A Not So Sweet Deal: Sugar as a Sweetener and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

When Arab populations first introduced sugar as a spice to Europe in 1100 A.D., it was rarity and an item of high desirability (Mintz, p.79); its sweetness- a taste humans are biologically predisposed to desiring (Martin, Lecture Feb.17)- and inaccessibility made it all the more attractive to those who sought to attain it and only the extremely rich could acquire the resource (Mintz, p.82). Centuries later, circa 1600, as sugar became increasingly abundant, it changed from a rarity and spice to a luxury and sweetener in Britain,  continuing to be a sign of wealth — the more one had, the wealthier one was perceived. In turn, sugar took on its social role as a product that distinctively marked one’s socio-economic class, becoming valuable and treasured by anyone who could get their hands on it. The role as an indicator of social status that sugar took on between the 16th and 17th century was key to the change of sugar to sweetener, as the demand for sugar among individuals across socio-economic class boundaries greatly increased, creating a new market and an opportunity for businesses to seek out an economically viable supply of sugar. This source came to be overseas, part of the infamous supply chain known as the Transatlantic Slave trade. Hence, the change in British consumption of sugar as a spice to a sweetener was deeply rooted in the fabrication of slavery/unfree labor.

The Transatlantic slave trade consisted mainly of the movement of 3 things- people, manufactured goods and raw resources- between regions in the Atlantic Ocean that quite literally took the form of a triangle; the Triangle Trade Route was another name of the supply chain.

slave triangle

Because products like sugar could not be cultivated in Europe — particularly Britain in our case — for both environmental and economic reasons, the production of these resources was outsourced overseas –enabled by the TA trade. For Britain, the island of Jamaica was a key piece in the supply chain, as much of its land was developed into sugar plantations that could thus supply the growing demand for such resource in Europe. But what were the implications of these sugar plantations? Namely, it was the brutal exploitation of indigenous and African populations for labor. The transatlantic slave trade facilitated the increased production of sugar, in turn allowing England to lower it’s prices on the commodity, subjecting hundreds and thousands of people to enslavement. It was slavery that allowed colonial powers such as Britain to produce raw resources, like sugar, in huge quantities for nearly full profit, paying nothing to the people who produced this resource. In turn what this allowed for Britain to do was to lower its sugar prices, tapping into the new market that breached all socio-economic classes, ultimately transforming sugar into a much more accessible product and leading to its eventual common place in British society. It was only at this point, when sugar was made affordable and available by the exploitation of African and indigenous populations for the cultivation and output of such through the Transatlantic slave trade, that sugar was thus able to fully assume new form in British society – as a sweetener.

Although it is argued that the change in British usage of sugar as a spice to a sweetener was in large part rooted in the capitalization of economic opportunities that sugar presented, it is impossible to ignore the fact that sugar could not have taken on this role as a sweetener without the assistance of the Transatlantic slave trade and the use of unfree labor which were the ultimate drivers of such favorable economic circumstances. It was in this period between the 17th and 19th century, when slavery was a norm in and for colonial societies, that sugar’s popularity and consumption increased almost exponentially (Mintz, pg.107). We can see from the figure below that as the cost of sugar in Britain decreased –because of its increased supply provided by slaves in places like Jamaica – the consumption of sugar in Britain increased at a very steep rate (Mintz, pg.143).


As sugar became more readily available, it allowed people to explore its uses and experiment with it in recipes. It was during this time period that we start to see British confections, pastries and other sweets in which a main ingredient was sugar, take form. Instead of being used in small amounts or as expressions of wealth, sugar was starting to be used as the main ingredient for many food products, finding its way into a large majority of recipes and ultimately the diets of the British. The letter below that discusses the “vindication of sugar”, speaks of the Great Duke of Beaufort who died due to his over consumption of sugar throughout his life.


From this letter we can see just how much of a staple sugar became in the diet of many English men and women – no longer being used simply to enhance flavor, but rather as the principal flavor. The more central sugar became to the English diet, the more demand there was for the resource, ultimately facilitating the Triangle Trade and unfree labor. This change from spice to sugar was thus greatly enabled by the slave trade that allowed for the cheap production of the natural resource, sugar, which was in high demand.

Today in places like Britain and the U.S, sugar is something very much taken for granted and often overlooked, appearing in almost everything we consume but not given much thought in terms of its place in the social sphere — as it had in Britain centuries ago. Because of the casual place it assumes in our societies today, it is important for us to realize that such was not the case historically. By drawing the direct link between slavery and sugar’s conception as a sweetener, are become aware of the sweet product’s shadowy history, and also see how these lessons may transcend to uncover the supply chain realities of products today – not just food (for example, new technologies)—which may hold a similar space in a socio-economic context as sugar once did, triggering us to trace back that supply chain to truly understand the implications of purchasing various manufactured goods. Maybe in doing so, we can be smarter consumers – enlightened and aware of the global effects of our purchases.



Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson. iBook ebook file.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food, Cambridge. 17 February 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition and Forced Labor.” Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food, Cambridge. 17 March 2016. Lecture.

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

Picture Sources:

Britain’s Triangle Trade. Digital image. South African History Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Canter, Sheryl. “Normal Eating® Blog.” Normal Eating Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Cooke. Sugar In Britain. Digital image. British Library. The British Library Board, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s