Sugar Sugar Sugar! The Rise in British Sugar Consumption

Historical changes in British sugar consumption were influenced by many different factors, whether that includes the slave trade or the many different uses that were being discovered for the product. Some of the uses that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries include medicine, decorative material, sweetener, preservative, and a spice-condiment. These uses increased both the supply and demand in the market for sugar as it became more readily available to everyone and not just the elites. The dynamic of social status changed, as sugar consumption slowly trickled down to the middle class because of the massive increase in production.

Causes

This increase in production is due to slavery and an increase in production and availability. This primarily comes from the Triangular Trade that occurred over many years in the 17th and 18th centuries across the Atlantic Ocean. This trade included many important commodities; the most important being the slaves that were transported out of Africa. “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. And while slavery had been abolished (lastly in Cuba, in 1884), cheapness was sustained by new flows of indentured labour from India, Africa and China” (The Guardian). Because of the large import of slaves, this allowed sugar to become much more available to everyone in Britain. Due to the slave trade, “the owners of the immense fortunes created by the labor of millions of slaves stolen from Africa, on millions of acres 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 – has become even more solidly attached to the centers of power in English society at large” (Mintz 157). This was known to be an inhumane way to earn massive profits but was acceptable at the time by companies because they wanted to be ahead of everyone else in sugar production.

Image of the Triangular Trade

Sugar was also able to shift society from being more hierarchal to incorporating more citizens in a democratic way. Sidney Mintz discusses these historical changes in British sugar consumption in his book Sweetness and Power. Sidney Mintz highlights the drastic changes in sugar consumption by Europeans as he says “In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon after they learned about it; by 1650, in England, the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet” (Mintz 5 & 6). This emphasizes how much the different uses of sugar impacted society as a whole and made the use of sugar transition to more of a social norm, rather than a display of wealth and power. The incorporation of sugar into Britain’s diet that I mentioned from Sidney Mintz above, is due to the many uses of sugar that were developed over time. These uses historically changed British sugar consumption because sugar could be used as a decorative material, medicine, sweetener, preservative, and a spice-condiment.

Image of an 18th century sugar plantation

Because of these many uses “The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much a political as an economic obligation” (Mintz 157). It is pretty to recognize the transition in British sugar consumption, because at firs “sugar was expensive and relatively rare, making it a perfect object of conspicuous consumption for status-chasing elites. Shaped into elaborate sculptures, mixed into wines, sprinkled on tarts and on glazed roasted meats” (Godoy). It is interesting to see the change in how sugar consumption slowly trickled down to the middle class because of the massive increase in production due to slavery and an increase in production and availability. Sugar consumption created many benefits for the British economy when it became readily available to everyone, as according to NPR “tea-and-sugar monies helped supply the British navy with better foodstuffs, Laudan says, including vegetables when available. And that navy was key to spreading British might across the globe” (Godoy). The exponential increase in British sugar consumption allowed Britain to have a democratic element with the incorporation of everyone in the consumption of sugar, regardless of class, although it began with the elites. This incorporation allowed Britain to thrive economically both in that time and prepared them to thrive in the future.

A video further describing the methods and facts about the Atlantic Slave Trade

Works Cited

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. 1985.

“Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian, Guardian News, and Media, 12 Oct. 2007, www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire.” NPR, NPR, 7 Apr. 2015, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 20 Feb. 2019.

“The Triangular Trade.” National Archives, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/africa_caribbean/docs/trade_routes.htm.Simkin, John. “Sugar Plantations.” Spartacus Educational, Spartacus Educational, spartacus-educational.com/USASsugar.htm.

Hazard, Anthony, director. The Atlantic Slave Trade: What Too Few Textbooks Told You. YouTube, 22 Dec. 2014, youtu.be/3NXC4Q_4JVg.

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