There is a direct correlation between eighteenth century British sugar consumption and the unprecedented increase in human slavery during that time. Between 1550-1850, new world economies, and as a byproduct, the slave trade grew at an exponential rate, peaking between the years 1751-1800. Overall, an estimated 10-15 million slaves were displaced from the west coast of Africa to Northern, Central, and South America, and especially to the Caribbean – Barbados, Antigua, Cuba, Jamaica, Martinique and Haiti – to supply a constant stream of inexpensive labor to satisfy the demand for new consumable and profitable goods – tobacco, coffee, cotton and sugar.
In 1700, annual sugar consumption in Britain was a mere 5lbs per person. By 1800, that number had increased dramatically to 20 pounds per person – a 400% increase. According to Sidney W. Mintz, by 1800, sugar had become a staple in daily life. Disparity of wealth, bland and nutritionally deplete diets, difficulty of labor, lack of education, resources and opportunity drove much of the common people to seek any accessible drug as a respite from the difficulties of life. “…the ever-rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of intra-class struggles for profit – struggles that eventuated in a world-market solution for drug foods…” Mintz (185-186)
From the 1500s through the 1700s, sugar was a rarity to the common British citizen, typically reserved only for the wealthiest of high society. However, by 1750 that began to change drastically. “During the period 1750-1780 every British person, no matter how isolated or how poor, and without regard to age or sex, learned about sugar.” (Mintz, 146-148) Sugar soon became an integral part of daily life. As a spiced glaze for meat; a decorative component in opulent deserts, sweetener for coffee and tea, porridge, chocolate, and bread; as a preservative for fruit in the form of marmalades and jams. Consequently and proportionately, as the demand for sugar increased, so did the call for the inexpensive labor to produce it.
To satisfy this ever increasing demand, it’s estimated that an extraordinary 50,000 slaves were required to produce 20,000 tons of sugar per year. To put this into perspective, in 1800, the population of Britain was an estimated 10.5 million people[i]. To satisfy the population’s demand – 210 million pounds or 105 thousand tons – of sugar had to be produced per year. This brought the necessary human labor force to 262,500 slaves per year – a staggering 13 million humans.
Economics determined the continent of origin for the vast majority of these slaves. African people fell prey to the horrors of unfortunate geography. “Here, then, is the origin of negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. [The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China.” [ii]
Colonizing nations used many methods to justify slavery as a means to an end. Chattel slavery, the practice commoditizing people, sold only for the value of the potential labor they could offer their owner. The Spanish Crown offered a grant, Encomienda, to colonists for force labor upon the indigenous people of Central and South America. This led to the brutal and inhuman treatment of these slaves. During this period the average life expectancy of a slave was 7-8 years. Slaves worked 18 hour shifts often with little food or rest.
Today, each American consumes roughly 150 pounds of sugar per year and climbing. Sugar is an ingredient in most of the foods we consume – in startling quantities. There is a perception – we have fooled ourselves – that slavery, is not as prominent today as it was during the height of the slave trade of the 1700s. However, the reality is that slavery still exists throughout the world to feed all our additions of which sugar is just one.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.
Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 3: Popular sweet tooths and scandal.” Harvard University, Cambridge. MA. 22 Feb, 2017. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 8 Mar. 2017. Lecture.
[ii] Eric Williams, historian & former Prime minister of Trinidad & Tobago