The tremendous increase in British demand for sugar greatly impacted the lives of the enslaved Africans forcibly serving as cheap labor on British sugar plantations. Using a gendered lens to analyze the effect that increased British sugar consumption had on the lives of enslaved women on Jamaican sugar plantations during this time period reveals that increased British demand for sugar caused these women to lose their ability to exercise their reproductive autonomy. Because enslaved women on sugar plantations were put under significant pressure to create a sugar supply that could keep up with the increasing British demand for the product, they were often subject to externally imposed and biological constraints on their ability to conceive and raise healthy children. Because of these externally imposed and biological constraints on their reproduction, enslaved women lost access to what many today would consider to be a basic human right (the ability to decide for oneself whether or not to reproduce)-thus, reinforcing the dehumanizing nature of the practice of slavery.
In the 17th century, British sugar consumption was largely reserved to members of the elite. In Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz describes how sugar was often used as a decorative element in order to signify great wealth. He states that, the ability to “provide one’s guests with attractive food, which also embodied in display the hosts’ wealth, power and status must have been a special pleasure for the sovereign” (90). This suggests that, at this time, sugar was a product that few could access and that the overall British demand for sugar was quite low. This lack of demand for sugar among the masses also played a significant role in the way that enslaved women could exercise their right to reproduce on sugar plantations. In “Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: a Feminist Perspective”, Rhoda Reddock asserts that between 1655 and the beginning of the seventeenth century, many British plantations within the Caribbean “were small and had few slaves” and that “natural” reproduction was encouraged” (68).
Unfortunately, as British demand for sugar increased, the treatment of female slaves drastically changed. Innovations in technology such as steam powered sugar mills and more efficient forms of transportation caused the price of sugar production to decrease greatly and increased sugar’s accessibility to the British common folk. This increased demand on sugar had drastic effects on the lives of enslaved women on Jamaican sugar plantations by forcing them to work in conditions that placed imposed and biological constraints on their ability to conceive and raise children.
Imposed constraints on enslaved women often took the form of plantation owners blatantly discouraging slave reproduction. With the increasing demand for sugar in Britain, plantation owners saw and took advantage of opportunities to maximize their profits to an even greater extent by decreasing the cost of labor by restricting slave reproduction. For example, owners of Jamaican plantations often discouraged reproduction by separating families due to a belief that “it was cheaper to buy new slaves than to rear children” (68). These efforts played a key role in eliminating the human right of enslaved women to choose to reproduce.
Female slaves on Jamaican plantations also faced biological constraints on their reproduction. In order to keep up with the intense demand for sugar in Britain, women on Jamaican plantations often worked in physically taxing conditions that reduced their biological fertility. According to Reddock, many female slaves living on Jamaican plantations experienced amenorrhea (the absence of periods) brought on by “significant malnutrition, damage to the ovaries or problems in the endocrine system cause by severe beatings” (69). This suggests that even if the imposed reproductive constraints of plantation owners on enslaved women did not exist, their ability to decide whether or not they want to reproduce would be hampered biologically due to the intense rigor of the work that they were forced to do.
Through this analysis, one can see how the increased demand for sugar within Europe had tremendous effects on the lives of the enslaved women producing the good. By eliminating the ability of enslaved women to have the control and health status needed to make their own reproductive decisions, it seems that increased sugar demand in Britain greatly contributed to the commodification of human life that is integral to the institution of slavery.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power. New York: Viking, 1985.
Reddock, Rhoda E. “Women and slavery in the Caribbean: A feminist perspective.” Latin American Perspectives (1985): 63-80.
Sugar Plantation: http://creativetimereports.org/2014/05/06/tracy-k-smith-photo-of-sugar-cane-plantation-workers-jamaica-1891/