A cursory glance at the African slave trade, the sugar industry, and British culture suggests that there is little these three topics have in common. After study, it is discovered that while it is true that there is little these three have in common, a more interesting and complex relationship surfaces, one of interdependency. The cyclical interdependency that developed from the 1600s-1800s between enslaved African laborers on sugar plantations and English consumption of sugar, was driven on one end by the economic advantages found in African slave labor and on the other by the cultural, economic, and political significance sugar held in English culture. I will demonstrate the economic dependence sugar plantation owners had on African slave labor and how that developed into an English cultural dependence on the slave trade, creating an interdependent relationship.
As the American Natives succumbed to European diseases, European plantation owners looked across the ocean to Africa for their source of labor. These African slaves were procured by African slave traders through various inhumane methods and sold to European buyers on the African coast.
Surgeon Alexander Falconbridge wrote in his 1788 An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, “most of the negroes shipped off from the coast of Africa, are kidnapped” (13). With a majority of African slaves procured through kidnapping, the supply of slaves was seemingly endless, essentially the entire African population, since anyone could be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Unstable politics and lack of regulation and enforcement meant all Africans were vulnerable to becoming slaves. In this, plantation farmers found an economical solution, an endless supply, to their labor supply deficiency. Scholars have since provided additional evidence that Africans were the economically prudent choice of labor. Africans were supposedly more productive than Natives: “sugar… required strength which the Indian lacked, and demanded the robust “cotton nigger” as sugar’s need of strong mules produced…the epithet “sugar mules” (Williams 3). The belief that Africans were biologically suited for labor in addition to the endless supply meant that African labor was a prudent investment, and so, 10 to 15 million enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between 1500 and 1900 (Martin, Lecture 10). Furthermore, economists Alfred Conrad and John Meyer showed that African slave labor was not only a smart individual investment, but also a generator of global economic growth: the rate of return on the purchase of a slave stands at a high 13% while slave finance, procurement, and transport created a huge industry in which many made their fortune (The Economist 4).
Sugar plantation owners depended on Africans as laborers because of the economic advantages Africans allowed for: an endless supply of labor, biological suitability for labor, and high returns for individual owners and the world economy. Thus, sugar plantation owners came to depend on African slaves as their source of labor and producer of sugar.
Sugar was a rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, but by 1850, sugar had transformed into a necessity for the entire population, thus making it a commodity that motivated the need for a large labor force (Mintz 147-148). In England, sugar made its way from the wealthy mouths of the elite to the masses through cups of tea and coffee. The cultural significance of sugar (and so slaves) and the elitism associated with it can be seen through literature, art, and personal journals of the time. For example, posing in portraits with slave or sugar became quite a popular genre, representing excellent taste as well as wealth and power.
In Untitled, a young slave boy is offering a European plantation owner a sample of refined ground sugar while a slave woman labors in the background. George Washington poses proudly in George Washington with his personal servant and slave William “Billy” Lee in the background. In both of these portraits, the slaves are painted smaller, more demure, and with less detail, all lending their inferiority to the white man. Meanwhile, all details of the portraits depict the white man exuding confidence and importance: the color and quality of his coat, his cane, and his posture. The presence of sugar and slaves imply that this white man is wealthy and powerful.
As sugar gained popularity, the English people used it as medicine, spice condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative. And so, sugar became an integral English commodity: sugar mitigated the bitterness of medicine, made meals more delicious, decorated halls and foyers, sweetened teas and coffees, and lengthened the life of short seasoned crops.
The growing demand for sugar boosted England’s economy to unseen heights: Herman Merivale, a prominent British colonial administer, answered “sugar” when asked “What raised Liverpool and Manchester from provincial towns to gigantic cities?” (Lecture 10). Sugar inspired the invention of new machinery, mass production, and consumerism. Sugar equaled progress and money. As sugar gained importance, its economic power also transformed into political power. Sir Dalby Thomas, governor of Jamaica and sugar planter, noted that the entire process of slave labor – colonial establishment, slave procurement, protection of shipping, all the way to the actual consumption of commodities – “took shape under the wing of the state,” and so each stage of the system was “meaningful politically as they were economically” (Mintz 41).
Sugar’s cultural significance, and later economic and political, resulted in increased demands, an exponential rise as seen in the chart. As demand rose, England became more and more dependent on the African labor force to supply their demand.
Initially, English plantation owners depended on the African slave as their cheap source of labor. As sugar gained popularity, culturally, economically, and politically, the English people also came to depend on the African slave labor to supply their demand for sugar. The interdependency between British culture and African slaves would eventually become a huge obstacle in the abolitionist movement because the end of slavery implied the end of Britain’s rise.
Falconbridge, Alexandra. An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa. London: J. Phillips, 1788. Internet Archive. Web. 13 March 2015.
Trumbull, John. George Washington. 1780. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 13 March 2015.
Anonymous. Untitled. Date Unknown. Location Unknown. Hérodote. Web. 13 March 2015.
C.W. and A.J.K.D. “Did slavery make economic sense?” The Economist. Sep. 27. 2013. Web.
Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 March. 2015. Class Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Brattleboro: The Book Press, 1922. Print
Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Richmond, The Will Byrd Press Press, Inc, 1944. Print.