The Not-So-Sweet Aspect of Sugar: Coerced Labor and Challenges for Abolition

With the colonization of the New World by the Europeans came great power, and with that great power came great responsibility. However, unfortunately the Europeans, and especially the Spanish colonizers and English empire, did not harness that power solely for good. What was originally planned as a grant or approval by the Spanish authorities in the 1500s to colonize the land of the indigenous people–termed the ‘Encomienda’–to teach them their religions, and have them work for them in return, in reality, became a period of coerced labor, harsh working conditions, and many deaths of the indigenous people (Betchelder and Sanchez, 2013; Martin, 2016). What began to arise further around the sugar and cacao growing regions of Africa and the Caribbean would soon emulate similar conditions for natives and further African Americans up until and somewhat through the mid 1800s. Europeans would continue to usurp land of indigenous people and even enslave natives, forcing them into labor for production of the empire’s desired goods for trade (Martin, 2016). And although throughout time there would be many acting powers and forces against slavery, abolition faced significant challenges leading up to the 1900s. As certain goods like sugar became commodities and goods of all classes, and mass production started to increase, slavery would sky rocket (Richardson, 1987). This blog post will further discuss forces behind the economy of slavery and the consequent challenges abolition faced in the wake of the era of forced labor amidst sugar production. In essence, as sugar production began to emerge as a leading economic stimulus, supporting mass growth of the English empire and economy, the possibility of abolition became tougher and tougher as slavery was in fact, becoming the crux and strength of these growing empires and powers.

As Mintz mentions in Sweetness and Power, as the English began to cultivate sugar in larger amounts of production, it became more of a commodity, one that many classes regarded not only as political or a way to display wealth, but also economical, and a way to increase the economy (Mintz, 1984). In fact, England had the most colonizing and importing of slaves for the cultivation of sugar. Sugar production rose in countries like Barbados and Jamaica which required more slaves to keep up with production (Martin, 2016; Mintz, 1984). As African Americans were shipped along the Atlantic Slave Trade in tens of millions, many millions were still dying off, ceasing the growth rate of the black population and causing more and more African Americans to be traded as property (Martin, 2016).

Slavery pics

The path of trade between the Americas and Africa in terms of slaves as well as sugar and other commodities. As seen in the above picture, Africa was the closet to the Americas for colonizers to bring in mass, coerced labor, so it was most economically sound to them.  


          Yet amidst all of this unethical production, there were still abolitionist movements such as the Haitian Revolution, however even then, when slaves received freedom in Haiti, other regions would pick up from where they left off.

haitain revolution

Early abolitionist attempts and slavery revolts: the Haitian Revolution against the French who enslaved the African Americans for their contribution from their enslavement to 40% of the French economy – hence, the “Crown Jewels”


          In fact, slavery was truly the “crown jewels” of many of these empires (Mintz, 1984). 40% of France’s economic growth would be based on slavery. As sugar became a commodity of all classes in England and people rose their demand for the good for adding it to spices and foods, and calorie consumption, slavery was deemed necessary to keep these empires thriving (Richardson, 1987). Therefore a key, crucial challenge to abolitionism was in fact the economy. These empires had gotten away with slavery for quite a while that it got to the point that with the zero growth rate of the slaves and the sky rocketing economy due to forced labor, slave trade, and sugar and cacao production, slavery was invetiable without the falling of an empire.

However, one may ask why African Americans were enslaved and not other populations. In fact, it has been mentioned to be purely economical, and not racially rooted (Mintz, 1984). If this is fact, then it seems an obvious barrier to abolition. In other words, abolition of slavery was one thing, but specifically abolishing slavery of black individuals was another, even harder attempt, given that Africa was the closest neighbor to the colonizers and therefore the cheapest method to keep the economy growing (Mintz, 1984). If the English empires and even the Spaniards were to move their production and manufacturing to another region of indigenous people, the economy would surely suffer as the distance and resources would drain production costs.

Therefore, although slavery was an immoral and ruthless act taken up by growing empires during the commodification of cacao and sugar, abolition would not significantly be able to emerge until later into the 1800s. However, even then, and through the early 20th century, in areas such as Säo Tomé there would be acts of coerced labor, indentured servitude, and in some extremes, slavery (Martin, 2016). As long as the economy was thriving and production was booming, these empires would consider their people before those of other countries. Not until the Industrial Revolution and amendments along with mass media and the press would abolition have a stronger foot in the door.


Batchelder, Ronald W., and Nicolas Sanchez. “The encomienda and the optimizing imperialist: an interpretation of Spanish imperialism in the Americas.” Public Choice 156.1-2 (2013): 45-60.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power. New York: Viking, 1985.

Richardson, David. “The slave trade, sugar, and British economic growth, 1748-1776.” The      Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17.4 (1987): 739-769.

Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor.” Harvard University.Cambridge, MA. 2 March 2016.




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