Tag Archives: British culture

Historical Changes in British Sugar Consumption and Potential Causes

Sugar is an enormously culturally and dietarily significant food that can be found in human cultures across the world. Certain cultures have been consuming sucrose for thousands of years. Britain became a dominant military, geopolitical, economic and cultural force in the world starting in the industrial revolution in the 1600s. Over the next several hundred years, coinciding with the rise of the British empire to worldwide hegemon, British sugar consumption also skyrocketed. Today, sugar is still heavily consumed in Britain, perhaps more (in per capita terms) than at any other point in its history. In addition, refined sugar has had a huge gastronomic, economic and cultural legacy in Britain over the hundreds of years since when it was first brought to the British Isles. Historical changes in British refined sugar consumption were due to the decreasing price of refined sugar, the increased promotion and elevation of refined sugar in popular culture, and refined sugar’s taste.

The actual change in British refined sugar consumption has not been mild. Britain has had an explosion in per capita refined sugar consumption over the centuries since the start of its industrial revolution. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz notes that, in Britain, as early as 1856, sugar consumption was forty times higher than it had been only 150 years earlier (Mintz 143). Professor Carla Martin notes that sugar consumption in America rose from 2 pounds per person per year 200 years ago to 152 pounds per person per year today. A similar trend has occurred in Britain over the past two centuries as well. A 2019 article published in the Guardian argues for Britons to take political action with regard to sugar consumption and pressure the government to put a tax on certain sugary goods (Boseley)

This article states that such political action is necessary to improve the public health of Britons, who suffer adverse health consequences from high sugar consumption. An article published by the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation “finds most people in the UK are consuming three times the recommended daily sugar intake (Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation). This article corroborates the fact that sugar consumption is in fact responsible for health problems among Britons. The article elaborates that a diet high in refined sugar is linked to “obesity and related health complications, including type 2 diabetes” (Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation).

An article from the BBC about British sugar consumption makes the important distinction that the health problems from sugar consumption specifically come from Briton’s consumption of refined and added sugar (Jeavans). The BBC article notes that other forms of sugar, including fructose naturally present in fruits, do not pose major health dangers (Jeavans). This BBC article lends evidence to the idea that increases in obesity and obesity related health conditions in Britain is due to increased consumption of refined/added sugar, as opposed to increased consumption of naturally occurring sugars (Jeavans). This is important because it helps rule out other causes of obesity and obesity related health problems in Britons, and helps more strongly establish the connection between drastically increased refined sugar consumption following the industrial revolution and obesity related health problems.

It is clear that the decreased price and increased availability of refined sugar in Britain following the industrial revolution had a huge impact on sugar’s consumption. Mintz notes that, in Britain, “the price of sugar fell by 30 percent between 1840 and 1850, and by a further 25 percent in the next two decades, consumption increases reflect a decline in the price of sugar relative to other commodities” (Mintz 144). 

In addition, cultural factors were also responsible for widespread increases in sugar consumption in Britain from the 1600s to the present. Two of the most important cultural factors that pushed people to consume sugar were pressures and dynamics between members of opposite sexes, and the general desire to imitate the habits of elite, wealthy or royal people. Mintz establishes the idea that people desire to emulate the dietary habits of the wealthy and powerful when he quotes Shand as saying:  “Once tea became an established custom among the well-to-do…the lower middle classes naturally began to imitate it” (Mintz 142) . It is clear that this desire for imitation could apply with sugar also. 

It is also noted that female pressure on males can induce males to change their dietary/beverage preferences. Mintz states: “Shand’s conjecture that tea and alcohol tended to be sex-divided beverages until the salon lured men to afternoon tea may be accurate for the middle classes after the 1660s” (Mintz 142). Importantly, Smith notes that the British would put sugar in their tea (Smith 259). Thus, desire among elite British males to meet members of the opposite sex would drive them to attend salons where they would partake in tea. Smith states that the custom of putting sugar into tea “which has mistakenly been viewed as insignificant, had important historical effects” (Smith 259). Smith remarks that “Its widespread adoption in Britain and elsewhere in northern Europe in the eighteenth century greatly reinforced demand for both products” (Smith 259).

Finally, the inherent taste of refined sugar may have been one of the important factors driving sugar’s increased consumption in Britain over the past several centuries. Humans likely evolved to like the taste of sugar even over the taste of many other food ingredients because sugar is very calorically dense (Addessi et al). 

In conclusion, economics, culture and taste all factor into causing historical changes in British sugar consumption over the last 400 years. The decreased price of sugar, cultural pressure to consume sugar, and the delicious taste of sugar likely all contributed to rising consumption of sugar in Britain over a 400 year period. Today, the high consumption of refined/added sugar in Britain likely causes adverse health effects in the population.

Works Cited

Multimedia Sources:

Boseley, Sarah. “Taxing Cakes and Biscuits Is the Answer to Britain’s Sugar Problem.” The 

Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Sept. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/sep/20/taxing-cakes-and-biscuits-is-the-answer-to-britains-sugar-problem.

Jeavans, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014, 


“Report on Diet Finds Most People in the UK Are Consuming Almost 3 Times the 

Recommended Daily Sugar Intake.” Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation, 11 Apr. 2018, http://www.drwf.org.uk/news-and-events/news/report-diet-finds-most-people-uk-are-consuming-almost-3-times-recommended-daily.

Scholarly Sources:

Addessi, E., Galloway, A.T., Birch, L. and Visalberghi, E., 2004. Taste perception and food 

choices in capuchin monkeys and human children. Primatologie: revue publiee sous l’egide de la Societe francophone de primatologie, 6, p.101.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern

History. New York: Penguin Books.

Smith, Woodruff D. “Complications of the commonplace: Tea, sugar, and imperialism.” The 

Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23.2 (1992): 259-278.

Course Works:

Course materials, lectures, and notes.

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.


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.

An Analysis on the Significant Increase of Sugar Consumption in England

Before the discovery of sugar, many Western societies had meals that were centered around common carbohydrates. Sidney Mintz, one of the founders of the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins University, stated, “The most striking [aspect of the] English diet at that time was its complete ordinariness and meagerness…. Most Europeans produced their own food locally” (74). The majority of families in Britain did not eat rare foods, or even meat, dairy, or fruit. The most common foods in British households stemmed from grains and starches. Members of the nobility and wealthy families were able to obtain and dine with more extravagant foods, since they could afford to purchase them from distant locations. Accordingly, when sugar was discovered and brought to European civilization in the mid-1600s, only this wealthy class of people had access to it. There was a sense of power and high social status that coincided with the ability to consume such a product. After over a hundred years, there was a large shift in the British appetite for sugar. British consumption of sugar accelerated at almost an exponential level from the mid-1800s to the end of the 20th century, which was caused by newly discovered uses of sugar, increased access to sugar by the working and lower classes, and the plantation system that was implemented in the Caribbean, allowing for the mass production of sugar.

Sugar consumption increased at almost an exponential rate after the mid-1800s in England. The two major dips in sugar consumption were due to World War I and World War II.

Source: Johnson, Richard J. et al, Sugar Intake per Capita in the United Kingdom

When sugar reached the families of Western society, several uses were discovered that made sugar a vertaile product. Mintz stated, “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” (5). Members of the nobility deemed sugar to be much more than a food with a new, distinct taste. Sugar had medicinal value and was used for a variety of ailments. This medical association was derived from Greek medical practices that were embraced by many British physicians. Discussing the history of sugar, The Guardian published, “[Sugar’s]  consumption rose rapidly among European populations from the 17th century. Like tea, coffee, tobacco, chocolate and rum, it had physiological, consoling effects, particularly in children.” The consumers of sugar had many positive associations with the product and believed that it played a pivotal role in the healing process. This association of sugar and healing continued for centuries. In addition to the medicinal value placed on sugar, there were several other important uses that the British realized. Mintz stated, “Sucrose can be described initially in terms of five principal uses or ‘functions’: as medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative” (78). Even though in today’s era sugar as a sweetener seems to be a given, in the 1800s, sugar was even more useful as a spice. Sugar was presented to Europeans along with the other spices that were seen as rare at that time. The modern association of sugar being a main determinant of taste was a construct developed many years after sugar had been ingrained in European cultural and dietary habits. The various uses of sugar that the British explored made it extremely popular. Vincent Mahler stated, “With the turn of the nineteenth century the sugar boom seemed likely to continue indefinitely: colonial sugar was England’s single most important import in every year from 1703 until 1814” (473). The British were infatuated with the idea of sugar, and they began to associate it with all realms of life: religion, nutrition, politics, gender, and sexuality.

The British elite and wealthy were the first individuals in England to be introduced to sugar. They believed that the consumption of sugar was a representation of their high social status. Sugar was served with several foods and beverages, including tea.

Source: Tenre, Henry, Five O’Clock Tea

The largest growth in sugar consumption occurred when the working and lower classes gained access it. Access to sugar was expanded due to the mass production of sugar, which made each serving cheaper, the production of lower quality, less refined sugar, and the increase in wages of the working class. David Richardson stated, “Contemporary writers referred also to the wider use of meat, tea, and sugar in northern working-class diets. Such dietary changes were made possible by relative improvements in real wages after 1750 in industrializing counties” (752). These areas focused on industrialization gave the working class the ability to pay for sugar and utilize many of the aspects of sugar enjoyed by the wealthy. One of those aspects of sugar that was used heavily by the working class once the use of sugar became more widespread was its function as a preservative. Mintz stated, “Sweetened preserves, which could be left standing indefinitely without spoiling and without refrigeration, which were cheap and appealing to children, and which tasted better than more costly butter with store-purchased bread, outstripped or replaced porridge” (130). It saved time for wives in working and lower class families that had jobs outside of the home. This use of sugar as a preservative made the product even more appealing to families who already were drawn to the taste itself. Tea, which was also considered a luxury in Europe when it was first introduced, had trickled down to the realm of the working class and had been used in conjunction with sugar. Richardson stated, “Explanations for the growth of British sugar consumption and its divergence from continental levels have largely focused upon changes in taste and diet, particularly the growth of tea and coffee drinking in Britain” (748). This phenomenon led to the increased use of sugar as well.

The growing domestic demand of sugar in Britain was met because of the foothold the British established in the slave trade and the plantation system in the Caribbean. Slaves worked in unbearable conditions and were essential to mass production.

Source: Clark, William, Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane

With the growing interest and consumption of sugar, production needed to be expanded in order to meet the demand. The British used the slave trade as an avenue to meet their economic goals, and they were viewed as being at the forefront of capitalizing off of the institution of slavery. Mintz stated, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar” (38). The British recognized the opportunity to not only meet the increasing demand of the country, but also profit off of the use of free labor. They established plantations throughout the Caribbean, beginning in Barbados and expanding into Jamaica, transporting millions and millions of slaves to produce sugar in mass quantities. Richardson stated, “Published estimates have suggested that British traders may have carried between 2.5 and 3.7 million slaves from African between 1701 and 1807” (741). The production of the large amounts of sugar that was dependent upon slave labor allowed the British to meet the growing demand for sugar domestically, while also allowing them to export the product past the country’s borders. Mahler stated, “Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean had entered the nineteenth century as perhaps her most valuable foreign economic interest” (474). The British dominance in the Caribbean boosted England’s economy and expanded its reach as an economic and political world power.

Sugar served as a very powerful and influential tool in Britain, especially after the beginning of the 19th century. Even though the wealthy families of England were the first to be introduced to sugar, it quickly garnered traction throughout the country and was popularized as a food that many individuals in Western society wanted access to. With its versatile functionality as a medicine, spice, sweetener, preservative, and decorative material and its associations with religion, politics, and wealth, sugar became one of England’s most popular commodities. As demand increased and the working and lower classes had access to the product, Britain established a strong foothold in the slave trade and the plantation system in order to meet their domestic demands and profit off of the increased international consumption of sugar.

Works Cited:

“Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Oct. 2007.

Clark, William. Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane. Antigua, 1823.

Johnson, Richard J, et al. “Potential Role of Sugar (Fructose) in the Epidemic of Hypertension, Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes, Kidney Disease, and Cardiovascular Disease.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 86, no. 4, 1 Oct. 2007, pp. 899–906.

Mahler, Vincent A. “Britain, the European Community, and the Developing Commonwealth: Dependence, Interdependence, and the Political Economy of Sugar.” International Organization, vol. 35, no. 3, 1981, pp. 467–492.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.

Richardson, David. “The Slave Trade, Sugar, and British Economic Growth, 1748-1776.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 17, no. 4, 1987, pp. 739–769.

Tenre, Henry. Five O’Clock Tea. Paris, 1906.

Sugar: How it Begot a New Order of Diet, Colonialism and Economic Mobility for the English

“The story can be summed up in a few sentences. In 1000 A.D., few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon afterward 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 a 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, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books. Page 5)

Cultural anthropologist Sidney Mintz, prominent for linking English’s insatiable sweet tooth with the transformation of Britain from a hierarchical society to a democratic industrial society, succinctly summarizes the multi-century narrative of sugar in less than one hundred words. The introduction of sugar in the mid-17th century and the subsequent craving for sweetness catalyzed radical cultural and commercial changes within British society which evolved over the course of two hundred years an ultimately shaped British culture into its modern day social order.

Fullscreen capture 3122011 92239 PM
Catherine of Braganza Enjoying Tea

Although prior to the mid 17th century, sugar, limited by supply and expense, was primarily used as a spice, a medicinal supplement, and for both decorative and preservative purposes, sugar’s use as a sweetener ultimately prevailed.  In 1662, Queen Catherine, King Charles II’s Portuguese wife, introduced  drinking tea, a habit of the Portuguese nobility, to the British courts. An easily adulterated and ingestible beverage, the upper echelons of society quickly adopted the daily ritual of tea and soon began to add the newly available sweetener to the otherwise bitter beverage. (Mintz, 110) Tea quickly become symbolic of the wealthier and sugar embodied a social status of wealth and power.

Working Women Enjoying Tea

Like most trends associated with the elite, aspirational lower-classes began to imitate tea-drinking. For the wealthy, tea became emblematic of social events and sugar a novel treat, a sumptuous additive served in their tea and desserts, For the middle and lower classes, however, sweetened tea presented itself as the first “work break.”   Taken mid-afternoon, tea and sugar served as a relief from labor. Soon, “the tea,” became an event accompanied by a light lunch, to sate the lower classes’ hunger after working a full morning. The lower classes’ adoption and adaptation of the upper-class tradition of tea, not only caused an adjustment of their entire meal pattern, but also introduced sugar into their greater diet.  (Mintz, 142) This introduction of sugar to the British occurred at a most opportune time. When sugar first began to gain recognition, English people of all social strata, regularly susceptible to famine, struggled to maintain a satisfying diet. Centered predominately around a single starch and supplemented by various other foods, the English people’s diet relied almost exclusively on the availability of wheat, and did not contain robust nutritional value. For the lower classes, particularly, sugar offered an easy method of meeting daily caloric needs. (Mintz, 133)

British Buying Sugary Treats

As the lower classes began to develop a preference for sugar through sweetened tea, a marked increase in sugar production in the mid-seventeenth century resulted in a 70% reduction in the prices of sugar. Consequently, cheap sugar became readily available to even the poorest within Britain. Perhaps the most crucial supplement to the working class diet, cheap sugar redefined the lower-class diet. Sweet pastries, porridges, and treacle—a type of spreadable molasses—became dietary staples for the poor and provided a large allocation of their daily carbohydrates, and thus calories.

“The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much a political as an economic obligation.” (Mintz, 157)

As a consequence of Britain’s cross-class taste for sugar, the market for the product burgeoned, critically driving changes in Britain’s social structure. Demand for sugar consistently pushed the limits of supply.  Economic and political forces “supported the seizure of colonies where cane could be grown and raw sugar manufactured, as well as the slave trade that supplied the needed labor.” (Mintz, 167) Thus, investment opportunities in slave trade, shipping, plantations, credit against which plantations and stocks of slaves and sugar could be collateral, and retailing and refining proliferated. (Mintz, 168) By the mid-17th century, the sugar trade was a critical factor in cementing the power and the wealth of the British empire.  Further, because  the nascent sugar industry in England did not exclusively reward the rich—it provided opportunity to anyone ready to bear the risk, the craving for sugar quite literally fostered democracy, as it transformed England from a status based medieval society to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186).

“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”  (The Guardian)

British Port Receiving Sugar

“…there is no doubt that the quantities imported and retained during that two century period when sucrose changed from rarity to daily ingestible rose steadily; that the increase was comparatively larger than the population increase; and that by the mid-nineteenth century the British were eating more sugar than ever before, and were as sugar-hungry as ever.” (Mintz, 161)

Sugar, a now ubiquitous additive, changed the fortunes of many in Britain over a two hundred plus year span.  Culturally, at its nascent usage beginning in the 17th century its association with tea begot a new category of meal for the working class; it supplemented a precariously unstable dietary situation; and ultimately, it provided a not inconsequential catalyst to the development of the British economy via the colonial growth and trading required to sate the country’s desire for sugar.  The craving for sugar also fostered an emerging democracy in Britain, and helped lift British society from a social structure grounded in medieval hierarchies to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186) Predicated on a deep gluttony for sugar and the capitalistic requirements to provide product, British social norms also changed as the country moved away from a cultural, feudalistic, structure which prevented opportunities for economic mobility to one driven by capitalism, and ultimately meritocracy and democracy. Sugar, in British history, represents more than an innovation in nourishment. The proliferation of sugar as a core food item characterizes the development of the British economy via colonial growth and trading, and the growing power and changing societal norms of the British empire.

Continue reading Sugar: How it Begot a New Order of Diet, Colonialism and Economic Mobility for the English

Sweetness and Bitterness: A Common Path

For those who are interested in the ethnic and historical origins of foods, chocolate and sugar may be two of the most exciting elements of the traditional English diet (see fig. 1). Linked by their indigenous sourcing and early production during the British colonial period, the bitter taste of chocolate and the ground sweetness of sugar grew in demand and influenced the commercialization of one another. Both, used as food condiments or spices, in medical remedies or as a source of energy and calories share a history of conquest, adventure, social evolution and slavery. Thus, when it comes to England and perhaps other European nations, it is fair to believe that today’s spike in sugar consumption –as suggested by Harvard University professor Carla Martin in her “Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food” class is owed in great part to the expansion and ever-growing demands of the chocolate industry.

Fig. 1. Early 20th century advertisement of a sweet chocolate bar by Fry’s.
Fig. 1. Early 20th century advertisement of a sweet chocolate bar by Fry’s.

Long before Colombus arrived to the Americas, sugar was known in Europe thanks to the Crusades and the conquests of the British empire (SKIL – History of Sugar). The European expansion beyond the Caribbean plateau brought the discovery of the cacao tree and chocolate, highly praised by the natives, according to chapters One and Two from The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. This discovery increased the European interest in the region causing the assimilation of local elements that helped export indigenous recipes, traditions and beliefs to the wealthiest European social groups and consequently, to the British. This is commonly known as “hybridization” and it resulted in the adoption and rapid commercialization of chocolate throughout Europe (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2. 18th century illustration of a chocolate house in London.

Chocolate quickly became a sensation among the British bourgeoisie. The enigmatic cocoa powder traditionally obtained by a long process of selecting cacao beans, drying, toasting and hand-grinding them with an hand made “molinillo” (Presilla 26) was an edible bounty for the wealthy. Early colonizers learned from the Mesoamerican aborigines that chocolate was “food of the gods” and such was the official name they gave to it as described in The True History of Chocolate (D. Coe and D. Coe 18). The belief that it had magical and medical properties head its way into England where soon the chocolate drink and the cocoa powder were used in medical recipes, as sources of energy and as mood enhancers.

Around the same period of time, sugar had also medical and multiple other uses in Britain. Sugar was an “everything” type of remedy or food condiment. The influence of sugar in the Anglo-Saxon world was such that as professor Martin denoted in class, it moved beyond the Hollywood era so we can recall popular movies like Mary Poppins carry the reminiscent of it in song lyrics that talk about sugar and sweetness, as for instance Disney’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” shown below.

“A Spoonful of Sugar” from the Mary Poppins film.

In 1847, the English company J.S. Fry & Sons produced a chocolate bar from the mixture of sugar and chocolate powder with cocoa butter, which according to the authors of the research paper Welcome to ChE: Chocolate Engineering “had a grainy texture and lacked the smooth flavor of today’s chocolates” (Patton, Ford and Crunkleton 2). This, in turn, prompted Henry Nestle and Daniel Peters to experiment further by adding milk to the mixture, creating the first milk chocolate bar as early as 1876 (Patton, Ford and Crunkleton 2).

Henceforth, sugar and chocolate crossed a common path: that of the “bitter-sweetness.” This bitter-sweetness is a descriptive metaphor derived from their combination: chocolate is naturally bitter and sugar is the embodiment of sweet. From the history of their discovery, production and consumption the bittersweet blend evokes a distant grief infused with human slavery which was viewed by its wealthy consumers like the “necessary evil” –as professor Martin puts it, to achieve the finest tasting, sweetest chocolate cup or chocolate bar.

Knowing the historical and socio economical factors that made possible a “rendezvous” of chocolate and sugar, it is possible to find correlation between the sugar consumption and the production of chocolate. Professor Martin illustrates this in class with visualizations of the rise in sugar consumption from the colonial times before chocolate was brought to Europe up to the present times. Those graphs shown by professor Martin reveal a dramatic curve of growth. It is then evident that the discovery and commercialization of chocolate influenced the consumption and demand of sugar. The image below illustrates the period of time in which the sugar consumption rose in England, which coincides with the time in which chocolate began to commercialize during the 1800’s, as well as the corresponding price depreciation per pound (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Spike in sugar consumption after the creation of the first chocolate bar in England during the 19th century.

In conclusion, the social contexts of contemporary Britain, the Anglo-Saxon culture and all of Europe keep sugar and chocolate forever bound in tasty combinations. Often is our own “sweet tooth” that helps move chocolates off the shelves because some of us suffer a disease called “chocolate craving.” Yet, one thing is certain: today’s chocolates are generally sweeter than those of yesterday… either because they have thrice the amount of sugar, or because they no longer come from the bitter tears of slavery.

Works Cited

Chocolate House in London (18th Century). Digital image. “The World of Chocolate.” Worldstandards.eu. 2017. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, Inc., 1996, New York, Print. Feb. 2017.

Fry’s Five Boys Milk Chocolate. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Jarrold & Sons, Ltd., 2 Dec. 2005. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

“How Sugar is Made – the History.” SKIL – History of Sugar, 2017. Web. 6 Mar. 2017, http://www.sucrose.com/lhist.html

Martin, Carla. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. 22 Feb. 2017. Harvard University Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Lecture. Mar. 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. 1 Mar. 2017. Harvard University Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Lecture. Mar. 2017.

Patton, Christi L., Ford, Laura P., and Daniel W. Crunkleton. Welcome to ChE: Chocolate Engineering. Strong Point Center in Process Systems Engineering, Trondheim, Norway. 2005. Web. 5 Mar. 2017. http://folk.ntnu.no/skoge/prost/proceedings/aiche-2005/non-topical/Non%20topical/papers/162e.pdf

Presilla, Maricel E. “Natural and Cultural History of Chocolate.” The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009, Berkeley, Print. Feb. 2017.

Real Sugar Prices and Sugar Consumption Per Capita in England, 1600-1850. Digital image.
“Sugar: How Much Is Too Much?” Normal Eating Blog. 18 Jun. 2012. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

Walt Disney Records, DisneyMusicVEVO. “A Spoonful Of Sugar.” Mary Poppins. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

The Interdependent Relationship between African Slaves and British Culture

A cursory glance at the African slave trade, the sugar industry, and British culture suggests that there is little these three topics have in common. After study, it is discovered that while it is true that there is little these three have in common, a more interesting and complex relationship surfaces, one of interdependency. The cyclical interdependency that developed from the 1600s-1800s between enslaved African laborers on sugar plantations and English consumption of sugar, was driven on one end by the economic advantages found in African slave labor and on the other by the cultural, economic, and political significance sugar held in English culture. I will demonstrate the economic dependence sugar plantation owners had on African slave labor and how that developed into an English cultural dependence on the slave trade, creating an interdependent relationship.

As the American Natives succumbed to European diseases, European plantation owners looked across the ocean to Africa for their source of labor. These African slaves were procured by African slave traders through various inhumane methods and sold to European buyers on the African coast.

Alexander Falconbridge was a surgeon who took part in four voyages on slave ships, where he spoke with numerous slaves about their experiences and witnessed the slave trade firsthand.
Alexander Falconbridge was a surgeon who took part in four voyages on slave ships, where he spoke with numerous slaves about their experiences and witnessed the slave trade firsthand.

Surgeon Alexander Falconbridge wrote in his 1788 An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, “most of the negroes shipped off from the coast of Africa, are kidnapped” (13). With a majority of African slaves procured through kidnapping, the supply of slaves was seemingly endless, essentially the entire African population, since anyone could be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Unstable politics and lack of regulation and enforcement meant all Africans were vulnerable to becoming slaves. In this, plantation farmers found an economical solution, an endless supply, to their labor supply deficiency. Scholars have since provided additional evidence that Africans were the economically prudent choice of labor. Africans were supposedly more productive than Natives: “sugar… required strength which the Indian lacked, and demanded the robust “cotton nigger” as sugar’s need of strong mules produced…the epithet “sugar mules” (Williams 3). The belief that Africans were biologically suited for labor in addition to the endless supply meant that African labor was a prudent investment, and so, 10 to 15 million enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between 1500 and 1900 (Martin, Lecture 10). Furthermore, economists Alfred Conrad and John Meyer showed that African slave labor was not only a smart individual investment, but also a generator of global economic growth: the rate of return on the purchase of a slave stands at a high 13% while slave finance, procurement, and transport created a huge industry in which many made their fortune (The Economist 4).

Sugar plantation owners depended on Africans as laborers because of the economic advantages Africans allowed for: an endless supply of labor, biological suitability for labor, and high returns for individual owners and the world economy. Thus, sugar plantation owners came to depend on African slaves as their source of labor and producer of sugar.

Sugar was a rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, but by 1850, sugar had transformed into a necessity for the entire population, thus making it a commodity that motivated the need for a large labor force (Mintz 147-148). In England, sugar made its way from the wealthy mouths of the elite to the masses through cups of tea and coffee. The cultural significance of sugar (and so slaves) and the elitism associated with it can be seen through literature, art, and personal journals of the time. For example, posing in portraits with slave or sugar became quite a popular genre, representing excellent taste as well as wealth and power.

George Washington by John Trumbull. George Washington was a well-known figurehead during his time and his portraits were well publicized. It is believed that as a result, his personal servant Billie was one of the most well known slaves.
George Washington by John Trumbull. George Washington was a well-known figurehead during his time and his portraits were well publicized. It is believed that as a result, his personal servant Billie was one of the most well known slaves.

Untitled by Anonymous is believed to depict a Frenchman due to his wardrobe. The royal colors that he is adorned in, the cane he carries, and even his dominant position all lend to a aura of power and wealth.
Untitled by Anonymous is believed to depict a Frenchman due to his wardrobe. The royal colors that he is adorned in, the cane he carries, and even his dominant position all lend to a aura of power and wealth.

In Untitled, a young slave boy is offering a European plantation owner a sample of refined ground sugar while a slave woman labors in the background. George Washington poses proudly in George Washington with his personal servant and slave William “Billy” Lee in the background. In both of these portraits, the slaves are painted smaller, more demure, and with less detail, all lending their inferiority to the white man. Meanwhile, all details of the portraits depict the white man exuding confidence and importance: the color and quality of his coat, his cane, and his posture. The presence of sugar and slaves imply that this white man is wealthy and powerful.

As sugar gained popularity, the English people used it as medicine, spice condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative. And so, sugar became an integral English commodity: sugar mitigated the bitterness of medicine, made meals more delicious, decorated halls and foyers, sweetened teas and coffees, and lengthened the life of short seasoned crops.

The growing demand for sugar boosted England’s economy to unseen heights: Herman Merivale, a prominent British colonial administer, answered “sugar” when asked “What raised Liverpool and Manchester from provincial towns to gigantic cities?” (Lecture 10). Sugar inspired the invention of new machinery, mass production, and consumerism. Sugar equaled progress and money. As sugar gained importance, its economic power also transformed into political power. Sir Dalby Thomas, governor of Jamaica and sugar planter, noted that the entire process of slave labor – colonial establishment, slave procurement, protection of shipping, all the way to the actual consumption of commodities – “took shape under the wing of the state,” and so each stage of the system was “meaningful politically as they were economically” (Mintz 41).

1600-1800: The rise in sugar consumption rose as sugar gained cultural, economic, and politic significance. In turn, this drove the demand for a labor force, ideally cheap and efficient.
1600-1800: The demand in sugar consumption rose as sugar gained cultural, economic, and politic significance. In turn, this drove the demand for a labor force, ideally cheap and efficient.

Sugar’s cultural significance, and later economic and political, resulted in increased demands, an exponential rise as seen in the chart. As demand rose, England became more and more dependent on the African labor force to supply their demand.

Initially, English plantation owners depended on the African slave as their cheap source of labor. As sugar gained popularity, culturally, economically, and politically, the English people also came to depend on the African slave labor to supply their demand for sugar. The interdependency between British culture and African slaves would eventually become a huge obstacle in the abolitionist movement because the end of slavery implied the end of Britain’s rise.

Work Cited

Primary Sources

Falconbridge, Alexandra. An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa. London: J. Phillips, 1788. Internet Archive. Web. 13 March 2015.

Trumbull, John. George Washington. 1780. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 13 March 2015.

Anonymous. Untitled. Date Unknown. Location Unknown. Hérodote. Web. 13 March 2015.

Secondary Sources

C.W. and A.J.K.D. “Did slavery make economic sense?” The Economist. Sep. 27. 2013. Web.

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 March. 2015. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Brattleboro: The Book Press, 1922. Print

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Richmond, The Will Byrd Press Press, Inc, 1944. Print.