Tag Archives: Colonial

Consumption as Class? The Evolution and Implications of Sugar Usage in 18th Century England

Until the 18th century, sugar was a commodity strictly confined to the nobility (Mintz 45). However, by the mid-1700s, the “poorest English farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea” (Mintz 45). In less than a century, sugar evolved from a symbol of the ruling classes to an everyday commodity consumed veraciously by the working class. Yet, this process cannot merely be explained by the social adaptation of consumption practices by class—though distinct social meanings ascribed to sugar certainly developed within the social hierarchy of England. Rather, the evolution of sugar in England is representative of a complex system of political and economic power, of production and consumption. This blog explores the historical evolution and significance of sugar consumption in England. I will begin by analyzing the evolution of consumption practices as sugar pervaded households throughout the social hierarchy. Then, I will contextualize sugar consumption in England within a broader historical narrative, arguing that consumption patterns in the country were unique. Finally, I will locate the distinctness of British sugar consumption within the political and economic mechanisms of 18th century England. Though early consumption practices were representative of a social hierarchy and served to validate social status, the mounting taste for sugar throughout English society conferred political and economic, rather than merely social, significance.

Social Evolution of Sugar Consumption 

Some historians link the growing demand for consumer goods, such as sugar, in 18th century Europe to consumption as a signal of respectability and class (Smith 3). This is especially salient when examining the nascent phases of sugar consumption in England. When the commodity first arrived from the Caribbean, it was both expensive and rare, characteristics that contributed to its popularity among elites (Godoy 1). Before sugar was made economically available as a sweetener, it was utilized among the elite classes as a spice or condiment, decorative material, and an additive in medicine (Mintz 79). The exclusive association between sugar and the elite class bestowed symbolic weight upon the product in English life, providing its users with validation of power, authority, and status.

Though the evolution of sugar as a sweetener signifies its initial dispersion throughout English society, this method of consumption also played a significant role in the social life of elites. The focal point of English nobility’s political and cultural life was London’s many chocolate and coffee houses (Coe and Coe 223). Sugar played a significant part in these institutions, as sugar was added to both substances in order to enhance palatability. To be associated with such pleasures was to be among the political and economic elite and to have access to decision-making processes. Further, these institutions were places in which respectability and privilege were conferred (Cocking, 2018). However, while the image below conveys that these posh establishments were initially limited to political and social elites, their existence represents the diffusion of sugar into the broader public domain.

White’s Chocolate House in London
Source: Cadbury/ Wikimedia

By the mid-1700s, sugar was consumed by a widespread population, evolving into a necessity rather than a frivolity. While sugar had previously been associated with elitism, the social expansion of sugar contributed to its development as an everyday commodity that linked sugar to proletariat survival. Among the working classes and the poor, sugar was utilized as a sweetener for tea and coffee, as well as to supplement the consumption of carbohydrates, such as porridges and breads (Mintz 118). As a cheap, accessible source of calories, sugar came to be synonymous with the everyday Brit and was gradually reduced from its status as a luxury product. The recasting of sugar as a symbol of the working class, rather than elites, is representative of extensification, in which larger numbers of persons were becoming familiar with the good on a regular basis (Mintz 122).

The Consumer Revolution

Some historians have argued that European society experienced a “consumer revolution” throughout the eighteenth century, marked by the increased consumption of non-European consumer commodities (Smith 5-6). Indeed, it appears as though such a “revolution” occurred with regards to sugar consumption in England. Over a period of seventy years, English per capita consumption of sugar nearly quadrupled, indicating significant dispersion of the commodity throughout English society (Rivard et al. 424). As the following case study reveals, some individuals consumed sugar in excess daily.

“A Vindication of Sugars ,” written in 1715, argues for the beneficial nature of sugar. This entry suggests that the Duke of Beaufort survived to an old age because of his excessive sugar consumption.
Source: The British Library Board

William Wadd remarked in 1816, “ For one fat person in France or Spain, there are one hundred in England” (5), which is suggestive of the unique nature of English sugar consumption. In other European colonial societies, such as France, sweet delicacies were reserved only for the monarch’s court and highest-ranking nobility (Green 1). During the French revolution, indulgence in sugar came to be associated with immorality, as the history of the marquis de Sade—whose affinity for “pastry and sweets” is well-documented—exemplifies (Coe and Coe 230). Rather than permeating social classes, sweetness came to represent the hedonistic nature of the ruling elite. Thus, the widespread nature of sugar consumption in England represents a unique phenomenon that simultaneously reflected and enabled political and economic influence at the time.

Consumption Beyond Class

The extensification of sugar has explanations beyond the social structure of British society. The taxation of sugar served to bolster the financial resources of the British Empire. By the mid-1700s, the annual taxes procured from sugar imports sustained the ships of the British Navy (Godoy 1). As the navy was the primary mechanism through which British influence was spread throughout the globe, sugar served a political purpose in the British Empire. The expansion of the British Empire was enabled by the importation and consumption of sugar. Economically, widespread consumption of sugar in England solidified demand from British sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The novel, everyday uses for sugar that developed among the British working class necessitated the continued production and importation of the commodity. Further, sugar enabled the widespread consumption of chocolate, coffee, and tea, encouraging the demand for these items, as well

Sugar Plantation on the British colony of Antigua 
William Clark/ Wikimedia

Conversely, the availability of sugar was also reflective of state and business interests. Compared to other colonial powers at the time, England approached the colonization of the Caribbean most aggressively. According to Mintz, England “fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves… and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system” (38). Demand for sugar was conceived of, in part, by British suppliers, who realized that production and consumption were inextricably intertwined (Mintz 42). Despite a significant influx of sugar from British sugar islands throughout the 1700s, demand in the country continued to rise significantly—in this case, consumption matched production. Though sugar was initially consumed by and symbolic of elites, the British expansion of planation production necessitated a differentiation of sugar usages and an expanded consumer market. With this in mind, the spread of sugar can be viewed, not necessarily as an example of social extensification, but rather as a construction of the state. Thus, the diversification of sugar consumption cannot be merely identified as a social phenomenon. Rather, it is embedded within the broader political and economic mode of English colonialism.

Works Cited

The British Library Board. Sugar in Britain. British Library, London.

Clark, William. The Mill Yard. 1823. British Library, London.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire.” NPR, 7 April 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire. Accessed 8 Mar 2020.

Green, Matthew. “How the Decadence and Depravity of 18th-Century London Was Fuelled by Hot Chocolate.” The Telegraph, 23 Dec. 2018. http://www.telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/surprising-history-of-london-chocolate-houses/. Accessed 8 Mar 2020.

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

Rivard, Christopher, et al. “Sack and Sugar, and the Aetiology of Gout in England between 1650 and 1900.” Rheumatology (Oxford, England), vol. 52, Nov. 2012. ResearchGate, doi:10.1093/rheumatology/kes297.

Smith, Woodruff D. Consumption and The Making of Respectability, 1600-1800. Routledge, 2002.

Wadd, William. Cursory Remarks on Corpulence, or Obesity Considered as a Disease: With a Critical Examination of Ancient and Modern Opinions, Relative to Its Causes and Cure. 3rd edition, Smith and Davy, 1816.

White’s Chocolate House. 1708. London.

There is No Pleasure in Guilty Chocolate!

Why do you love chocolate? Because it is good! It tastes good and makes you happy. It is all that is good in the world wrapped in a beautiful candy bar. What if you learned that your delicious candy bar is a by-product of something bad, the output of someone else’s suffering?  A child’s suffering? Would you enjoy it just the same? Eating is not just a means to satisfy hunger; it is also an emotional and psychological experience.  We like to eat, and we like to eat good food without any negative connotations. Chocolate does not taste as good when it is served with a side of guilt. Chocolate tastes better when you wholeheartedly know that it came from a good place and produced in an ethical and social responsible manner.

Did you know that the global chocolate industry is nearly $100 billion dollars a year? The United States alone spends a little over 18 billion dollars in chocolate (2015), and that the average American consumes approximately 4.3 kilograms / 9.5 pounds of chocolate a year (2015). In comparison, beating the Americans at chocolate consumption are the Swiss who consume approximately a little over 9 kilograms / 20 pounds per person, then tied for second place are the Germans and the Austrians who approximately consume 3.6 kilograms / 7.4 pounds per person (Satioquia-Tan). Chocolate can be found anywhere around the world and is affordable to the masses especially to those who live in the developed world. Chocolate can be found in candy bars, truffles, fudge, cakes, muffins, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pancakes, health bars, sauces, drinks, in your café mocha, and anywhere you can sprinkle chocolate syrup. You can buy it in a specialty shop, supermarket, mini-market, drugstore, or any corner street gas station.

The majority of chocolate eaters are rather naïve in knowing the history and the current nature of the chocolate-making business. They simply eat it because they love chocolate without really knowing what it is, where it comes from, who makes and how; or any related social issues. For those consumers who are more aware of the social and economic impacts of the chocolate industry are a little more selective in choosing and enjoying their chocolate. To fully appreciate food is to experience it through all the possible senses, the physiological and psychological (Stuckey 13). Only twenty percent of what we physiologically taste happens in our mouths, the rest of the tasting experience happens through our remaining senses of sight, smell, touch, and sound. We, also, want to psychologically feel good about what we are eating. We want to know about the origins, the farming practices, and the ethics of what we are tasting (Stuckey 14). We want to know the context, the beautiful story, of what we are eating so we can enjoy it fully. The other option is to choose to remain a little ignorant of the subject as not to sour our chocolate taste, however this pleasure would be more superficial and would not represent the fullest appreciation of what we are eating. To fully appreciate today’s chocolate, we will have to fully experience it with the body and mind in full awareness of its origins, present journey and social impacts.

  1. What is Chocolate?

Cocoa is the main ingredient for all chocolate recipes.  Cocoa derives from cacao seeds, or more commonly referred to as cacao beans, which grow on the Theobroma Cacao tree.  Cacao trees are finicky trees that can only bear fruit in hot and humid tropical climates,twenty degrees from the equator at a specific altitude. These trees are highly dependent on midges, an insect, for its flowers to pollinate and bear fruit (Coe and Coe 19-21, 27). Cacao beans grow inside a fruity, pulp filled pod, approximately 30-40 beans grow inside one pod. Unlike most trees, where fruit grow dangling down from branches, cacao pods sprout directly from the tree trunk. In raw form, cacao beans constitute half its size in fat, cocoa butter. When cocoa butter is extracted from the cacao bean, what remains is the cocoa (or cocoa powder), the main ingredient of all chocolate (Coe and Coe 27). Before cacao beans turn into chocolate, cacao fruit is first farmed.  Upon harvest, fruit pods are removed from trees and cracked open to extract its beans with machetes. Cacao beans are then fermented, dried, sorted, roasted, transported, winnowed (deshelled), ground to a liquor, pressed (to remove the cacao butter), conched, and then what remains is added to chocolate-making recipes. Chocolate is the result of a labor intensive and highly processed food.

  1. Where Does Cacao Come From?

Cacao is native to the New World, the South American’s amazon basin region (Coe and Coe 25), and the Mesoamerican native cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs and predecessors were the first peoples to ever make chocolate dating back as far as 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe 33). Cacao was precious and a sacred food reserved for the elite, special occasions, and sacred rituals. Mayan and Aztecs Gods often appear alongside or in the form of cacao trees in their native hieroglyphs and surviving art (Coe and Coe 42). So precious, cacao beans were even used as a means of monetary currency. In 1545, documented is the commodity price of a tamale: one tamale equals one cacao bean (Coe and Coe 98-99). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to discover and spread the taste of chocolate to Europe starting in the 1500’s (Coe and Coe 108). At the beginning of the chocolate history in Europe, chocolate was rare, expensive, and for the upper class.  Then as time passed and soon after the industrial revolution, chocolate became relatively common and affordable to the masses.

Amazon Basin
Amazon basin (based on Wikipedia, Amazon basin article, by Kmusser, using Digital Chart of the Word and GTOPO data)

After the end of the American colonial period, in the late 1800’s, the Spanish and the Portuguese introduced cacao to West Africa. Due to favorable climate conditions, cacao flourished in West Africa.  Today, approximately seventy percent of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa (Wessel and Quist-Wessel 1). The Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two major countries that supply cacao.  There are 2 million, small (3 hectares acres in size), independent farms (Ryan 52) in West Africa that supply three million metric tons of cacao per year (World Cocoa Foundation).

West Africa, Ivory Coast depicted in orange and Ghana  depicted in green (based on Wikipedia, Ghana-Ivory Coast Relations article)

  1. What Are the Social Issues Involving the Chocolate Industry?

Since the first Europeans, the Spanish conquistadors, landed in the New World, the cacao industry has been tainted with slavery and forced labor since 1650’s (Berlan 1092). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish forced the natives to pay tribute in labor and cacao to their new Spanish Crown.  After millions of natives died of diseases, the Spanish, like other colonists in the Americas, resorted to using chattel slavery from Africa to extract New World resources (Presilla 24, 33). Chattel slavery officially ended in 1884, however it continued in disguise in Portuguese West Africa well into the 1900’s in the cacao industry and some reports state that it persisted until 1962 (Berlan 1092).

Today, cacao farmer incomes are very volatile for it depends on operating profits, and since cacao is a commodity, the market price.  Farmers need to sell their cacao at a high enough price in order to pay off their operation expenses which includes labor, a major expense, just like most businesses. Unexpected operating expenses and / or a fall in market price can be devastating on farmer revenues/incomes. Cacao farmers, per capita, constantly live without the security of a reliable living wage. In 2015, cacao farmers earned 50 to 84 cents on the American dollar a day (Cocoabarometer). As it is, cacao farmers barely break even, and there is little economic incentive for them to stay in the cacao farming business.  Due to local poverty and lack of other options, farmers continue to grow cacao under pressure to lower operating costs and often resort to desperate means to make a profit, break even, or just enough to pay for rice and cooking oil (Off 5).

In more recent history in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a wave of newspaper stories and documentary films exposed the existence of child labor, trafficking, and slaves in West African cacao farms which caused much consumer outrage. The media graphically showed the world the extreme poverty and hard lives of cacao farmers in West Africa and the desperate measures farmers take to lower operating costs by using child slave labor (Berlan 1089).

The documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation (2000), especially shocked viewers by showing how easy it was to find child slaves working on cacao farms and how the local people seem to accept the practice as a way of life. On camera, journalists were able, with relative ease, to overtly interview real child slaves and get first-hand testimony about their hardships, a farm owner who openly admitted to having slaves and in how to get them, and a local official who confirmed as matter of fact that at least 90% of the Ivory Coast farms use child slave labor.  Ninety percent implies the existence of hundreds of thousands of slaves (Ryan 118). A 2000 US State Department report estimated that 15,000 Malian children worked on Ivory Coast cacao farms and that many of were under 12 years old and sold into indentured service (Off 133). Two of the local documentary crew even demonstrated how easy it was to buy slaves, posing as buyers, they went to the marketplace and were able to purchase two boys for the total of forty British pounds (approximately $40) within thirty minutes. Economics, low cacao market price, was credited as being the main reason why these farmers resorted to using slavery.  With such low cacao market prices, farmers cannot afford to pay employee wages and still make a profit, and they have no other income options. In contrast, in a free and mature economy, if a business is not profitable it goes out of business, and one can start a new business or find a new job, this is not the case for the West African cacao farmers.

Since the West African child labor scandals, there has an increased awareness and legislation attempts to eradicate forced and most hazardous child labor. Child labor in general is so embedded into the West African culture, not all children who work on farms are slaves or working with hazards. Most children work as part of the family on their family farms. It was deemed impossible and impractical to create a law that would abolish all form of child labor, however a voluntary agreement, The Harking-Engel Protocol, was signed among the Ivory Coast and the International Chocolate and Cocoa Industry in accordance with the International Labor Organization to end the worst forms of child labor in 2001 (Ryan 44, 47). Because of extreme poverty and lack of options, there are children who are better off working for they will at least have access to some food. Today, consumers are more aware, corporations have put efforts in demonstrating social responsibility in self-certifications, and nonprofit/advocacy organizations, have emerged and increased advocacy. There is still much poverty among cacao farmers, and many children  are still working on farms and some are still suspected of being forced to work against their will.  The child labor problems still exist today.  We, the world, hoped for that the state of child labor in West Africa would be better, however it could be worse.

It is natural that corporations would seek to do business with a poorer and less mature economies so to benefit from cheaper labor costs, but there should be limits when business practices violate human rights and the ability for workers to make a livable wage. It is evident that cacao farmers need more money so can they afford to hire farm workers to help cultivate their labor intensive cacao farms. In the least, the cacao market price needs to go up. It may mean that consumers would have to pay a little more for their chocolate treats. Would you be willing to pay a little more for your candy bar if it would end child and forced labor?

I realize that blindly throwing more money at the problem will not necessarily fix it if local corrupt governments and other stakeholders are still there to scheme away the extra money intended for the cacao farmers. This is a complex issue which requires multi-approach solution. We, the consumers, the governments, NGOs, the corporations, the media (or lack of media), the farmers, are all part of the problem, and we could also all be part of the solution. West African farmers and their children need special consideration for they are the most powerless demographic group in the chocolate food chain. The ones with the most power in the chocolate food chain by default have the most ability, and therefore the greater responsibility, to effect change. Wealthy companies and consumers are in the best position to invest and apply influence in the solution. We, the consumers, should expect that our chocolate companies to conduct business in an ethical and social responsible manner or make better consumer choices if they do not.

Here, in the first world, we would not accept the practice of child labor or slavery in our backyard, and we should not accept it elsewhere and in the products that we use and the foods we eat.  The West African modern-day slave issue is especially heartbreaking for it involves children in producing sweets that we all so enjoy so much. If we all knew that children were being kidnapped and forced to cultivate cacao, we would all enjoy the taste of our chocolate a little less. As consumers, we need to be more conscious about what we eat and learn as much as possible so we can make better consumer choices, maybe write a customer complaint to your chocolate provider or your congressman to influence change in law.  There is no better tasting chocolate than the one that is free from social guilt. In the end, we should all have the right to enjoy good and good-tasting chocolate.

Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana. The Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1088-1100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2013.78004.

Cocoa Barometer 2015 report, USA Ed. Cocoabarometer.org. http://www.cocoabarometer.org/International_files/Cocoa%20Barometer%202015%20USA.pdf

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2008.

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Zed Books, 2011.

Satioquia-Tan, Janine. Americans East How Much Chocolate? CNBC.com, 23 Jul. 2015, 7:41 PM ET.  http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/23/americans-eat-how-much-chocolate.html

Stuckey, Barb. Taste What You Are Missing: The  Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. Free Press, 2012.

Slavery: A Global Investigation. Produced and directed by Brian Woods and Kate Blanchet.  A True Vision Production in Association with HBO, 2000. TopDocumentaryFilms, topdocumentaryfilms.com/slavery-a-global-investigation.

Wessel, Marius, and Foluke Quist-Wessel. Cocoa Production in West Africa, a Review and Analysis of Recent Developments. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences., vol. 74-74, pp. 1-7, 12-2015. doi.org/10.1016/j.njas.2015.09.001.

World Cocoa Foundation, http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/category/program-region/africa.