When we think of sugar, we usually think of candy, decadence, and sweet treats. We associate sugar with emotions of joy, celebration, and excitement. Despite our immediate associations with sugar, what often goes unknown is the darker histories of sugar and its legacy today. Particularly in the 1800s, sugar began to be seen as a commodity of the masses in England, and at the same time, capitalism had newly emerged as an economic system. During this time, sugar became an increasing necessity and a marker of socioeconomic equality within England, but it remained as the foundation of capitalism and racial hierarchy on a global scale. Sugar’s existence exemplifies the contradictory nature of capitalism, how it can seemingly become a food of the masses in 1800s England but in actuality be the root of exploitation. To use sugar to examine the contradictory nature of capitalism, I will first explore the seeming equality that sugar symbolized in England then explain how in actuality, it perpetuated enormous amounts of inequality and hierarchy both within England and on a global scale.
The Rise of Capitalism in the late 1700s
Capitalism became a governing economic form in the late eighteenth century, as we see the rise of mass production and mass consumption governed by the presupposed markets for wage labor (Harvey 66). However, the rise of capitalism can also be seen as involved in “the destruction of economic systems that had preceded it – notably, European feudalism – and the creation of a system of world trade” (Mintz 55). As the New World imported slaves to the Caribbean plantations, this process was vital to the destruction of preceding economic systems and the emergence of capitalism. Now that I’ve set the scene of the late 1700s as the rise of capitalism, I will delve into the contradictory aspects surrounding the so-called equality that capitalism brought with it.
The So-called Symbolic Equality of Sugar in 17th Century England
Historically, sugar had been a marker of wealth before the 1800s, but the status of who was consuming sugar changed over time as it became incorporated into the diet of every English person by the 1800s. According to Sydney Mintz in Sweetness and Power, very few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar, in 1000 AD. By 1650, the nobility and the wealthy in England consumed much sugar and used it in their medicine, literature, and status symbols. In 1800, sugar became a necessity that existed in the diet of every English person, though it might have been costly and not as accessible to those of lower socioeconomic statuses. Clearly, in 1800s England, sugar was in the process of transitioning from being a food of the wealthy to a food of the masses.
“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.”Sydney Mintz in Sweetness and Power (pp 5-6)
In fact, in the mid-1800s, George R. Porter, a broker in sugar and an observer of English eating habits wrote that “long habit has in this country led almost every class to the daily use of it” (Mintz 174). England had in essence become a “nation of sucrose eaters” (174). Sucrose or sugar in the early 1800s was transitioning into a food of the masses, and by the mid-1800s it had seemingly been well incorporated into the nation as a whole and not as divisive based on economic status. Upon first glance, it seems like every English person has access to sugar and that sugar is a commodity of the people.
Dismantling the Symbolic Equality of Sugar
While sugar lost its symbol as wealth in England and instead became a commodity of the people, its role on the global scale reinforced labor structures that were fundamental to vast amounts of inequality.
Sugar was a major contributor in the popularity of chattel slavery that existed between the 1600s to 1800s. African slaves were brought to Caribbean plantations to produce crops, primarily consisting of sugar. The only party that benefited from the plantation system were the planters, or slaveowners, themselves. Under harsh working schedules and conditions, slaves became exhausted, often taking on the heavy pulling work at a sugar mill that could kill off bulls and horses (Hollsten 255). Slaves faced malnourishment, sexual abuse, extremely difficult and laborious work, and inhumane punishments (Hollsten 256). The production of sugar was deeply rooted in the intense laborious processes and inhumane treatment that slaves received.
Even within Britain, a deeper examination of accessibility to sugar showed that it was inherently unequal. The government taxed the poor regressively for their sugar, which kept sugar consumption lower among the poor (Mintz 175). Even as the poor in England were grappling with learning to use sugar, their use of it was limited – sugar was a minor item in the family budget of the rich in England and they would purchase the same amount regardless of the price, but this was not the case with those who were poor in England, making regressive taxes so prohibitive. In short, “the enslaved Africans who produced the sugar were linked in clear economic relationships to the British laboring people who were learning to eat it” (Mintz 175). Inequality was more present than at glimpse on the surface level of the “nation of sucrose eaters” – it was extant in both England and also on a global scale.
Thus, as seen by both instances of inhumanity and inequality on a global level and even within Britain, the seeming symbolic equality of sugar tied with “free trade” and emerging markets was, in fact, rife with disparity.
Even today, sugar and candy are generally accessible to most individuals in first-world countries but not necessarily to the individuals who are producing the sugar in the first place. While U.S. residents, for example, might not blink an eye when thinking about whether individuals have access to sugar, the way labor markets are structured to this day make it so that there is vast inequality between the global south and the global north, the producers and the consumers respectively of sugar. The emerging economic system of capitalism in the 1800s, rooted in the plantation slavery of the sugar plantations, laid the foundation for the contradictions at the time and its legacy today – symbolic, performative equality of access to sugar in the Global North but inhumane working conditions, inaccessibility to the commodity itself in the Global South.
“Cutting Sugar Cane in Trinidad, 1836.” Wikimedia Commons, 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cutting_Sugar_Cane_in_Trinidad,_1836,_lithograph.jpg.
“Detailed Triangle Trade.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detailed_Triangle_Trade.jpg.
Harvey, Mark. “Slavery, Indenture and the Development of British Industrial Capitalism.” History Workshop Journal, vol. 88, no. 1, 2019, pp. 66–88.
Hollsten, Laura. “Night Time and Entangled Spaces on Early Modern Caribbean Sugar Plantations.” Journal of Global Slavery, vol. 1, no. 2-3, 2016, pp. 248–273.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. 1986.