The effects of colonialism on sugar consumption

            Through the system of colonialism, countries like England, France, Portugal and Spain instituted exploitative labor practices in colonies to fuel a growing desire for sugar and chocolate. These so called “crown jewels” like Jamaica, Haiti, Brazil and Cuba provided the production of these crops and engaged in trade with the European countries. Therefore, as the refined product was consumed en masse in certain countries, the production of the raw crop took place elsewhere. This political and economic system fundamentally shifted patterns of consumption, making Europe extensive consumers of sugar and creating a dichotomy between those consumers and those who produce the sugar.

            In Europe, as sugar became more readily available, it began to take on various roles. When it was still considered to be a spice and medicine, the demand for sugar was growing in Europe (Mintz). It is this demand that factored in to European colonialist expansion. Growing the sugar crop is extremely labor-intensive. To grow and harvest sugar is not unskilled labor. It also requires terroir- knowledge of how a crop grows and is affected by the environment (Lecture). Colonialists used highly exploitative labor practices to grow sugar, this labor-intensive crop.

            Early on, the labor system involved slavery. This picture shows where sugar is naturally grown.SugarcaneYield.png

As the demand for sugar increased, the Portuguese and Spanish began to implement sugar plantations on Atlantic islands that they were in control of, therefore spreading sugar cane to new regions. England, as well gained territory and implemented sugar plantations on its “sugar islands” of Barbados and Jamaica (Mintz). A quote in the book Sweetness and Power from John Stuart Mill, a 19th century English philosopher summarizes the relationship between England and its sugar-growing colonies, in the following quotes, describing them as “the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee, and a few other tropical commodities.” This access to sugar meant that consumption in Europe increased. Additionally, in England, as sugar became more affordable, it was not just restricted to the elite- all social classes began to consume sugar, making it a staple in the diets of these consumers (Mintz). However, these consumers (and there consumption patterns) were distinct from those who actually produced sugar cane.

            When slavery was abolished, which was in part due to the rise of the sugar beet industry (sugar beets are grown in temperate regions- like North America and Europe), (Rodriguez) European countries began using a system of contract labor, bringing people from India to the British and French West Indies and Japan and China to places like Mauritius and Fiji. In this way, the relationship between colonies and metropolis remained much alike in terms of sugar production (Mintz).  

            These labor systems meant that those consuming refined sugar, now in greater and greater quantities, were far removed from the process of growing it. In his book, Mintz describes the oddness of seeing sugar cane growing in the field and white refined sugar in his cup. He likens the two to iron ore and manacles in terms of their progression along the line of production. (Mintz) In this picture, the process of refining can clearly be seen (the finished product on the top left and the beginning product on the bottom right). Stages of sugar refining.jpgAs sugar goes through the process of refinement, it changes hands between people, who are separated. Those who are producing the unrefined sugar are not those consuming it.

            In fact, Mintz discusses how he observed unrefined, sugar containing molasses in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Haiti. In Jamaica and Haiti, this smaller scale production of sugar, without the use of large machinery, produced sugar that would be consumed by poorer populations. This production of sugar occurs at the same time as mass produced sugar cane to export (and further refine) to serve to wealthier populations (Mintz). This is an example of this separation between those that produce food and those that consume its finished product.

            Sugar refining often occurred on the metropolis, separate from the sugar cane growing regions (Mintz). While growing sugar remained a process that required skilled labor, the refinement of sugar is a process that can be mechanized. This picture is an example of what a sugar refinery might have looked like. This process, linked with urbanization and capitalism, is what further separated the finished product from sugar cane, and the producers and consumers. SugarRefinery.jpg


            Today, England remains one of the world’s largest consumers of sugar. Additionally, this separation between those who produce and consume refined sugar potentially distances consumers from the negative impacts that crop production incurs, allowing them to propagate. For example, in the Indus Delta, fisheries have been damaged and fertilizer run-off has degraded the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia (Richardson).


Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

“The Unequal Embodiment of Sugar.” Ethical Sugar. 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. <;.

Rodriguez, Junius P. The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997. Web.

Sugars; clockwise from top-left’ white refined, unrefined, brown, unprocessed cane, Romain Behar, Public Domain

F.O. Matthiessen & Wiechers Sugar Refining Co’s. Works. Office, 1879, Public Domain in US

Map of Sugarcane production, 2010



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