and comfort, and be the handmaiden of celebration, sugar will no longer need to rely on promoting grotesquely unhealthy consumption to stay in business” (408). Unfortunately, Abbott’s history of sugar cultivation seems to offer little basis for such an optimistic conclusion.

Abbott’s research is based primarily upon an extensive reading of secondary sources as well as printed primary accounts. Her reading is supplemented by her personal travels and experience. There are gaps in her coverage. For example, she mentions the importance of British East Indian sugar production but goes into little detail on this topic. On the other hand, her survey of twentieth century production is such a whirlwind journey that it is sometimes difficult for the reader to remember which country one is examining. The real strength of this volume is Abbott’s detailed investigation of African slavery and the sugar industry in the British West Indies. It is a story well known to most professional historians; however, the connection between slavery and sugar may be less obvious to more general readers. If Abbott’s book is able to awaken consumers to the relationship between consumption and global labor exploitation and ecological damage, the author will have made a major contribution. Continued indifference to the sufferings of the planet and the world’s laboring poor will one day reap the whirlwind.

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