Cup after Cuppa: The Accumulation of Sugar Demand amid British Proletarianization

[T]his “favored child of capitalism”… epitomized the transition from one kind of society to another. The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of a entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis.[i]

Connecting the dots between industrialization…
...and this.
…sugar production
…and sugar consumption as an everyday, working class necessity.

In this brief space, I want to review and extend Mintz’s argument that the expansion of sugar consumption in Britain was both a cause for and result of the decline of mercantilism as the state economic ideology. I am less interested in that first cup of sweet, hot tea after a long day of work but the next hundred thousand after. The repetition of that jolt of caffeine and spike of glucose by many individuals with increasing frequency over the course of centuries sedimented into not just biological, but material and economic structures of dependency that enabled macro-economic changes. Here I will focus only on Mintz’s chapter on Power, particularly on his descriptions of the linkages between British proletarianization, everyday sugar consumption and changes in trade policy.

The growth of the English working class, particularly through displacement from a rural economy of small-holder vegetable farming, was a slow but consistent force is English and northern European economic life from 1600 on.[ii] Only after 1650 did demand for sugar start to grow and it was not until a hundred years that it was considered a necessity of daily life among the general population. This century of growth and consumption Mintz holds is under theorized by economic historians for failing to account for the symbolic and cultural meanings as well as changes to the rhythms of everyday life that drove its consumption. Access to formally elite privileges like sugar consumption among the working class mirrored broader social changes that partially replaced (or decoupled) the rights of heredity and breeding with the rights of economic power. Mintz writes that “sugar proved to be a superb vehicle for just such transformations.”[iii]

Access to these formally denied privileges did not come without a cost however. The increased urbanization and shift towards wage labor spurred “a greater dependence on the market on the part of more and more people, even for items of daily consumption” including tea and sugar.[iv] To raise the capital to access these markets, increasing numbers of men and women (and children) entered the urban workforce of early industrial England. This, in turn, increased the pace of life, accelerating work schedules and altering agrarian meal practices, which in turn, Mintz argues, fed back to increase the consumption of sugar and stimulant beverages.[v] Sugar and tea seem here to mark a time of economic transition much in the same way that automobile ownership marked the rise of modern capitalism a century ago: an object of desire and marker of power that drove desires for wealth consumption among the lower-middle class, only to become perceived as a near necessity of economic survival as structural changes took hold.

Increased purchasing power among the British working class cannot solely explain the spread of sugar consumption, however, as class inequality was simultaneously increasing. Though demand for sugar had been high since 1650, only significant increases in production allowed prices to drop far enough, in the late 17th century and then again in the mid 18th, for significant consumption to take hold. The deepening of consumption as an everyday practice is crucial to Mintz’s narrative of economic change. Through this embedding provision of cheap sugar became seen by the British ruling class as one the essential components of economic and polical stability. Mintz’s writes “Britain, acknowledging the transformation of sugar into a daily necessity, gradually replaced the protectionism offered the West Indian planters with a ‘free market’ thereby assuring practically unlimited quantities of sucrose… to her own people.”[vi]

Obviously the causality of “sugar demand leads to mercantilism” is not even close to correct. Mintz mentions the cotton lobby fight for, as well sugar producers in the West Indies resistance to, the rise of free trade though the picture, in my opinion, in deeply more complicated especially with regard to British internal politics. While it is likely that Mintz may be over stating the case for sugar demand’s role on the fall of mercantilism, his examination of the interplay between the rise urbanization, changing patterns of everyday life and increased sugar consumption is striking. Those circuits of consumption and their economic as well as social embedding builds on the theoretical work I mentioned in my last post, pointing towards an “accumulation of history” in biological and material feedbacks.[vii]

Works Cited

Baucom, Ian. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History. USA: Duke, 2005.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. USA: Penguin, 1985.

[i] Mintz, Sweetness, 214.

[ii] Ibid, 164.

[iii] Ibid, 173.

[iv] Ibid, 165.

[v] Ibid, 174.

[vi] Ibid, 161.

[vii] Baucom, Specters, 23-28.


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