By the beginning of the 1900s, sugar had become a complete staple of British diets. So much so, that it composed twenty (20%) percent of the average caloric intake (Mintz 6). Since sugar remains such a dominant source of energy in our diets today, this may not seem surprising. However, before 1000 AD, few Europeans even knew of sugar’s existence. This dramatic shift in historical sugar consumption can be explained, in part, by a supply and demand analysis. Demand was fueled by humans’ neurologically wired love for sugar and supply was entirely supported by the slave trade, making it both financially possible and profitable for the British to produce vast quantities of sugar.
Why sugar? What makes sugar so much more popular than other crops? Humans are neurologically programmed to crave sugar. We are wired in such a way that sugar presses the “pleasure” button in our brains more than most other foods. Moreover, as the video below details, unlike with other healthier foods, we have an almost insatiable neurological desire for sugar, that does not diminish with sugar intake. This makes sugar highly addictive, acting almost like modern addictive drugs.
Consequently, from the moment Europeans were introduced to sugar in 1100 CE, sugar was bound to reach high levels of demand. However, satisfying this universal infatuation would not be easy. Sugar can only grow in tropical climates and is quite labor intensive. Therefore, producers would need substantial land in warm climates and a tremendous amount of cheap labor to meet future demand. Enter, the British.
In 1625, Portugal was supplying nearly all of Europe with Brazilian sugar. The British, who learned sugar production methods from the Dutch, subsequently dominated the industry after their humble beginnings in the 1640s on the island of Barbados. The British quickly engulfed the entire island and even expanded into Jamaica.
Mintz argues, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves (to her own colonies and, in absolute numbers, in her own bottoms), and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar. Coffee, chocolate (cacao), nutmeg, and coconut were among the other products; but the amount of sugar produced, the number of its users, and the range of its uses exceeded the others; it remained the principal product for centuries” (Mintz 38).
However, sugar production was not a risk-free endeavor. Dunn remarks, “sugar making was a highly volatile business; with the right combination of skill, drive, and luck, a planter could make a quick fortune, but careless management, a tropical storm, an epidemic disease, a slave revolt, or a French invasion could ruin the most flourishing plantation overnight” (Dunn 189). Planters depended on (1) English merchants’ loans for slave and equipment acquisition and (2) the government to provide military and naval protection. These factors were key for Britain’s success in the sugar business. With these high risks came high financial rewards for those who were able to successfully navigate these challenges.
Despite the risks, the British facilitated astounding sugar production growth, fueled by the exploitation of Africans sold in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Sugar production accounted for a greater influx of slaves than any other crop. They enslaved 263,000 individuals alone, with half of their slaves going to the island of Barbados. Slave importation grew exponentially; in all of the English West Indies, the black population grew from forty-two (42%) percent of the total population in 1660, to eighty-one (81%) percent by 1700. The video below explains how Europeans were able to purchase so many slaves from Africa over the decades, and the long-lasting effects of this trade on Africa’s tumultuous political climate.
Agricultural practices on Caribbean sugar plantations differed from English and North American farms. The work force on sugar plantations primarily comprised unskilled forced field workers – nearly one laborer per acre of cane on an average seventeenth-century Barbados plantation. Here, laborers did the work traditionally performed by animals. Such tasks as planting and cultivating, performed on English or North American farms by horse-driven plows and harrows, were carried out in the Indies entirely by hand (Dunn 198). Dunn argues this work was purposely completely inefficiently in the Indies to keep slaves busy year-round, as Cane cultivation is very seasonal and this would have prevented slave rebellions during the offseason. These practices helped the British avoid slave rebellions and ensure steady production growth.
Before the turn of the eighteenth century, the English succeeded in establishing a monopoly on the production of sugar, partially attributable to a rigorous policy of the English Navigation Acts that drove out the Dutch from the sugar trade. With England being at the center of the world’s sugar production, consumption followed suit. Despite fluctuating conditions of supply and demand over the years, English sugar consumption consistently trended upward. Ellis writes, “the price of sugar was falling, and its consumption was spreading rapidly among the English people. By the end of the period sugar had passed well out from among the luxuries and was regarded by increasingly greater numbers as necessary to comfort and happiness” (Ellis 86).
As is clear from the figure above, English sugar consumption per capita grew substantially from the early beginnings in the 1640s on Barbados through the eighteenth century. Sugar went from something only the wealthy could enjoy to a household item. Were it not for the slave trade, producing mass quantities of the good — at such a low cost — would not have been possible. Moreover, we it not for the universal love of sugar, there would not have been the demand to support the high consumption. Therefore, these factors both played a key role in ensuring the explosion of British sugar production.
Dunn, Richard S., and Institute of Early American History Culture. Sugar and Slaves; the Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
Ellis, Ellen Deborah. An Introduction to the History of Sugar as a Commodity. J. C. Winston Co., 1905.
Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.