Sugar Consumption in British Society: A Sweet and Sordid Rise to Capitalism

An intense and complex bond has made the supply and demand of sugar through the 17th-21st centuries grow to what was once unimaginable proportions. From the wealth of empires built upon commodities grown in ‘Colonial Crown Jewel’ territories, to the growth of industrialized cities, the infiltration of sugar and it’s industry has been there to support and serve as catalyst for the vast changes that have given way to our modern capitalistic societies.

Although sugar cane and its derivatives had been introduced to Europe around 1100 CE, it Sugarwasn’t until the 18th and 19th Century that massive changes in British consumptive patterns of sugar could be linked to the momentous alterations in British politics, economy and society. Sidney W. Mintz explains in Sweetness and Power, “what turns out to be most interesting about the British picture is how little it differed from eating habits and nutrition elsewhere in the world” (Mintz, p. 13). That Britain, like 85% of the world’s population in 1650, would have been struggling to meet their caloric needs mainly through starchy grains, sets the stage for demand – demand for cheap calories to meet growing population needs (Mintz, pp. 13-14). However physiological caloric needs were only one part of the equation that led to sugar’s popularization. Here Mintz explains:

“The history of sucrose in the United Kingdom reveals two basic changes, the first marking the popularization of sweetened tea and treacle, from about 1750 onward; and the second, the opening up of mass consumption, from about 1850 onward. During the period 1750-1850 every English person, no matter how isolated or how poor, and without regard to age or sex, learned about sugar. Most learned to like it enough to want it more than they could afford. After 1850, as the price of sugar dropped sharply, that preference became realized in consumption. A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed to a virtual necessity by 1850.” (Mintz, pp. 147-148)

SUAGARCANECUTTER1830

Sugar Cane Cutter 1830.

What underlies these changes in sugar’s consumption in Britain and other colonials powers during 1650-1850 that Mintz recounts, was the rise of slave labor to power the production of sugar and other luxury crops like coffee, cocoa and tobacco. The proliferation of wealth on the backs of slave labor by European nations and The Southern United States alike produced a demand for commodity crops which proved fundamental to the development of capitalism.

“The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much political as an economic obligation. At the same time, the owners of immense fortunes created by the labour of millions of slaves stolen from Africa, on millions of the New World stolen from the Indians – wealth in the form of commodities like sugar, molasses, and rum to be sold to Africans, Indians, colonials, and the British working class alike – had become even more solidly attached to the centers of power in the English society at large. What sugar meant from this vantage point, was that all such colonial production, trade and metropolitan consumption came to mean: the growing strength and solidity of the empire and of the classes that dictated its policies.” (Mintz, p. 157)

To properly describe the inclusion of sugar into the diets of the common English man it is therefore imperative to look at the political and corporate powers that were instrumental in changing their diets based on psychology tactics marketed to consumers by corporate entities and their ties into opportunistic economic and legislative power plays. Mintz comments,

“tobacco, sugar and tea were the first objects within capitalism that conveyed with their use the complex idea that one could become different by consuming differently. This idea has little to do with nutrition or primates or sweet tooths, and less than it appears to have with symbols. But it is closely connected to England’s fundamental transformation from a hierarchical, status-based, medieval society to a social-democratic, capitalist, and industrial society…. But the ever rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of interclass struggles for profit – struggles that eventuated in a world-market solution for drug foods, as industrial capitalism cut its protectionist losses and expanded a mass market to satisfy proletarian consumers once regarded as sinful and indolent.” (Mintz, pp 185-186)

As a consequence, “Britain’s annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, 90lbs in 1901 – a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe.” (Britain is built on Sugar, 2007) These statistics bridge the incredible economic and social shift that occurred within a few centuries, wher51rsi4-TAGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_eby sugar’s demand grew due to it’s perceived value as a luxury, industrialization further pushing for need of cheap calories and most disturbing, the slave trade’s colonial heritage that ushered in modern Capitalism.

As Eric Williams opens with in Capitalism & Slavery, “Every age rewrites history, but particularly ours, which has been forced by events to re-evaluate our conceptions of history and economic and political development.” (Williams, vii) Within his book Williams illuminates further the “contribution of slavery to the development of British capitalism,” (Williams, viii) and just how much this history has been swept under the proverbial rug so that the benefits of industrialization and capitalism become synonymous with progress and betterment for all in the tomes of history.

References:

Capitalism & Slavery Book Cover. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51rsi4-TAGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Britain is built on sugar: Our national sweet tooth defines us. (2007, October 12). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity

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

Sugar Cane Cutter 1830. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from https://myweb.rollins.edu/jsiry/SUAGARCANECUTTER1830.jpg

Sugar Skulls. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from http://www.foodactive.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/sugar_skull_18s-890x395_c.jpg (Originally photographed 2013, December 23)

Williams, E. E. (1994). Capitalism & slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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