02 May

The bitter history of sugar

A new study outlines the unbearable conditions of the slaves who worked to satisfy the world’s sweet tooth

From The Times Literary Supplement


By Bee Wilson

 Video Interview By Jessica Pellien, Princeton at:

Video Interview with Bee Wilson

It is hardly news that the story of cane sugar is not all sweet. In 1788, in “The Negro’s Complaint”, William Cowper lamented the link between sugar and slavery:

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil? . . .
Think how many Backs have smarted
For the sweets your Cane affords.

Of all the plantation crops of the Atlantic slave trade – tobacco, cotton, coffee – the most pernicious was sugar. Seventy per cent of slaves on New World plantations were involved in sugar production.

The problem lay partly in the nature of sugar cane itself, as Sidney Mintz wrote in his seminal work of anthropology, Sweetness and Power (1985). This giant thirsty grass, filled with sweet pulpy sap, has always been unusually labour-intensive to grow, harvest and process, requiring lots of water and sun as it grows and clamorous attention to turn the sap into crystalline sugar. As Mintz wrote, sugar cane is “inherently perishable”: it “must be cut when it is ripe, and ground as soon as it is cut. These simple facts give a special character to any enterprise dedicated to the production of sugar”. After the cane was cut, the sap on slave plantations was immediately boiled numerous times and eventually crystallized in inferno-like boiling houses. In 1700 Thomas Tryon, a colonist in Barbados, described the conditions in such houses, places of “perpetual noise and hurry” where slaves were forced to work throughout the six-month growing season:

“The Climate is so hot, and the labor so constant, that the Servants \[or slaves\] night and day stand in great Boyling Houses, where there are six or seven large Coppers or Furnaces kept perpetually Boyling; and from which heavy Ladles and Scummers they Skim off the excrementious parts of the Canes, till it comes to its perfection and cleanness, while others as Stoakers, Broil as it were, alive, in managing the Fires.”

The life of a sugar slave in Barbados in the eighteenth century – Age of Enlightenment – does not bear contemplating: the cuts and abrasions from the spiky cane itself in the fields; the risk of losing fingers in the mills; the inadequate rations (despite being surrounded – taunted – by so many sticky calories); the floggings and lashings and other ill-treatment from plantation owners, including the sexual abuse of women; and surpassing all, the lack of freedom: so much misery, as Mintz described, to feed the rising appetite of the British working classes for sugary tea, a substance which mitigated the misery of their own working lives. British per capita sugar consumption was 4lbs in 1700–09; 8lb in 1720–29; 12lbs in 1780–89; and 18lbs in 1800–09.

In 1807, the slave trade in the British Empire was finally abolished. But the British appetite for sweetness continued to grow. And the world of the new “free” sugar workers in the British West Indies was not much superior to that of the slaves. One of the great strengths of Elizabeth Abbott’s readable overview of the history of sugar across the globe is the way it brings to life the continuing and varied iniquities of sugar production in a post-slavery era. In the British West Indies, a system of slavery was replaced by one of indentureship – a technical emancipation which probably did not feel much like liberty to the indentured workers.

The first influx of “coolies” from India and Madeira “died in such numbers”, writes Abbott, “that the indenture system was briefly halted and slightly modified before it was relaunched”. Desperately poor workers were recruited in India and bundled on to a twenty-six-week passage to the West Indies, where they were given flimsy living quarters still known as “nigger yards” and set to work for as much as twenty-two hours a day.

Under the system, if they did not complete their tasks, they received no money. Coolies were often cheated out of their wages, with one planter stopping a whole work gang’s wages for three months to pay for a single missing fork. Working conditions were vile: “Water was scarce and putrid, and few planters provided iron water tanks. Pigs and cattle roamed freely, and their effluvia added to the general filth”. Things were no better for the Chinese indentured workers put to work in nineteenth-century Cuba and Peru. Here, they were often kidnapped or hoodwinked and signed up for an eight-year indentureship – as against five years in the British West Indies. Visiting Chinese officials found a workforce in which “almost every Chinese met by us was or had been undergoing suffering. The fractured and maimed limbs, blindness, the heads full of sores, the skin and flesh lacerated – proofs of cruelty patent to the eyes of all”. As many as 50 per cent of Chinese indentured sugar workers – who were forced to answer to new Spanish names – died during their first year of indentureship. There is a horrible loneliness to cane-cutting, for the high grass obscures your fellow workers; the suicide rate was high among these homesick Chinese “coolies”, whether by hanging or jumping into hot sugar cauldrons.

So much for freedom. Even now, Abbott shows, the lives of cane cutters in many parts of the world are unimaginably grim. Starting in 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture led a successful slave revolt against French rule in Saint-Domingue, the French colony which at that time produced 40 per cent of the world’s sugar; the result was the independent state of Haiti, which seemed to promise a new life for its inhabitants. Today, hundreds of thousands of black Haitians work the cane fields of the Dominican Republic in conditions not unlike those suffered by their ancestors before Toussaint’s revolt. Abbott travels to the Dominican Republic, where she finds that Haitian workers – some of them adolescents, most illegal immigrants – are not supplied with arm or shin guards “and their flesh bears the scars and gouges of their dangerous profession”. Their pay is US$1.20 per ton of sugar and they live “in shared shanties without water, toilets, or cooking facilities”. She hints at similar injustice in sugar production in El Salvador and Brazil and writes too of how sugar cane has trashed the environment, causing, according to the World Wildlife Fund, “a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop, due to its destruction of habitat to make way for plantations, its intensive use of water for irrigation, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals and the polluted waste-water that is routinely discharged during the sugar production process”.

Yet after listing this litany of horrors, all set in motion to satisfy the world’s sweet tooth, Abbott moves from the realm of “is” to that of “ought”, suggesting all of a sudden that biofuel in the form of sugar ethanol might enable cane sugar completely to remodel its filthy past. Instead of making us toothless and fat, sugar could be used to reduce our oil reliance. And all at once, sugar production would become a utopia. “Equitably paid workers committed to organic, environment-friendly farming will support the sustainable development [of sugar for ethanol]”, she optimistically announces: “fairly traded, environmentally sound and renewable sugarcane and beet should lead the ethanol revolution”.

After the misery of what has come before, this Pollyannaish prediction seems jarring (setting aside the question of whether biofuels are actually a good use for edible crops). Abbott lacks Sidney Mintz’s ability to link up the production of sugar with its consumption. Her chapters on the culinary uses of sugar are much weaker than those on the plantations and are marred by factual inaccuracies: for example, she states that before sugar cane was known in Europe, “people sweetened their food with the more expensive honey”, when in fact honey was far cheaper than sugar in Britain until around 1800, which was a large part (albeit only a part) of why people chose honey in preference to sugar; when sugar prices fell, honey consumption fell and sugar consumption rocketed. Another example: in a cliché of food history, Abbott contrasts British water during the Industrial Revolution (“often tainted”) with beer (“safe to drink and nutritious”). Yet beer itself during this period was often diluted with the said unsafe water and then padded with a range of nasty adulterants, including coculus indicus, a convulsive, which hardly made it “nutritious”.

A more fundamental flaw is Abbott’s inability to ask the really interesting questions about her subject. Could the world sugar trade have grown in the spectacular way it did from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries without plantation slavery? If so, how? And what would it actually take to remodel sugar production into the fair and equitable form she suggests? Scholarly opinion differs as to whether the Arab sugar trade of medieval times was free of slavery, but it certainly didn’t create the same monstrous factory-fields as British-ruled Barbados; but then, the Mediterranean view of sugar was more that of a condiment, to be used sparingly, than the working-class staple it would later become. India – where delicious jaggery is melted into rich rice puddings – provides an alternative model of sugar production, since it has never been plantation-based. In India, writes Abbott, most cane “comes from small peasant holdings and is processed in mills owned either by private capitalists or . . . peasant cooperatives”. And now there is fair-trade certified sugar, much of it produced in Africa, though Abbott, oddly, does not discuss any details of production on fair-trade sugar farms.

The sweet-toothed among us would like to hear whether a life spent in those high lonely grasses of the cane fields has ever been bearable; whether our cravings for muscovado and demerara can ever be justified; or whether we should all switch to maple syrup, tapped by happy Canadians.

Elizabeth Abbott
A bittersweet history
453pp. Duckworth. £20.
978 0 7156 3878 1

Bee Wilson is the author of The Hive: The story of the honeybee and us, published in paperback in 2005. Swindled: From poison sweets to counterfeit coffee – the dark history of the food cheats, appeared in paperback earlier last year.

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Of historical interest — You can see a clip of Toussaint’s last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” at

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