Contrasting Images of Sugar’s Dark Past

An historical consideration of sugar closely links production with consumption, Imperialism and colonial development with the changing use of and increased availability of sugar in European markets. An expensive rarity/spice in British diets in the fifteen hundreds sugar evolved into an inexpensive and common necessity by the mid-sixteen hundreds owing to the economics–a commercial trade route spanning four continents, that had coerced and slave labor at its core (Mintz, 1985). The following contrasting images offer insights into sugar’s dark past.

Flegel’s confectionery (Figure 1) offers an image of refinement, as it celebrates sugar’s versatility in a variety of desirable and delicate edibles–a visual appeal that seems to defy sugar’s brutal legacy. European nations vied for control over the New World where

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Figure 1. “Still life with Bread and Confectionery,” Georg Flegel. Decorative uses of sugar in Europe spread from the nobility to the working class in the 1600’s (Mintz, 1985); Image retrieved from

production of valued crops like sugar cane could be expanded, however, sugar production was labor-intensive: 1-2 laborer/acre of sugarcane:1 laborer/6-7 acres for wheat (Craton, 1984).So, fueling this commercial demand for sugar was predicated on the development of plantation style growing, harvesting, and milling, making economically viable this labor-intensive crop. Because aboriginal populations in the New World declined to only 10% after the Spanish conquest, subjugation, and the introduction of European diseases, the economically viable option for labor replacement (Coe&Coe, 2013) was found in the importation of slaves (Figure 2).

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 12.29.17 PM.pngFigure 2. Between the 16-19th centuries, an estimated twelve million slaves were transported from to be sold in the New World, supplying plantations from Brazil, Caribbean Islands&Colonial North America.10-20% of the men women and children died during the 50-60 day transatlantic crossing (Dash, 2013). Image retrieved from

The Portuguese had utilized slave and coerced labor on islands off the coast of West Africa in the 1400s, and this model was later transported across the Atlantic to Brazil creating the largest sugar production in the 16th century; subsequently the model (Figure 3)

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Figure 3. This attractive illustration neglects the ugly truth, that the plantation model required replacing slaves frequently; replacing human chattel was economically preferable to maintaining slaves’ physical health. Retrieved from

was utilized in Caribbean Islands, and by the late 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch, British, and French surpassed the Portuguese and Spanish in sugar production (Mintz, 1985).

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 11.14.45 PM.pngFigure 4. Nations competed for sovereignty in the West Indies:an estimated four million African slaves were taken to work in the sugar producing islands. Topography made some areas challenging for crop production, but the climate, numerous protected ports, and importation of slaves made the Triangle trade possible. By 1736, in Antigua alone, 85% of the population–24,400 people–were slaves.Retrieved from

Economic interests in the New World lead to war and conquest. The Dutch had seized many Portuguese West African slave stations and were responsible for most of the early importation of slaves to the New World (Dash, 2013). The following(Figure5)ignores the reality of subjugated labor on sugar plantations and regional instability while it paints an altogether different perspective instead. The victorious Dutch fleet indicates colonial

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 10.10.47 PM.pngFigure 5. Blau’s 1647 engraving depicts Dutch dominance in a productive New World— useful propaganda for potential investments (Sutton, 2012). Retrieved from http//

success by the West India Company while slaves create a lucrative commodity.In reality, greed in this area created what some historians call Europe’s theatre of war (History of the Caribbean, 2016).

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Figure 6. In an effort to organize the slave trade among warring nations, Spain issued licenses to supply its Spanish American and Caribbean colonies with African captives(Slavery and Remembrance, 2016).Image available from

As indicated by the following archival images, planting (Figure 7), harvesting (Figures 8,9,10&11), transporting (Figure12&13), milling sugar cane (Figure14), as well as laboring in the boiling houses(Figure15), was hard labor. Slaves were worked to death,replacements seen as economically preferable than preserving the physical health of the slaves.

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Figure 7. Sugar Cane Cultivation, British West Indies.White man with whip overseeing planting done by slaves.Retrieved from


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Figure 8. Slaves cut, sort, bundle and carry sugar cane for water transport while white man stands leisurely smoking, leaning on a stick.Retrieved from


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Figure 9. Harvesting. (photographs taken after abolition). Retrieved from


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Figure 10. Harvesting of sugar cane is physically demanding work:cutting thick stalks with machetes in the heat and sun. Retrieved from


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Figure 11. Preparing selected cane stocks.Retrieved from


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Figure 12. Cane ready for the grinding process.Retrieved from



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Figure 13. Steady Trade winds powered mills. Cane was carried inside, crushed, juice extracted, and discarded cane carried to the boiling houses for fuel: note woman exiting the mill, her head cocked to the side under the weight of cane, its height nearly equal to hers.Retrieved from


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Figure 14. Milling is physically demanding and dangerous. Cane is loaded and processed through rollers(white overseer on horseback among many laboring slaves).Retrieved from


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Figure 15. Slaves fueling large furnace in boiling house with processed cane(overseer in shadow). Retrieved from


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Figure 16. Boiling house showing slaves tending the steaming sap(white overseers inspect the final granulated product).Retrieved from


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Figure 17. Lashing was a common form of punishment on plantations(Dash, 2013).Retrieved from

Contrasted with the disturbing photo of a freed slave’s scarred back, is the opulence of the 400-acre Barbados plantation (Figure 18), one of seven owned by a single family: ‘250 slaves working, living and dying in conditions of unimaginable brutality’ (Adams, 2014). After abolition of slavery in 1830, government compensation for loss of ‘property’ totaled 6,000 pounds making them one of the wealthiest families in Britain (Ibid).

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Figure 18. “Once the scene of daily beatings, floggings, and occasionally hangings” (Adams, 2014). Retrieved from 

Mintz considered sugar one of the “proletarian drug foods” (1985). Seymour illustrates this idea (Figure 19) while satirizing European obsession with sugar consumption (Figure 20), its significance across British society, a stubborn determination to relinquish developed tastes, preferences, and rituals that were dependent upon an unseen slave labor a world away.

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Figure 19. Demand for ‘lump sugar.’ Possibly The Looking Glass or Figaro early to mid 1800’s.Available from

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 1.52.41 PM.pngFigure 20. British obsession w/sugar (made abundantly and inexpensively available during slave times). Retrieved from

While European conquest created unprecedented wealth, increased production and consumption, slave labor fueled the insatiable demand for sugar. This sweet commodity was provided at an immeasurable human cost.

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