Where and how has sugar been cultivated? Why has sugar frequently been associated with slavery? How have consumption patterns of sugar changed in Europe and the Western World?
Origins Sugar cane first domesticated in New Guinea around 8,000 BC. Transplanted to the Philippines and then to India. Crystallised sugar first produced in India.
Sucrose introduced to Europe during 8th century by Arabs. Sugar cane cultivated in northern Morocco, southern Spain and several Mediterranean islands, including Sicily. Production shifted to Atlantic islands of São Tome, Madeira and the Canaries in the 15th century. Slave labour used for the first time.
Sugar cane brought to America by Columbus. Planted in Caribbean island of Santo Domingo in 1493. Introduced to Brazil shortly after its discovery in 1500. First shipments of sugar leave Brazil in 1520s.
Sugar a major export of the New World since the 16th century. 1570 -1650 - Brazilian sugar dominates the market. Mid-17th century – production shifts to French island of Haiti, formerly Saint-Domingue and British possessions of Barbados and Jamaica. Post-1830 – Cuba and Puerto Rica major producers. Today, sugar is grown in Europe as sugar beet. Sugar cane is also grown outside of the Americas, in places like Mauritius and Java.
The Production Process Sugar cane is a perennial plant that will yield a harvest (or safra) for several consecutive years. Requires between 15 and 18 months to mature after it is first planted. Must been weeded regularly, a task usually performed by gangs of 30-40 slaves.
Ripe cane cut with a scythe and sent away to be processed. The cane-cutting procedure is very labour intensive. Often performed by a pair of slaves, usually male and female, with the male cutting the cane and his female partner binding it into bundles.
Juice extracted from cut sugar cane in a mill known as an engenho (Brazil) or ingenio (Spanish America).
Liquid is then boiled, skimmed and purified in a series of kettles, before being poured into moulds and put in a shed known as the purging house, where molasses are siphoned off to make rum and treacle. Remainder of the mixture is left to crystallise into sugar loaves, which usually takes about 2 months. Sugar loaves separated into white sugar and muscavado and exported.
Stuart Schwartz: ‘Sugar production was a peculiar activity because it combined an intensive agriculture with a highly technical, semi-industrial mechanical process. The need to process sugar cane in the field meant that each engenho was both a factory and a farm demanding not only a large agricultural labour force for the planting and harvesting of the cane, but also an army of skilled blacksmiths, carpenters, masons and technicians who understood the intricacies and mysteries of the sugar-making process’ .
Brazil Sugar cultivated in north- eastern states of Pernambuco and Bahia. Needed good soil, reliable rainfall and good access to sea ports. Consequently, early settlement in Brazil concentrated on the coast.
Portuguese initially enlist local Indians to work in the sugar plantations. Death of many Indians from old-world diseases like smallpox, and Catholic Church’s disapproval for Indian enslavement, cause a shift to African workers from the 1570s onwards. Africans generally considered to be better labourers than Indians. Huge numbers of slaves imported to work the sugar plantations.
Slaves perform a variety of tasks on the sugar engenho. Most slaves are field slaves. Some slaves work in the mill, doing more skilled jobs. Other slaves work as artisans or domestic servants.
Slaves treated differently according to racial origins. Ladino slaves (slaves acculturated to Brazilian life or born in the country) favoured over boçal slaves – slaves born in Africa. Mulattoes usually privileged over pure-blooded Africans and more likely to occupy relatively skilled positions.
Bad conditions on plantations. Malnutrition, poor clothing, substandard accommodation. Dangerous work. Edward Littleton (1689): ‘If a boiler gets any part [of his body] into the scalding sugar, it sticks like glue or birdlime and ‘tis hard to save either life or limb’. Excessive work – 9-month-long safra (harvest). High mortality. Schwarz: ‘Throughout the 17th century, a slave could produce enough sugar to cover his original cost in between 13 and 16 months, and, even after the steep rise in slave prices after 1700, replacement value could be earned in 30 months’.
Escape from Slavery Manumission. Suicide. Abortion. Rebellion. Running away to form separate slave communities – ‘quilombos’ (Brazil) or ‘palenques’ (Cuba).
Brazilian sugar industry declines in mid-17th century. Dutch invasion damages engenhos. Portuguese government increases taxes. Slaves diverted to mine gold in Minas Gerais.
The Caribbean Sugar production shifts to Saint Domingue, Barbados and Jamaica. More than 250,000 slaves imported to Barbados in 18th century.
Richard Dunn: ‘In the pre-industrial world of the 17th century, the Caribbean planter was a large-scale entrepreneur. He was a combination farmer-manufacturer. With a workforce of 100 labourers he could plant 80 acres in cane and expect to produce 80 tons of sugar per year. He had to feed, clothe, house and supervise his labour force year round. He needed 1 or 2 mills to extract juice from the harvested cane, a boiling house to clarify and evaporate the cane juice into sugar crystals, a curing house for drying the sugar and draining out the molasses, a distillery for converting the molasses into rum, and a storehouse in the nearest port for keeping his barrelled sugar until it could be shipped to England. An operation of this size required a capital investment of thousands of pounds’.
Cuba Spanish colonies of Cuba, and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico, supplant Barbados, Jamaica and Haiti as the main suppliers of sugar in the 19th century. Slavery persists on these islands until 1884. Technological innovations make life harder rather than easier for slaves.
Why Slavery? Whites regarded manual labour as degrading. Sugar requires intensive and gruelling labour during the safra. Economies of scale – planters need to have access to an engenho in which to process their sugar. Firewood and labour expensive, so hard for small producers to compete.
Consumption Sugar first introduced into Europe in the 11th century. Originally seen as a spice. Very rare and expensive throughout the Medieval period, and therefore confined largely to royalty and the upper nobility. Functioned as a preservative and a sweetener. Often made into decorative sculptures called subtleties. Also prescribed as a medicine during the Black Death.
Sugar more widely used from mid-17th century. Added to coffee, chocolate and tea. Also used in puddings, such as custard, pastries and creams. Sugar becomes accessible to the working classes in the 19th century, and is used extensively in drinks and desserts. A major component of the modern diet.
Sugar and Abolition 1790s – abolitionists in Britain campaign against slavery and urge Britons to boycott slave-produced sugar. Anti-slavery pamphlet: ‘If sugar were not consumed it would not be imported’ reasoned the pamphlet’; if it were not imported, it would not be cultivated; if it were not cultivated there would be an end to the slave trade, so that the consumer of sugar is really the prime mover, the grand cause of all the horrible injustice which attends the capture, of all the shocking cruelty which accompanies the treatment of the wretched African slave’.
Graphic connections made between sugar and slavery. French writer declares that he cannot ‘look upon a piece of sugar without conceiving it stained with spots of human blood’. British politician William Fox alleges that ‘in every pound of sugar used…we may be considered as consuming 2 ounces of human flesh’. Rumours circulate that dead slaves are actually placed in sugar casks to enhance the flavour of the product.
C. 300,000 people abstain from sugar in the 1790s as a result of the abolitionist campaign. Some go without sugar altogether. Others convert to sugar grown in the East Indies, where slave labour is not used.
Some Critics mock ‘anti-saccharites’ for depriving British workers of cheap sugar. William Gillray: ‘Barbarities in the West Indies’.
Slave trade abolished 1807, but slavery persists until 1834 in British colonies. Further boycotts in 1820s. Women important.
Post 1834, abolitionists campaign against continuation of slavery in non-British countries. The Free Produce Association emerges in the mid-19th century to promote the consumption of sugar cultivated by free labourers. Attempt to reconcile workers’ need for cheap sugar with ethical forms of production. Lord Brougham (1864): ‘The poor man should have plenty of sugar, cheap sugar, and sugar of the most exquisite quality too, but it must be lawfully and honestly come by, and above all, he must not have slave-made or slave-supplied sugar, which he must know is crimson with the blood if the African’.