Sugar High: The Evolution of Sugar in Britain

Laborers cutting sugar cane in Jamaica in the 1880s.

British sugar consumption has changed dramatically over the past several hundred years. Prior to the seventeenth century, few British citizens were familiar with the taste of sugar, yet by the late nineteenth century it had become a staple in the British diet. This rapid increase in the production and consumption of sugar can be attributed to a variety of factors, but capitalism, slavery, and sugar’s relationship to other popular stimulants are particularly worthy of examination.

As an important marketable commodity, sugar was integral to the growth of capitalism in Britain. In the early to mid-1600s, it was only accessible to the wealthy elite. This was due mostly to the fact that sugar was so difficult to grow, which kept quantities limited and prices high. Sugar cane was brought to Britain’s first New World colony in 1619, but attempts to get it to grow were unsuccessful, much as they were in Bermuda a few years earlier (Mintz 37). Britain was finally successful growing sugar cane on the settlement of Barbados, and plantations in Jamaica and on other islands followed soon after. By 1655, enough cane was being processed that, “the sugar production began to benefit the homeland” and became, “an imperial source of profit” (Mintz 37). With this sudden boom in sugar production, Britain soon became competition to and eventually surpassed the Portuguese producers, driving prices down (Mintz 64). In recent decades we have seen the Industrial Revolution give way to computer and information technology, leading to massive change in our economic structures. Similarly, the Commercial Revolution, in which English merchants found themselves able to earn profits as middlemen in a growing shipping industry for sugar and tobacco, was a departure from the feudal method of production that gave way to capitalism (Mintz 65).

Depiction of a scene from Voltaire’s Candide and Cacambo, encountering an injured slave. “The caption says, ‘It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe’. The slave that utters the remark has had his hand cut off for getting a finger stuck in a millstone and his leg removed for trying to run away” (Moreau).

Slavery was instrumental to increasing the production and consumption of sugar, developing as a byproduct of early capitalism. Without people to do the physically grueling work of cutting down and processing the cane, the production and distribution of such colossal amounts of sugar would not have been possible. “263,000 [African] slaves were imported to the English islands, about half going to Barbados alone” (Martin). Enslaved persons on these island plantations worked long, 18 hour shifts, and had a very low life expectancy rate – only 7 or 8 years (Martin). Slavery continued through the end of the 19th century, when a combination of revolting slaves, abolitionists, and the introduction of modern machinery finally put an end to the majority of forced labor in the sugar trade.

The sugar production boom of the 1600s and subsequent falling prices led to a flood of sugar on the British market, as it became affordable and readily available to nearly anyone who wanted it. Demand for sugar stayed high despite the market saturation in part due to the popularity of tea and coffee. Not only did the addition of sugar counteract the bitterness of these drinks, but it added extra calories to the diet of the British worker, which was both, “calorically and nutritively inadequate and monotonous” (Mintz 183). The popularity of adding sugar to sweeten bitter tea or coffee is a tradition that continues to this day, and was a critical factor in Britain’s continued demand for more sugar.

Many other factors contributed to the development of Britain’s sugar habit. Sugar has even been labeled physically addictive, stimulating, “the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine” (Cohen), something that may help explain peoples’ insatiable desire for the taste of sweet. A comprehensive understanding of the significance of sugar to our modern industry should consider all of these factors and more. But by examining the role sugar played in the birth of capitalism, the forced labor it required to thrive, and the social decadences of the time, it is easy to recognize how sugar came to be so widely produced and consumed, by Britain and by the rest of the world.

Sugar is incorporated into proper British afternoon tea in many ways during modern times. Here, tea is served accompanied by a tray of sugar cubes, jars of honey, and sugary baked confections:

Works Cited: “Proper Etiquette for Afternoon Tea in London.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Jun. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Cohen, Rich. “Sugar Love.” National Geographic. Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Google Slides, AAAS E-119 iSite. 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1985. Print.

Moreau, Jean-Michel. “Moreau Sucre Crop.” Wikimedia Commons. 31 Dec. 1786. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Unknown. “Cane cutters in Jamaica.” Wikimedia Commons. 1880s. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.


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