Tag Archives: sugar production

The Biology and Morality of Chocolate and Sugar Consumption

In the words of Sidney Mintz, “…Sugar is sweet, and human beings like sweetness” (1986). But what about this liking for sugar made chocolate bars one of our most symbolic pieces of food, taking over holidays like Valentine’s Day and Easter? How do we approach the problems of fair working conditions for the farmers who cultivate the cacao and sugar cane? In this blog post I will explore the biological reasoning for why sugar made chocolate such a hot commodity in so many parts of the world. I also offer that this biological predisposition to love the taste of sweetness is, in part, what has given chocolate such a high place in the food industry and our society, despite the moral wrongs associated with chocolate production. To resolve the moral dilemma of chocolate consumption, we must fight against the behind-the-scenes production story, which threatens the basic rights of millions of farmers. 

Sugar and the Brain

Let us begin by exploring why taking a sweet bite of anything gives us so much pleasure. It is important to remember that sugars are a part of a large family of carbohydrates, which is one of the main energy sources for our bodies. So, it makes sense that sweetness on the tongue, which signals to our brains that we are consuming carbohydrates, causes a pleasurable response (Reed & McDaniel, 2006). Moreover, following this evolutionary perspective is the reasoning that poisonous foods are not usually sweet-tasting, so our bodies have more justification for why we meet sweet-tasting foods with a positive reaction (Reed & McDaniel, 2006). The short video below describes the science behind sugar consumption; in other words, how sugar affects your brain and body. 

Video 1. How sugar affects the brain, by Nicole Avna. Source: TedEd.

It is not surprising, then, that using sugar as a sweetener for chocolate made us go crazy for it. The cacao that chocolate is derived from was once “food of the gods” served as a bitter drink in Mayan civilizations. However, the sweet candy we know now became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries upon the revolutionary cocoa press, invented in 1828 by Coenraad Johannes van Houten (Klein, 2018). And now we are at the present day, where “the average American consumes 12 lbs. of chocolate each year, and more than $75 billion worldwide is spent on chocolate annually” (Klein, 2018).

The Moral Dilemma

This human quasi-addiction to sugar begins to answer the question, why do we allow the violation of human rights for millions of people just so that we can have our cacao and sugar cane grown? This question, which definitely implicates much more research and perspective, is one that I will only be able to graze the surface of. Nonetheless, I do believe that a biological perspective does hold some merit here, as we find ourselves in a moral dilemma as we enjoy pieces of sweetened chocolate which were produced through the back-breaking and inhumane labor of other human beings, including children. The farmers, not the distributors in the high-income countries, are the ones who are hit the hardest when the market prices fluctuate – For instance, farmers on the Ivory Coast see their cocoa income decrease “by as much as 30-40% from one year to the next” (Fountain & Huetz-Adams, 2018). This is on top of the fact that millions of these farmers are children, and they are making about 31% of a living wage (Fountain & Huetz-Adams, 2018). 

Figure 1. Map of the Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries. Source: Chocolate Phayanak.

What Can We Do?

So, while we are evolutionarily inclined to enjoy this chocolate, cycles of slavery and cruel treatment to farmers all over the world would tell us not to indulge. While there is no straightforward answer here, I suggest that what we should push for is more Fairtrade schemes, which need to be more heavily supported by the governments of rich countries, since these products would be more expensive than non-Fairtrade products. As explained by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, these schemes support the farmers by generating “hundreds of millions of additional dollars for small products in developing countries” and the schemes also protect the farmers rights, including “freedom of association and protection from sexual harassment” (Singer & Mason, 2007).  

Figure 2. Nestle Kit Kat Bard with Fairtrade symbol. This symbol is visible on food items of companies with Fairtrade certification. Source: Campaign.

Additionally, the farmers from these low-income countries need to be making a living wage, and they need more subsidies to protect them from immediate income fluctuation in response to market price changes. They need to be protected from this price volatility and the disproportionate risk that they bear in this supply chain. This is only possible with major support from the governments involved as well as international actors. This also requires consumer awareness – that is, all of us being invested in the dialogue around and action against this structural oppression and poverty.

In conclusion, the harm does not come from our inherent love for all things sweet; rather from our indifference towards the means to get that sweet chocolate bar in our hands. Until we fight against the oppressive labor conditions of the farmers who make it possible for chocolate to be such a symbol in our societies, we will be faced with this very bitter moral dilemma.

References

Fountain, A., Huetz-Adams, F. (2018). Cacao Barometer 2018. N.p.

Klein, Christopher (2018). The Sweet History of Chocolate. Retrieved 25 March 2020 from <https://www.history.com/news/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate>

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Reed, D., McDaniel, A. (2006). The Human Sweet Tooth. BMC Oral Health 6(Suppl 1): S17.

Singer, P., Mason, J. (2007). The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Pennsylvania: Rodale Books.

Figure 1. Chocolate Phayanak (2017). Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries. [map]. Retrieved from <https://chocolatephayanak.com/unkategorisiert/where-is-cocoa-grown-around-the-world/>

Figure 2. Charles, Gemma (2010). Kit Kat: Nestle Brand. [photo]. Retrieved from <https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/nestle-launches-biggest-ever-cross-category-push/1015362>

Video 1. Avena, Nicole (2014). How Sugar Affects the Brain. . Retrieved from YouTube (TedEd) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=lEXBxijQREo&feature=emb_title>

The Contradiction of Capitalism: Sugar Plantations in the early 1800s

           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.

Slaves cutting sugar cane in the 1800s in Trinidad

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.

This map of the Triangular Trade shows how sugar was produced and exported to Europe and New England from slave labor in the Caribbean.

           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.

The Contradiction

           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.

References

“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.

The Spanish Colonization of Sugar and its Consequences

When Spanish conquistadors came to the Caribbean and Latin America to colonize and plunder the land and its people, they didn’t do so with a single ounce of mercy or hesitation, instead they quickly established a blood-thirsty rule plagued by violence, failure, and death. “Colonial relations in Mesoamerica were highly violent from the very start” (Sampeck 546). They first established encomiendas, a system in which the monarchy would give Spanish colonizers, in the form of a soldier or a colonist, a large area of land or a village and all of the indigenous people who were already residing there. These indigenous populations were enslaved and forced to work until they died from exhaustion or disease. Soon many encomiendas evolved from other crops into purely sugar plantations. When indigenous groups weren’t enough to meet the demand for workers, African slaves were brought to the Caribbean islands to toil away on these sugar plantations. The Spanish colonization of the Caribbean and the creation of sugar plantations would cause centuries of lasting effects ranging from population shifts, national cultures, perpetual colonization, and agricultural monocultures.

Sugar Cane, 1931, by Diego Rivera

“Santo Domingo’s pristine sugar industry was worked by enslaved Africans, the first slaves having been imported there soon after the sugar cane. Hence it was Spain that pioneered sugar cane, sugar making, African slave labor, and the plantation form in the Americas”

Mintz 32

Sugar, Cocoa, and Slavery in Portuguese Colonial Africa

Slave labor fueled the sugar industry ‒ and, later, the cocoa industry ‒ in Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic for centuries. Though slavery was officially abolished in Portugal’s colonies in the 1870s, it was quickly replaced with forced labor that left indentured São Toméans toiling on sugar plantations for little or no pay up until the early twentieth century. Slavery and forced labor played huge roles in the history of the chocolate industry, and their historical ties to Portuguese sugar cane and cocoa exports cannot be ignored.

Early Sugar Production in the Atlantic Colonies

A map of Portugal and its colonies, in red, alongside principal Portuguese trade routes, in green, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.1

Sugar consumption in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was starkly different than it is today. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, sugar was still largely only accessible to the wealthy, and was most commonly used as a spice or medicine.2

While sugar was still nowhere near being the commodity it is today, its production proved to be strategic for other reasons. The Portuguese realized that securing colonial territories in the Atlantic could be useful to the end of monopolizing essential trade routes, and so soon began establishing sugar cane plantations along their Atlantic island territories in order to safeguard these trade routes.3 Sugar plantations, or roças, were established on the islands of the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe, and later in the continental African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

[Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic] were situated in strategic locations with respect to wind systems and ocean currents. Portugal’s control of the sea lanes in the Atlantic ‒ and later to Asia ‒ were to depend on her ability to secure the islands as bases.

Sidney M. Greenfield4

In Angola and Mozambique, these sugar cane plantations were powered by the unpaid labor of enslaved natives. Portugal’s  island colonies in the Atlantic had no native populations, however, and so the Portuguese imported enslaved people from its colonies on the African continent to toil on the island plantations in place of Portuguese settlers.5

The value of sugar skyrocketed over the next several hundred years, surpassing that of even tobacco.6 By 1900, sugar represented approximately “one-sixth of per-capita caloric intake” among Europeans.7 Sugar plantations became a vital part of the world economy as the global demand for sugar increased, and the Portuguese were willing to go to great lengths to protect the incredible wealth they had created in the Atlantic on the backs of slaves.

Cocoa Plantations and Forced Labor in São Tomé and Príncipe

Portugal abolished slavery in 1761, but ruled that this abolition should not be extended to its colonies abroad. The decision to end slavery in the colonies did not come until 1869, and was not actually implemented until the mid-1870s.9 The economies of the Portuguese colonies had been built entirely upon the unpaid labor of abducted African people; as such, the Portuguese government soon began looking for ways to lessen the economic blow that abolishing slavery in its colonies would undoubtedly cause. Eventually a new labor system was implemented in the colonies wherein former slaves could “sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage.”10

In reality, these so-called contracts were either coerced, forged, or simply never existed in the first place. These serviçais, as they were called ‒ the Portuguese word for servants ‒ were slaves whose lives, labor, and freedom were being stolen for the profit of the Portuguese empire.

An undated São Toméan postcard featuring a photograph of serviçais working at Roça Boa Entrada, one of the largest cocoa plantations in São Tomé and Príncipe.8

As the global demand for chocolate began to increase around the mid-1800s alongside the global demand for sugar, some of Portugal’s Atlantic colonies began producing cocoa on plantations nearly identical to the sugar cane roças. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe soon became hubs of cheap, large-scale cocoa production powered by the new serviçal labor system.

The Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies, both located in England, were two of several buyers of cocoa from the roças of São Tomé and Príncipe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. English journalist Henry Nevinson published an exposé of the abhorrent labor conditions of serviçais in Portuguese colonial Africa in his 1906 novel A Modern Slavery, but neither Cadbury nor Fry made an effort to source their cocoa elsewhere once these revelations came to light. Instead, unconvinced ‒ or perhaps willfully ignorant ‒ William Cadbury sent Joseph Burtt to investigate labor conditions in São Tomé and Príncipe for himself in 1907.11

When Burtt’s report confirmed Nevinson’s findings, it was not well received. The British secretary of state urged Burtt to edit his report to be less damning of the Portuguese government, essentially watering down the atrocity of what was actually happening overseas in the name of diplomacy while simultaneously delaying the publication of the report.12 Nevinson saw Burtt’s report as a weak summary of his own work, and published articles in several newspapers advocating for the boycott of Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies until their cocoa was no longer associated with São Toméan slave labor.13 While said boycott never actually took place, the scandal was enough to push Cadbury and Fry to officially stop buying São Toméan cocoa in March of 1909.14

Modern Cocoa Production in Post-Colonial Africa

Following the Cadbury slave labor scandal, cocoa production in São Tomé and Príncipe began to dwindle. The chocolate companies that had once been loyal customers of São Toméan cocoa began sourcing their cocoa from countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire instead. By the time São Tomé became independent in 1975, the cocoa industry there had fallen “into neglect,”15 and nearly one-quarter of all cocoa farmers in São Tomé were living below the poverty line.16

It wasn’t until 2009, when the United Nations’ International Fund for Agriculture began “working with farmers on the island to produce Fair Trade cocoa beans using a co-operative model,”17 that prospects for the cocoa industry in São Tomé and Príncipe slowly began to improve. Fair trade farmer’s co-operatives ensure that São Toméan cocoa farmers are finally appropriately compensated for their labor after centuries of being forced to provide this labor for free.

Fair trade chocolate practices ensure that African cocoa farmers are appropriately compensated for their labor.18

Works Cited

  1. Image from Biblioteca Escolar, https://docplayer.com.br/74086840-Portugal-sec-xv-e-xvi.html.
  2. Mintz, Sidney W.  Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985, p. 30.
  3. Ibid, p. 30.
  4. Greenfield, Sidney M. “Plantations, Sugar Cane, and Slavery.” Historical Reflections,  vol. 6, no. 1 (1979), pp. 85119. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41330419, p. 87.
  5. Ibid, p. 103.
  6. Mintz, p. 36. [n 1]
  7. Ibid, p. 149.
  8. Image from Ansichtskartenpool historical postcards, https://www.akpool.co.uk/postcards/28291659-postcard-so-tom-und-prncipe-roca-boa-entrada-chegada-do-cacao.
  9. Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005, p. 3.
  10. Ibid, p. 3.
  11. Ibid, p. 13.
  12. Higgs, Catherine. “Cadbury, Burtt, and Portuguese Africa.” Chapter in Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012, pp. 133154, p. 133.
  13. Ibid, p. 137.
  14. Ibid, p. 148.
  15. Constable, Harriet. “Cocoa industry returns to São Tomé.” Geographical. 30 August 2018, https://geographical.co.uk/people/development/item/2889-sao-tome, p. 5.
  16. Plaut, Martin. “Chocolate boost for São Tomé farmers.” BCC News. 7 March 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12261276, p. 11.
  17. Constable, p. 5. [n 15]
  18. Video from Equal Exchange, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnpsFRcsnE0.

Exploring the Explosion of British Sugar Production: A Supply and Demand Analysis

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.

Works Cited

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. 

Imperialism, Industrialization, and the Rise of Sugar in Great Britain

We take processed sugar for granted in most of our meals. It is a necessary ingredient in many recipes: we use it to sweeten our drinks, our meals, and our desserts. The world production of sugar shows the most remarkable upward curve of any major food in the world market over the course of several centuries, and it is continuing upward still. The exponentially growing supply of sugar directly parallels consumption behavior, especially evident in Britain. Sugar became a necessity in every British meal by the 19th century from a rarity among the socioeconomic elites of the 17th century. Today, an average person in Britain consumes 120 pounds of sugar every year.

What drove this phenomenal popularity? What social conditions enabled the growth in production to meet such demand? Big, structural changes, namely imperialism and industrialization, that pushed human civilization from the Medieval times through the Age of Enlightenment to the Modern Era established the fundamental framework for refined sugar to spread virally.

Demand for Sugar

As sugar gained popularity within the English nobility in the 17th and 18th century, its chemical properties were exploited for five distinct uses. Doctors, most of who still relied on Galenic humoral principles, prescribed ill patients with various concoctions with sugar as main ingredient. Dr. Frederick Slare found “sugar a veritable cure-all” and publishes his overenthusiastic support for commodity and its purported medicinal powers in his book A Vindication of Sugars Against the Charge of Dr. Willis, Other Physicians, and Common Prejudices: Dedicated to the Ladies (Mintz, 106). Such imagined miraculous wonders of sugar are deeply rooted in the Europe-centric orientalist mindset, mystifying sugar as a foreign and ancient panacea from the Arabs, who introduced the good to Europe. The use of sugar as a medicine diminished mostly due to its growing presence in the average household in Britain.

Sugar was also used as a condiment to impart a change in flavor of a dish. It was “grouped with spices like pepper, nutmeg, mace, ginger [and] cardamom,” to develop counterposed taste profiles like bittersweet and sweet and sour (Mintz, 79). Like other spices, sugar’s status as an exotic and expensive good in Medieval and Renaissance Europe was coveted by the rich and the powerful. The extremely wealthy also displayed their socioeconomic status by using pastes with sugar, almonds, rice, and gums to sculpt decorations often showcased at banquet courses. The symbolic importance of sugar declined significantly as its accessibility increased dramatically.

Although sugar’s uses as medicine, spice-condiment, and decorative material were meaningful contributors of its popularity especially among the 17th and 18th century elites, its more pragmatic properties fundamentally shifted the common public’s perception of sugar from a luxurious commodity to a necessity. The British climate allowed for a short growing season and foods would often rot, creating a substantial demand for sugar as a preservative and producing jams, marmalade’s, syrups and dried fruit as byproducts. Lastly, and most significantly, sugar became the main sweetener in connection with three other major imports: tea, chocolate, and coffee. By complementing their bitterness, sugar increased their approachability to the general public. This drove the demand for the three beverages, especially tea, which in turn drove the demand for sugar, creating a feedback loop.

Print of a giant sugar mill in 1862.

Additionally, industrialization of Britain and its consequent rise of free-market capitalism and decline of feudalism developed a homogenous working class, members of which constantly minimized costs and time to fulfill their labor hours. Sugar, which has the highest calorie per acre, provided a cost and time efficient supplement that did not require food. Therefore, “[industrial] families spent about double the amount on tea and sugar as their rural counterparts” by the mid-19th century (Griffin, 87). Sweetened preserves and pre-made pastries with sugar became popular meal substitutes for working parents.

Supply to Keep Up with Demand

The physical production of sugar had to match this phenomenal demand in Britain to keep prices down and increase accessibility. Sugar making is a long and difficult process, which involves laborious extraction and purification of the liquid from sugar canes. New Portugal supplied most of the sugar consumption in Europe, until British imperialistic motivations that sprung during the 17th century resulted in the colonization of two key islands in climate suitable for sugar cane plantation in 1650: Barbados and Jamaica. Another significant consequence of the imperialist/capitalist desire to meet demand resulted in the massive enslavement and mobilization of Africans to the Caribbean islands. These slaves “not only cut cane: at the center of every plantation was the factory: the sugar mill…and the boiling house and the sugar curing house, perhaps a distilling house for the manufacture of rum” (Norton). They fulfilled the “manual labor…absolutely essential for cultivation and for harvesting” (Robertson, 140). Slavery, until it was banned in the 19th century, allowed for significant decline in retail prices while still maintaining huge profitability for the plantation owners.

Cane cutting in a sugar plantation in Jamaica during the 19th century.

Industrialization and imperialism resulted in two similarly dispossessed laborers in massive populations that played fundamental roles in developing sugar as an ubiquitous commodity. European laborers, who worked in urban factories beginning in the 17th century, would become the mass consumers of sugar. The demand created from this working class was fulfilled by the slaves displaced by imperial Britain in the Caribbean colonies, and later indentured servants from India after the abolition of slavery in 1834.

Chocolate, Slavery and Aristocratic Decadence: Jamaican Plantations and London’s Wild Side in the 18th Century

https://media.gettyimages.com/photos/18th-december-1869-a-negro-slave-beating-a-woman-slave-watched-by-two-picture-id3334051

A negro slave beating a woman slave watched by two white men.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The treatment of black slaves on the sugar plantations of 18th century Jamaica was brutal. Distressing evidence of this is provided by songs that slave women on such plantations sang about being forcibly separated from their families, suffering sexual abuse, and receiving punishment whippings. For the purpose of these punishments, the slaves would be stripped and held down by other slaves, while the plantation overseer or owner instructed a male slave to deliver the lashings (Altink, 2000).

Popular representations have made us familiar with the idea that such brutality provided the foundation for the cultivated and elegant lifestyles of the social elite across the ocean in Great Britain. In a scene from Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park as shown below, for example, Fanny Price discovers Sir Thomas Bertram’s sketchbook showing scenes of brutality from the Jamaican plantations that had provided the source of his wealth.

Less well known is the connection between slavery on the plantations of Jamaica and the decadent lifestyles that grew up among some of 18th century London’s wealthiest elite. This connection is provided by one of the products that sugar was grown to make: hot chocolate for drinking. For not only sugar, but also cacao was grown on British-owned slave plantations in Jamaica (Grivetti and Shapiro, 2011). And London not only offered establishments for drinking coffee, but also, if one could afford it, ones for drinking chocolate.

If one has formed one’s idea of 18th century London life from reading about the erudite and witty conversations that figures like Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and their circle of talented friends held in the city’s pubs and coffee houses (Damrosch, 2019), then it can come as a shock to learn about the decadent culture that prevailed in the city’s chocolate houses. The most prominent of these institutions were White’s, Ozinda’s and the Cocoa Tree (Green, 2018). The opulent decor of the socially exclusive chocolate houses was consonant with their aristocratic clientele and stood in contrast to the more drab interiors of the city’s coffee houses.

See the source image

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/content/dam/Travel/2017/March/chocolate-whites-exterior.jpg?imwidth=480

In 1778 White’s Chocolate House moved from its original location in Mayfair to new premises in St James’s Street

White’s became notorious for the crazy gambling that took place there. The Connoisseur, a down-market weekly newspaper that Johnson felt “wanted matter” (i.e. lacked substance) but that was appreciated by Boswell, reported that at White’s “there is nothing, however trivial or ridiculous, that is not capable of producing a bet” (Coe and Coe, 2019). Large sums of money were wagered on such matters as which armies would be defeated in battles, whether a certain Duke would or would not have an illegitimate child within two years, or whether a given number of White’s members would die within exactly a year (Green, 2018; Doyle and Scott, 2020). One frequenter of White’s is reported to have bet £3,000 on which of two raindrops would first reach the bottom of the bow window at the club. While in their True History of Chocolate (2019) Sophie and Michael Coe state that his was Lord Arlington, many websites focusing on the Regency period suggest it was the “Regency Buck” Lord Avanley. (My search for definitive information continues.)

https://nineteenteen.blogspot.com/2011/01/where-boys-are-betting-at-whites.html

 The famous – or infamous – bow window at White’s

Perhaps the most notorious incident to occur at White’s occurred in 1750 when a man collapsed in the street in front of St. James’s Palace. When he was carried into the nearest building, which happened to be White’s, the establishment’s aristocratic chocolate drinkers took bets on whether he would die. These degenerate gamblers forbade anyone from providing assistance to the man, as they couldn’t tolerate the idea of their bet being spoiled by an “unfair” intervention (Green, 2018).

Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress No. 6, The Gambling House

Such attitudes and practices earned White’s the disdain of the satirical artist William Hogarth, who expressed his disapproval in the sixth painting in his work A Rake’s Progress. This series of paintings depicts the picturesque vicissitudes in the life story of Tom Rakewell, a well-to-do young man who comes to London and dissipates his fortune through wild living. In The Gambling House, the sixth picture, Tom re-loses the fortune he had earlier regained, amid the grotesque countenances of huddled degenerate gamblers. Incidentally, the smoke that can be near the ceiling represents a real fire that occurred at White’s in May 1733 (Uglow, 1997).

An interesting theory about what drove aristocratic gamblers of London’s chocolate houses has been advanced by Matthew Green. Viewing their behavior through the lens of Thorstein Veblen, Green chides Hogarth for being unfair to the gamblers as a consequence of being trapped in his own middle-class perspective. Instead, Green argues, we need to recognize that for the nobility of Georgian London life had become “one big game of conspicuous consumption” (Green, 2018). Seen in this light, their behavior may appear somewhat more rational, but one wonders whether such a sophisticated analysis is really justified. The bets were indeed huge, but could any of the players really hope to impress their equally wealthy friends with them? An alternative explanation might focus on the psychology of gambling—including perhaps a need for excitement in a world that had become boringly secure and devoid of danger (Baraniuk, 2020).

Production of chocolate in the 18th century—in particular the key ingredients of cacao and sugar—bore a heavy cost in human suffering. This suffering was largely invisible to the inhabitants of London, Paris and other major cities of Europe, even as the eighteenth century became the “apogee of British and French slave-based sugar plantations” (Mintz, 1986). By contrast, for many thoughtful people today is impossible to encounter images of elegant eighteenth century and Regency elite lifestyles without also having evoked images of the barbaric cruelty that sustained it. Yet perhaps people can still be seduced by the nihilistically glamorous dissolution of the aristocratic gamblers who frequented London’s chocolate houses. Keeping in mind the link between this world and the unspeakable misery which African slaves on the cacao and sugar plantations endured in order to produce the chocolate that fuelled its decadence may help us to avoid such moral lapses.

Works cited:

Altink, Henrice  “Jamaican Slave Women’s Dance and Song in the 1770s – 1830s.” Web. 7 March 2020

Baraniuk, Chris. “Why gamblers get high even when they lose.” Web. 8 March 2020

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160721-the-buzz-that-keeps-people-gambling

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson 2019

Damrosch, Leo. The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age. Yale University Press 2019

Doyle, Marissa, and Regina Scott. “Where the Boys Are: Betting at White’s.” Web. 9 March 2020

https://nineteenteen.blogspot.com/2011/01/where-boys-are-betting-at-whites.html

Green, Matthew. “How the decadence and depravity of 18th London was fuelled by hot chocolate.” Web. 7 March 2020

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/surprising-history-of-london-chocolate-houses/

Grivetti, Louis, Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage

John Wiley & Sons 2011

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

Uglow, Jenny. Hogarth: A Life and a World. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1997

British sugar: How we got here

It is no secret that sugar is a major part of the modern diet. In the United States, according to the CDC, “In 2005–2010, the average percentage of total daily calories from added sugars was 13% (average intake of 335 calories) for men and 13% (average intake of 239 calories) for women aged 20 and older” (“Know”). In Britain, according to the BBC, “The latest NDNS report found that all age groups were eating more added sugar (technically known as non-milk extrinsic sugars) than the 11% level but that children were exceeding it to the greatest degree” (Jeavens). The British have been consuming sugar long before the United States even came to be, so how did it become so prevalent in British diets? One potential reason for the run up in sugar consumption is the versatility of sugar and its uses. It could be used as medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and a preservative (Martin, slide 12). Another potential reason is that slavery helped to produce sugar for cheap, and sugar duties that propped up the price of sugar were lifted, making sugar more accessible and cheaper for the people of Great Britain.

From 1700-1800, British sugar consumption jumped from about 4 lbs. per person in to 18 lbs. (Mintz 97). However, it grew even more rapidly from there. As you can see from Figure 1 below, sugar consumption has skyrocketed in Britain since 1800. In the early days of sugar, it was a luxury reserved for the rich. When it first came to Europe “around 1100 A.D., sugar was grouped with spices—pepper, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cardamom, coriander, galingale (related to ginger), saffron, and the like. Most of these were rare and expensive tropical (and exotic) imports, used sparingly by those who could afford them at all” (Mintz 111). Sugar, like these other spices, was quite expensive and hard to get. But, it uses were incredibly versatile. Sugar could be used as a spice, used in jams, used in tea and coffee, and used to sculpt subtleties. “By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity—albeit a costly and rare one—in the diet of every English person” (Mintz 32).

The Transatlantic Slave Trade, also known as Triangular Trade, aided in the spread of sugar because it could be produced for cheap. Since sugar was so profitable, colonizing countries used the West Indies to grow tons of sugar, and forced African slaves to grow it and work the land. As you can see in Figure 3, slaves flowed into the West Indies from Africa, and sugar (along with other goods) flowed into Europe and the American colonies. Much of the major economic trade was built on the backs of slaves—trade of which they never saw any benefit themselves as they were worked to death and sold to work in the fields as “property.” On top of the cruelty of slavery driving down production costs, after the 1870s, “the abolition of the sugar duties made sugar cheap and plentiful; jam contains 50 to 65 per cent of its weight in sugar…. Most of the produce of the jam and preserves factories was for domestic consumption…. Urban working classes…consumed much of their fruit in the form of jam” (Mintz 164). Thus, with sugar becoming less expensive thanks to the repeal of sugar duties, giving more people access to sugar at a lower cost.  Thus, “the jam manufacturers, with the exception of Blackwell and Chivers who made expensive preserves as well, agreed in 1905 that their most extensive and lucrative market lay in the working class to whom jam, once a luxury, had now become a necessity, and a substitute for the more expensive butter” (Mintz 164).

The versatility of sugar was very important to its rise, as well as its ability to fuel caloric intake. Men out working in the factories needed high amounts of protein in their diet in order to fuel their labor intensive work. Unfortunately, animal protein was expensive and hard to come by for the working poor. Thus, with the introduction of sugar, it was a cheaper way for the women and children of the family to meet some of their caloric needs. As shown in Figure 2 below, sugar was used as for caloric intake as well as energy to get yourself through the day. By 1900, sugar was about one-fifth of the calories in the English diet (Mintz 32).

Sugar has become a major part of our lives, and continues to grow on the world stage. “World sugar production shows the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market over the course of several centuries, and it is continuing upward still” (Martin, slide 3). There are many potential factors that caused the rapid rise of sugar, but I believe that its versatility, use as caloric fuel, and rise in production and the drop in price were major contributors that shaped the way sugar has affected our society. Sugar consumption doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and it’s hard to see it slowing any time in the near future.

FIGURE 1
SOURCE: Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 3).
FIGURE 2
SOURCE: Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 20).
FIGURE 3
SOURCE:
“The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Crispus Attucks, Crispus Attucks on-Line Museum, 5 Nov. 2012, http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/the-transatlantic-slave-trade/.

Works Cited

Scholarly sources

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

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325.

-“Know Your Limit for Added Sugars | Nutrition | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-

statistics/know-your-limit-for-added-sugars.html.

-Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of

Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation.

-Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Books, 1986, Apple Books.

Multimedia Sources

-Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of

Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 3).

-Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of

Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 20).

-“The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Crispus Attucks, Crispus Attucks on-Line Museum, 5 Nov.

2012, http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/the-transatlantic-slave-trade/.

Sugar: A Sweet Transformation

In the second millennium, the introduction of sugar transformed the Western diet. Today, the extreme rate of consumption is both a major health concern and a staple of the modern diet. Only a handful of centuries ago, sugar was a rare commodity reserved only to be used sparingly by the wealthy. Within time, however, production increased and with that came an increase in the accessibility of sugar. In the 18th century alone, British sugar consumption nearly quintupled (Mintz 67). Throughout Europe, sugar consumption transformed from a delicacy to an essential ingredient used as a sweetener, a medicine, and a preservative among other things. Today, we continue to experience the outcome of this landmark growth.

The figure shows a sharp and consistent increase in sugar consumption over time.

Sugar as a Spice

Historians estimate that sugar was first introduced in Europe around the turn of the 12th century. At the time, traders grouped the product with ‘spices’ (Mintz 79). This trend was matched in the kitchen as when studying the ‘cookbooks’ of the era, one can see that sugar was considered only but a ‘spice’ or condiment as they used it only in very small quantities in their recipes. This was due in large part to the exorbitant price of the new commodity. The product was only accessibly priced to the rich and even they struggled to afford it.

New Uses for Sugar

Soon, however, drawn by the natural human liking to sugar’s sweet flavor, people found ways to increase the production of sugar. By the 16th century, sugar had become more plentiful and more affordable. In turn, the product was no longer reserved to be used in small quantities by the wealthy (Mintz 86). Therefore, there were various new uses of sugar that emerged. First, artists used the the pure, white, and durable nature of sugar to make decorations (87). These artists would combine sugar with other foods to create sculptures such as animals or palaces (89). Due to sugar’s continued luxury status, these decorations gloriously boasted one’s class and wealth (95).

People still use sugar as a decoration today when they make chocolate bunnies or wedding cakes.

Second, many used the sweet stimulant, ironically, as a medicine. Today, experts agree that, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, sugary products can cause obesity (Coe 31). When sugar was first introduced to Europe, however, scholars pointed to the the medicinal lore of sugar referenced in classical Islamic texts (Mintz 96). Many went so far as to argue that sugar was a type of panacea. Soon, the stimulant was a staple of apothecaries across Europe (101).

Additionally, sugar was used as a preservative. Sucrose, the chemical compound found in sugar, has a capacity to draw out moisture. This prevents microorganisms from developing a breeding environment (Mintz 123). Thus, sugar can be used as a seal for edible materials against destructive bacteria. Recognizing this, people used sugar to protect an array of edible goods ranging from fruits to cheeses. This revolutionized the shelf life of nearly every food, thus impacting the common diet of Europeans.

Human’s fundamentally and innately enjoy the sweet taste of sugar. Watch this baby’s first taste of sugar! The natural appeal made sugar a useful sweetener.

Perhaps the most important usage of sugar, however, was as a sweetener. This effect was highlighted in juxtaposition to the introduction of exotic products such as coffee, tea, and chocolate (Mintz 108). In the 13th century, a Marco Polo led expedition connected the Western world to the Silk Road, a trade route that traversed Asia. Two centuries later, Christopher Columbus sailed the Santa Maria to the New World. These new discoveries introduced Europe to a myriad of new foods and flavors. These culinary discoveries famously include modern staples such as tea, coffee, and chocolate. All three of these products were introduced to Europe with luxurious undertones; the exotic nature of these products naturally made them delicacies that were associated with the wealthy and thus heavily sought after. Each has a bitter taste, however, that can be repulsive at first. People needed a second flavor to sell their taste buds on these products (109). Their solution was sugar: a flavor so sweet and naturally appealing to the human tongue that it can save any bitter flavor. This preference shined in arguably the most pivotal centuries of culinary history. With newfound globalization, new foods and beverages were being introduced and incorporated into daily life at a staggering pace (120). With these new food and beverages came new tastes and new urges to enjoy different tastes. At that moment, sugar shined as the great sweetener that it is. It no longer was the rare spice of the 12th century but an ingredient of foundational importance in everybody’s diet.

Concluding Thoughts

Sugar consumption in Europe rose brilliantly in the 2nd millennium in Britain and the rest of Europe with wonders such as candy decorations and delicious chocolate. The joyful increase in consumption emerged hand-in-hand with a darker rise of production. With a big, untapped market for sugar, people needed to find ways to produce the crop more plentifully in the middle of the millennium. The dark solution to this problem was slavery. Europeans stole people from Africa to be used as slaves in the Caribbean to produce enough sugar to match the demand at home. The two ends of the Gulf Stream showed two very different realities of sugar. While Europeans enjoyed the sweet taste of sugar at home, African slaves were victims of the cruel business of sugar production in the Caribbean. Each sweet grain of the final product was sadly built on the shoulders of men who dare dream of nothing sweeter than freedom. The legacy of this tragedy today is a continued, heavy sugar trade imbalance where poor countries like India tend to produce most of the sugar and rich countries like the U.S. consume more than their share (USDA). The ubiquitous sugar universe we live in today is all thanks to centuries of injustice, and the health issues that arise from the modern rate of consumption are perhaps a late piece of karma that is pounding down the foothold of the sugar industry.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power.. Penguin Books, 1985.

United States Department of Agriculture. Sugar: World Markets and Trade. November 2018.

A Complicated History of Chocolate and Sugar in the Caribbean (and Abroad)

My Childhood Experience: 

I love chocolate and I love sugar even more. I have loved both since I was a child and will continue to love them well into my old age. The first time I tasted a Snickers chocolate bar on a small Caribbean island where almost all chocolate is imported, I was hooked- no other candy bar could compare. The Snickers bar became my cradle to grave candy bar and even today when I have one decades later, I tend to flash back to the nostalgic time when getting that chocolate (or any chocolate really) for me was a rare and expensive sugar-rush to be savored. In Barbados, the nation’s relationship with chocolate in general and sugar more specifically tends to be complicated by its history of slave labor production and British colonization (Beckles, 2017). Even in present day, conversations around the health of locals and sugar consumption are often linked back to the repercussions of this history.

Planting the sugar cane

Growing up in the Caribbean, there was no Halloween, no teachers that would give out candy to their students as rewards for good work in the classroom, no goodie bags filled with a delightful assortment at parties for me. Chocolate was a coveted treat and one that I was taught to respect as a child as something of value for having done good or been good in order to “deserve” it. While other kids would spend their lunch money on snacks, sweets, and chocolate during break, I was under strict rules not to spend money on such frivolities. Back then I was raised with the idea that chocolate and other sugary food was not money well spent and that the over consumption of sugar was a result of a still colonized mind. Although chocolate was not at the time as much of a staple as it is now, especially compared to the developed West, sugar was everywhere and in almost everything, like America and the UK. Bajans consumed large amounts of sugar regularly and have been since the mid 1600s when Britain relied on the colony for crops and began manufacturing sugar cane for their own consumption (Martin, 2018, slides 2-9).

Moreover, my mother- a professional cook and very health conscious- believed there were more potential health risks to eating chocolate and sugary treats and thought the health benefits were minimal. My grandfather had many theories on sugar’s use for the demise of the black population by the British crown.

Barbados-Slave-Code

He would say that the sugar industry used invasive propaganda and historically colonized slave mentality to keep locals pacified in order to maintain control of the island and keep its people unhealthy- like a drug. I had no idea what he meant by that back then, I was barely 7-8 years old when we would have these talks about the aftermath of sugar plantations in Barbados. Not until I was older did I reflect on these conversations and revisit them again in a class on chocolate culture.

My grandfather’s words resurfaced again when I read Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz. He wrote, “the upward climb of both production and consumption within the British Empire must be seen as part of an even larger general movement…We know that sugar consumption in the old sugar colonies…was part always very substantial- indeed, that slaves were given sugar, molasses, and even rum during slavery period as part of their rations” (Mintz, 1985, p. 72). When my grandfather would lecture on the perils of sugar- the cause of painful and expensive cavities, my diabetic relatives (one of which had the bottom part of her leg amputated from too my sugar in her diet), or the root of making people sluggish and less intelligent- did I start to develop a profound fear and wonder about the power of confectionaries. How could something so delicious be so dangerous? It took me many years to realize it was not just chocolate that was the primary concern for him. It was the production of sugar in Barbados by the enslavement of black people under British colonization and the exploitation of the island. The impact in which continues to have adverse risks to its citizens still.

Sugar cane harvest post card

There is a long tradition in Barbados to produce sugar in addition to an impulse to consume large amounts as well, which started with Britain’s obsession with the commodity. In fact, the turning point of British sugar production was the settlement of Barbados and thus both nations were transformed. One nation with the need to consume, the other forced to produce for consumption. Mintz aptly writes:

“England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fasted 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 numbers of its users, and the range of its uses exceeded the others; and it remained the principal product for centuries” (Mintz p. 38).

Thus, my relationship with chocolate in my formative years was neither abundant nor overindulgent and my view of sugar was entwined with stories of the colonized bodies of my ancestors. Still I was a child and I had a sweet tooth- like many others from the island-, which made my mother wearier of permitting me to have it out of fear I would become gluttonous, overweight, and doltish. With diabetes prevalent on both sides of the family there were lectures on the perils of sugar and my ultimate demise if I consumed too often. This was ingrained into my childhood. However, kids will be kids and I found ways to get chocolate whenever I could and hide it craftily. My morning tea was mostly sugar. This complicated relationship with chocolate and sugar during my childhood in the Caribbean continued into adulthood abroad.

Barbados is not like other islands in Caribbean for many reasons. First, it is a very small island, one of the smallest. Second, it is the most outside of the Caribbean strip of islands and more isolated with a population of less than 300,000 people. What it does have in common with places such as St. Lucia, Tobago, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Jamaica is that they were also ensnared in European and British colonization of their bodies and land for crop production. Now while many of these islands have transformed this into strong chocolate tourism foundation that has begun to flourish in the recent decades along with traditional crops of the past, Barbados struggles to join this cash crop sector. On other islands everything from haute and terroir chocolate to cheap chocolate are being produced. They were able to embrace the agricultural aftermath of slavery to make cacao and sugar into a moneymaking industry that appeals strongly to Western conception of sophistication and acceptability. In contrast, Barbados in the aftermath as a sugar producing island, chose to set up shop as a strong island tourism base and minimize the sugar industry production along with the dark history that came with it. In addition, the island is simply too small to produce many of its own crops, cacao being one of them. This caused many confectionery and snack factories in Barbados to be purchased and moved to Trinidad and Tobago as demand grew.

Looking back, it seems ironic that I thought cheap chocolate was more of an iconic delicacy than it really was. For instance, a $1 Snickers bar in America cost ~$4 USD in Barbados so its value felt more significant. Hence, it is understandable to me now why such chocolate was considered a special treat, especially in a family that thought it a wasteful. Growing up in Barbados, I had literally never eaten chocolate made on the island or any of the surrounding islands. Some factories used our sugar but that was about it, so it seemed like chocolate was a foreign substance from far off lands.

The only exposure to “fine” chocolate I had in the Caribbean was Cadbury Chocolate, a British multinational confectionery company that dominates the island almost single-handedly. Among locals, it is either loved or hated and can oftentimes be highly political because of its connection to the UK. Many believe that Britain as a nation continues to claw its way into the island’s industry via companies such as Cadbury, thus control by the British crown continues invisibility and from afar. Cadbury Chocolate in an island once dominated by a hugely profitable sugar industry that exploited African slaves is a contentious past still being unpacked.

Cadbury can be found everywhere on the island. Although the price is significantly higher than other candy bars, locals love it and consider it more “high end”. Although in the past 5-10 years more variety and quality chocolate is coming into the island and locals are getting a real taste of what good chocolate can be. It can be more than milk chocolate and chocolate covered candy. It has been a slow process because in Barbados dark chocolate is uncommon and unpopular. That is why one of the calls to action by local Bajans (and already promoted by other surrounding islands) is taking advantage of the blooming interest by tourists to try locally made chocolate and and for locals to reclaim untold histories.

In that respect, the island is now revisiting the history of cacao and sugar and getting more involved with the booming industry. In 2010, Agapey Chocolate was founded in Barbados conveniently located at the capital of Bridgetown. It is the only chocolate company on the island and is the only bean to bar chocolate company in Barbados.

agapey-chocolate-factory

Although the company was not very well known at first, it has grown in popularity among tourist and locals are now also taking advantage of their delicacies. The company has won multiple international awards and went through the process of Fair Trade certification (Agapey 2018). They offer in-depth tours of the factory that explain how their chocolate is made and also the history of chocolate and the role of cacao and sugar in the Caribbean. It is a good example of changing attitudes towards dark chocolate and progress in using local ingredients like rum and coconut to stimulate the economy.

agapey-chocolates

An International Cultural Exploration of Chocolate and Sugar

When I journeyed across the North Atlantic Ocean and set up a new home in Somerville, Ma. I soon learned about the abundance of chocolate and its widespread availability for any and every occasion, or no occasion at all. My mind was blown. Now in this wondrous place, chocolate could be found in almost every store, market, gas station, etc. It is not rare or expensive. It can be very expensive with places like L.A Burdick’s or it can be cheap like a Snickers from CVS. With my mother back in Barbados, I had no restrictions on my chocolate or sugar intake and I swiftly sought to make up for lost time, eating whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. It was liberating; this was America. I ate so much candy my first months of arrival, I could not get enough. Sugar consumption was even more rampant and readily available in almost everything people consumed.

Retrospectively, Somerville turned out to be one of the best places in the U.S to get a real taste of a multicultural experience, including its cuisine, which made for a great exploration of the candied goods of other lands. There has been a long tradition of community building at the foundation of local revitalization and urban development in Somerville that took a great amount of pride in exposing neighbors to “food from back home”. For many longtime residents, organizing community-building initiatives at the neighborhood and local government level has been a strategic way to promote the city’s rich cultural diversity and mixed-income environment. It also created bridges to parts of the population that might otherwise face isolation from resources aimed to empower them to take agency in improving their own socio-economic condition, particularly immigrants and people of color. Food was used to bridge the divide.

One of the first events I attended to increase exposure to different cultures was an annual international food fair held at Somerville High School where all the food was made by students, staff, or donated by local businesses. My recollection of walking through the school’s gymnasium and sampling different foods from over 100+ countries and cultures represented was a lasting experience. My Brazilian friend took me over to a table where I had my first bon-bon, a chocolate covered wafer with more chocolate inside that is widely popular in Brazil and now internationally. Another friend showed me her homemade milky coconut cardamon treats of India. There was table after table with food that I had never tried before, a whole candy world outside of Snickers and Cadbury.

For my first Halloween, my friends who had been trained in this occasion advised me to ditch the Halloween bucket and grab an old pillowcase. A pillowcase I thought, how much candy could we possibly get? The answer to that was a lot, a pillowcase half way full equating to more than four of the buckets I was going to bring. Every holiday and special occasion involved candy and chocolate. In addition, because of Somerville’s immense international population, there was not just the typical American candy, but treats coming from all over the world. I became seasoned quickly on how, where, and when to get candy and what chocolate came from which country. Chocolate became a constant and a source of comfort as I adjusted to life in America. Chocolate was for sharing between friends, indulging with cousins, and for no occasion at all.

Not until college did I learn the meaning behind fair trade, direct trade, or bean to bar- thus my ignorance of chocolate started to unfold. As Maricel Presilla writes, “to know chocolate, you must know that the candy in the box or the chef’s creation on the plate begins with the bean, the complex genetic profile of different cacao strains” (Presilla, 2009, p. 4). So began my segway into learning about chocolate production and saying goodbye to Snickers for a bit. I wanted to know about chocolate beyond what popular culture had taught me and beyond what my childhood experiences had ingrained.

I became engrossed with learning about the history of chocolate. I went to Madrid, Spain where I drank chocolate for the first time. Discovered theobroma cacao comes from Greek and means “food of the gods”.  I learned that Spanish invaders took the word cacao and their first real knowledge of cacao came from the Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula. They used the word chokola’j, or ‘to drink together’. (Presilla, 2009, p. 10-12) and chocolate is amount one of the bastardized words created because it was easier for Europeans to pronounce. There I saw that even from the naming of cacao that history of chocolate was written and known mostly from a western-centric point of view and that influence continues today. I needed a different more authentic understanding of chocolate and kept traveling. I visited Tlaxcala, a sovereign state in Mexico with a strong connection to its complex history with cacao. There I used a molinillo for the first time- a whisking device to make cacao frothy- and drank a cup of chocolate that I helped prepare using traditional Mexican tools like the metate.

The story of how cacao developed from a sacred drink to the industrialized food that it is today is a complex history that dates back thousands of years. The story of how sugar production exploded in the Caribbean is also connected to the history of cacao. The bodies of black and brown people were used for European gain as was the land. Today, this history can be very complicated for the generations that followed. My relationship with chocolate and sugar has evolved overtime from a child in Barbados to a teen in America, to a traveler of the world. As my own understanding of these topics continues to expand, I will continue to enjoy these goods the best I can and keep educating myself on the topic.

Work Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. (1996).  The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, abolition, and forced labor’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 28 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture.

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

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

“On Barbados, the First Black Slave Society” via AAIHS. Here is the website link: https://www.aaihs.org/on-barbados-the-first-black-slave-society/.

http://www.agapey.com/

https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory1ay/chapter/consumption-and-trade-in-the-british-atlantic/

Images (in order):

“Planting the sugar-cane” (Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library).

“Slaves Wanted” Advertisement for the Island of Barbados (Credit: Lascelles Slavery Archive)

“Sugar Plantation Barbados, Carting Sugar Canes To The Mill”  W. L. Johnson & Co. Ltd., Barbados. No. 15

Agapey Chocolate Factory Website Photos (Credit: agapey.com)