Sugar’s Explosion In Britain: Slave Driven, Technologically Fueled, or the result of Free Trade?

By the twentieth century, sugar had become a common component of the English diet. Several factors led to this development, two of which are the proliferation of slavery in the New World, and advancements in technology that made larger scale production possible. While technology, after the abolition of slavery, continued to play a role in the success of sugar production, sugar prices would likely not have dropped to the degree they did, had it not been for a shift away from British protectionism, a policy that had formerly limited competition in the sugar industry. The reduction of sugar prices is what allowed the product to become so integrated in the diet of everyday people.

One cannot ignore the role the slavery played in the production of sugar into the mid to late nineteenth century. As Sidney Mintz states, British colonists in the Caribbean had began to think about sugar production close to the middle of the seventeenth century.[1] As tobacco production began to be supplanted by sugar production, plantations began to develop, and increasingly, small farms became a thing of the past, and slavery a more popular form of labor than indentured servitude.[2] As Mintz points out, slavery maintained its crucial role in sugar production until the Haitian Revolution[3], which concluded in 1803. This graph of UK per capita sugar consumption over time (from this article) shows that sugar consumption continued to increase well into the nineteenth century. So, while slavery may have played a pivotal role in sugar production in its day, it cannot, however, be given credit for the ultimate explosion of sugar consumption in Britain.

Technological advances also played a key role in sugar production. As Mintz states, until the nineteenth century, “mechanical force was [still] an imperfect and incomplete substitute for manual labor.”[4] However, around the middle of the 1800’s, there were drastic improvements in the technology of the sugar industry, as evident by “[i]mmense improvements in grinding capacity, cane varieties, pest control and cultivation methods, increasing use of machinery, and revolutionary changes in transportation eventuated in vast new agro-industrial complexes.”[5] One such technological improvement was the use of steam powered sugar mills. Another was the multiple effect evaporator, which introduced a cheaper and safer way of evaporating sugar cane juice. As slavery ended in several European countries in the nineteenth century, there was a decrease in the labor available for Caribbean planters, as former slaves sought to escape the plantation.[6] The planters who were most able to utilize technological improvements got a leg up over their peers in the face of increased competition in the sugar market.[7] It seems that technology helped to compensate for emancipation’s effects on the labor supply.

Another development that had significant effect on the sugar industry was the end of the British policy of protectionism. Protectionism is a policy of limiting foreign competition via tariffs, subsidies, quotas, or other limitations.[8] As Mintz articulates, at around the middle of the nineteenth century, the system of protectionism was abandoned in favor of “arrangements that could supply an abundant but cheaper supply of the same goods to English consumers, without special West Indian privileges.”[9] So, it is clear that the end of protectionism, which led to an increase in competition in the English sugar market, played a key role in the reduction of sugar prices, which, of course, was pivotal for the increase in English sugar consumption. The tendency of competition to lower prices, as it pertains to the sugar market specifically, should not be understated. An earlier period of sugar production also attests to the potency of competition. As Ralph Davis articulates, the entrance of English colonies as producers in the sugar market was a noticeable force in the reduction of sugar prices, as they competed with the Portuguese:

“At the beginning of the seventeenth century Portuguese (i.e. Brazilian) production was already growing fast and reducing prices sharply and the English West Indian Islands, when they turned to sugar production, had this large established New World producer to contend with. They came late into the field… and in the early 1660’s they were still contending with the Portuguese even for the English market. But already their competition had caused a considerable decline in prices and prices continued to fall, on the whole, until about 1685, by which time the English product had driven Brazilian sugar from the North European as well as from the English market.”[10]

This price reduction ended, or at least slowed, with the end of competition. It seems unlikely that the sugar producers in the English West Indies would have reduced their prices as much as sugar prices fell following the end of protectionism, if they had still enjoyed the lack of competition that protectionism afforded them. I contend that although new technological advances improving the means of sugar production might still have led to a reduction in sugar prices, this reduction would not have been as great without this shift in British policy.

The change from protectionism to some semblance of free trade was completed by 1870.[11] When they removed “barriers to ‘free’ trade… [British elites made it] possible for the world’s cheapest sugars to reach the widest possible market in Britain.”[12] While slavery, in its time, had some impact in the flourishing of the sugar industry, and technology surely played a role as well, the results of the British departure from protectionism allowed the competition that also helped to drive down sugar prices, which allowed sugar to be consumed more widely by the English population.

Bibliography:

American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. “Norbert Rillieux           and the Multiple Effect Evaporator.” Accessed March 10, 2017.        https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/norbertrillieux.html

Coleman, Andrew. “Sugar Plantations of Louisiana.” Last Modified April 11, 2013.     Accessed March 10, 2017.                                                                                       http://medianola.org/discover/place/987/Sugarcane-Plantations-of-Louisiana#reference_6

Davis, Ralph. “English Foreign Trade, 1660-1700.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 152. doi:10.2307/2591619.
Mintz, Sidney W., Woodville K. Marshall, Mary Karasch, and Richard Frucht. “Slavery and the Rise of Peasantries [with Commentary].” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 6, no. 1 (1979): 213-53. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/41330423

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New                  York: Penguin Books, 1986, c1985.

Sutherland, Claudia E. “Haitian Revolution 1791-1804.” Copyright 2007-2017.             Accessed March 10, 2017 http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Protectionism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Published May 20, 2010. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/protectionism

‘The Historic Sugar Mills of Java.” Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.internationalsteam.co.uk/mills/gulajava.htm

“The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption (it’s not what you think)”          Published May 1, 2014. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.czarnikow.com/news/01-05-14/inconvenient-truth-about-sugar-consumption-it-s-not-what-you-think

Videos:

“Sweet Spot Part 4, Olean Sugar Mill, East Java, Indonesia” Copyright Rob and           Yuehong Dickinson 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWbs6mbfT14

“Refined Sugar: Where did it come from? Stuff of Genius”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULdCmtrkrWQ

Footnotes:

[1] Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986, c1985., p. 52

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 51.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 69-70.

[7] Sidney Mintz., Woodville K. Marshall, Mary Karasch, and Richard Frucht. “Slavery and the Rise of Peasantries [with Commentary].” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 6, no. 1 (1979): p.215.

[8] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Protectionism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Published May 20, 2010. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/protectionism

[9] Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, p. 61.

[10] Ralph Davis. “English Foreign Trade, 1660-1700.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 152.

[11] Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, p.61

[12] Ibid., 70.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s