From the very birth of colonial expansion into the “New World”, to the corporate exploitation of labor in the creation of sugar and chocolate, the western world has used its control of the means of production to economically dominate laborers of cash crops like sugar. The vast majority of countries engaged in the raw production of sugar do not participate in the majority of its consumption or refinement. The strains of colonialism can be observed in the capitalist system in place today that actively perpetuates a disparity and separation between the consumers of sugar and those who produce it.
As sugar became more accessible to the European masses, its perception and ultimate uses became more diverse. When sugar was still considered for its medicinal purposes and as a spice, its demand with the buying public began to steadily increase (Mintz). This demand helped to accelerate the demand for colonial exploitation and expansion in the Americas. However, “terroir” knowledge was often required to harvest and crops were labor intensive. This contributed to the need, from a European perspective, for local and imported slave labor to meet the growing demands and effectively harvest crops. Sugar plantations thrived as sugar cane spread to new regions and heavily increased the production output of sugar manufactures which (Mintz), in turn, began to churn the growing appetite in Europe for sugar — which increased dramatically in a shockingly short amount of time because of innovations in sugar and chocolate products (like the chocolate bar). This ultimately was tied to the lowering price of sugar and its growing appeal among the working masses of Europe, essentially becoming an unhealthy staple of the European diet.
The remaining power structure enabling this disparity of wealth and treatment is a leftover from the “Spanish commercial enterprise…that was in effect a gigantic monopoly” (Coe & Coe 175). From the roots of “encomienda” to the eventual rise of the industrial revolution and the bulk economic pressure given by corporate giants onto humble harvesters, a system of exploitation was designed to maximize profits for one side while effectively short changing the other. As sugar undertakes the process of refinement, it changes hands between many individuals and processes that are irrevocably separated by their cultural and their economic realities. The individuals and cultural entities who are involved producing the commodity of unrefined sugar are completely separated from those who are consumers — and they are often not significant consumers of sugar themselves (lecture).
As slavery was abolished, contract labor, usually from China, India, Britain or the French West Indies, inevitable began to manifest itself — which ultimately perpetuated the previous cultural disconnect between the underpaid laborers and the massive industries they were essential to. The dichotomy between the workers and the industry remained mostly unchanged (Mintz). In his book Sweetness and Power, Mintz describes the surreal contrast of seeing sugar cane growing in the field right next to the refined, white sugar in his cup. He compares the two images to “iron ore and manacles”, regarding their progression along the line of ultimate production (Mintz).
In Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Haiti, Mintz observed the most obvious and startling personification of this cultural, tangible separation of resources and consumption: in these countries, a smaller scale production of sugar exists and it does not use large machinery or an infrastructure of corporate scale. The sugar product that is created here is reserved for the use of the poorer populations — those who do not participate in the cycle of production that they see the fruit of. This production of sugar occurs simultaneously with mass produced sugar cane that is exported and refined to serve wealthier populations (Mintz). This separation between those that produce sugar and those that consume its finished product is unavoidable and impossible to understate.
Sugar refining process occurs in urban areas usually, geographically removed from sugar cane growing regions (Mintz). While growing sugar remained a process that requires skilled labor (with local, exclusive knowledge of the crop), the refinement of sugar is a process that is heavily mechanized. Sugar refineries are exclusively in the domain of industrialized centers of production and wealth to the technological requirements of producing millions of units of product for millions of individuals. A growing awareness of the ethnic impressions made on the life cycle of a product are becoming more and more common, as is evident with “Green & Black’s gamble” (Coe & Coe) with their chocolate brand among many others, but the fundamental oppression injected into the very foundation of the system is something that can’t easily be revoked or protested.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
Coe, D Sophie and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition. Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.