Sugar’s Bitter Side: The Continuous Use of Slave Labor

Sugar becoming an absolute necessity, and a gradual yet massive increase of sugar consumption in Europe was the main cause to the use of slave labor in British colonies in the 16th century. The history of the sugar industry has a dark side, and information about it is very important, because most of current wealth and comfort is owed to the slave labor. Even though consumer industries attempt to conceal their past or current use of slave labor, information about it spreads and becomes a public domain. Here we investigate how the growing popularity and increasing demand for sugar in Europe have been met through the slave labor, from the 11th century, to this present day.

This is a quote from a website known as SugarNutrition. It describes how sugar slowly became a luxury for the upper-class Europeans. “The first Britons to taste cane sugar were probably Christian soldiers called Crusaders who fought Muslims in the first Crusade to Syria in 1099. As cane could not grow in the British climate, sugar was not available to the people of Britain until trading and transport had developed sufficiently for sugar to be brought into the country. … It was sold at two shillings a pound (or approximately £50 in today’s money) and was therefore a luxury enjoyed by very few people.” It is as if the demand for sugar in the 11th century was not tremendously high. It is likely that there was a little need for sugar due to sugar being a commodity only for the royals, the low popularity of sugar and the difficulty to collect it (Mintz, 1985). Unfortunately, slave labor eventually became the option of choice to resolve this difficulty.

As interest in sugar consumption began to grow over time, Europeans proceeded to capture slaves to meet the growing demand. As the website LiveScience describes: “The first slave ships arrived in 1505 and continued unabated for more than 300 years … To most of the European merchants, the people they put on cargo ships across the Atlantic — a horrendous voyage known as the Middle Passage — were merely an extension of the trading system already in place.” It seems that merchants completely disregarded the fact that the slaves were human beings and they should have been treated like ones, instead of objects (Mintz, 1985). This piece of evidence shows that the profit from the sweet commodity caused disregard for the slaves’ lives (Mintz, 1985).

Gradually, the necessity for sugar amongst the middle-class emerged. Sidney Mintz describes: “A century later, [After the 17th century], the place of tea and sugar together in a working-class diet, together with treacle, tobacco and many other imported foods were made completely secure. These were the new necessities” (Mintz, 143). It seems that the sweetness of sugar had enslaved the taste buds and the minds of the Europeans. The new commodity that changed the diets of the Europeans forever had to do with the new taste that brought sweetness into the Europeans’ daily lives (Mintz, 1985). Sugar led to people demanding more quantities of it (Mintz, 1985). As the sugar industry started to thrive in Europe, the slave labor grew much worse.

There were no signs of diminishing slave labor throughout the 19th century. This is a photograph of slaves working on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica in 1891 during the continuing growth of the sugar industry.

Slaves cutting and collecting sugar cane.

This image demonstrates that the usage of slavery still existed at the time and no firm laws banning slavery were established. Yet, the need for sugar in Europe and other countries continued to grow. Masses of western populations now became the loyal consumers of the sugar industry, and the slave trade became an essential part of western culture and economics (Mintz, 1985).

The piece of evidence presented in this paragraph comes from the website of the University of Michigan. The website describes Hugh Boyd McNeile’s article: Slave Labor versus Free Labor Sugar. Speech of the Revd. Dr. McNeile, Delivered at a Public Meeting Held at Liverpool, 13th. June, 1848: “Fifteen years after the passage of Emancipation, slavery in the production of sugar was still a topic of debate. In this speech the author responds to an argument that the lack of slave labor for the plantations was a bar to free trade and therefore against the national interest, consciously posing a humanitarian argument against an economic one” (Mcneille). This evidence demonstrates the perseverance to keep slave trades operating for the sake of profit. Even though slavery is outlawed everywhere by 1981, today large sugar and chocolate producers still rely on de-facto slave labor, yet hidden under various euphemisms. FTS_factsheet-Nov17.2 What is especially disturbing is child slave labor which multi-billion international sugar and chocolate corporations seem to use and enjoy so much:

The history of the sugar industry is the case in point demonstrating how the growth of western industries led to the growth of slave labor, from 11th century to today, and helped to establish the system of inequality between the developed western countries – and the rest of the world which corporations consider nothing but the supply of cheap labor and natural resources.

Works Cited

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar In Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print


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