Sweet & Sour: How sugar gave rise to slavery

Beginning with the encomienda system in the early 1500s, systems of forced labor became the dominant means of mass production in American colonies (Coe).   Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Danish, and English colonists alike brought slaves to the New World with the endeavor to fulfill their domestic consumption demands.  Barring any of the deep-seeded racial prejudices which positively did exist, Africans became the primary targets of slavery due to the relative cheapness of the labor.  By using forced labor to produce goods to be sent back home, colonizers could both turn a hefty profit and meet demands.   Perhaps the most key component of the plantation system utilized by the colonists in America was the product of sugar.  A product that was “a rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, and a necessity by 1850” in England and other European nations alike, sugar became the cash crop that filled the mouths of Europeans, the wallets of colonizers, and the ships that traveled the transatlantic trade route (Mintz). From what started as an opportunity to utilize cheap labor, slavery quickly evolved to a profit charged institution that was both fostered and perpetuated by the World’s increasing desire to consume sugar – a cash crop that was both versatile in practice and a symbol of status.

Sugar Consumption Worldwide

As you can see from the chart above, world sugar consumption has grown rapidly over the course of the last few centuries.  From the 17th to the 18th century alone, sugar consumption per year more than doubled worldwide.  To put this in perspective, statistics indicate that only two hundred years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar per year.  That number rose to 123 and 152 pounds per year by 1970 and the mid-2000s, respectively.  Sugar consumption has had one of the most fascinating, albeit concerning, upward trends of any food group in the history of the modern world.  After analyzing some of these statistics, two interesting questions come to mind.  First – why did it become so popular?  Furthermore, and more importantly in regards to this post, how was demand met?

Sidney Mintz in his book, “Sweetness and Power” details this significant growth and attributes it to the versatility associated with the cash crop.   In European nations, sugar was used for far more than just a sweetener.  There is evidence that suggests sugar was used medicinally, as a spice in cooking, as a preservative in some perishables like jams and jellies, and even as a decorative piece to the home.   Although just a few specific examples, this is credence to the idea that the versatility of sugar along with its great flavor aided its growth.   In addition to this, prior to its emergence in the mass-production market, sugar became seen as an indicator of wealth and high social status.  In reference to the aforesaid quote from Mintz, sugar’s evolution began with its hard to come by nature in the mid-17th century, morphed into a symbol of wealth and luxury by the 18th century, and eventually became mass-produced and consumed by the 19th.  With its popularity on the rise, producers were going to have to find a cost-effective, profit-maximizing method of meeting demands in the sugar market worldwide.  This ushered in the idea of forced labor.

The time frame in which the evolution of sugar production occurred parallels that of the rise of slavery.  The encomienda system began in the early 16th century and set the precedent for forced labor systems moving forward in the Americas.  It is no coincidence that these two timeframes concur.  The chart below accurately depicts the areas in which most of the sugar production in the Americas occurred.

Sugar Growth Loctions

As we can see, the Caribbean was a hot spot for sugar plantations as the combination of Cuba, Jamaica, Antigua, Haiti, and Barbados among others (Brazil) were paramount players in this market.   When the transatlantic slave trade between Africa, Europe and the America’s was thriving, 10-15 million African slaves were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas.  Of these 60% were to the Caribbean, and 30% were to Brazil – both are areas in which sugar production and refinement were of utmost importance.  To reinforce the idea of the slave trade’s concurrent rise with sugar, the transatlantic system thrived over the span of 1500-1900, which paralleled the rise of sugar.   Due to these significant increases in sugar demand, plantations were in desperate need of more helping hands – only exacerbating the slavery issue.

Sugar demand was growing at an alarming rate, and we must think about what this meant for those who were enslaved on these sugar plantations.  Below is a primary source of an undated poem that is a component of the Tyler Family Papers – these contain correspondence, documents, and writings of the Tyler Family, Quakers of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Tyler Family Papers Letter


The controversial poem helps to shed light on the entanglement of slavery and sugar production. The author frequently contrasts sugar’s sweet nature with the cruelty of forced labor and often employs the metaphor of the “blood of slaves as the price of sugar.”   It has been said that these plantations were running on all cylinders 24 hours a day, with slaves taking 18 hour shifts in order to generate the required output.  Not only did demand for the product increase the quantity of slaves imported, but it worsened the overall working conditions for them as well!

Slavery and the rise of sugar demand are fundamentally intertwined.  Economics teaches us that a vicious cycle is when a chain of events reinforces oneself through a continuous feedback loop – this is what happened in the relationship between sugar and slavery.  The human desire for something so good perpetuated and worsened the unjust system for creating that same thing.


Works Cited

Coe, S. & Coe, M. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Digital Image. AAAS 119x Lecture 9. Cambridge. 25 Feb. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Digital Image. AAAS 119x Lecture 10. Cambridge. 02 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

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

Tyler Family Papers. On Sugar. Digital image. Clements Library: University Of Michigan. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.


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