Bitter Sweet: Sugar, Slavery, Empire, and Consumerism in the Triangle Trade

Produced by Averill Earls, Katie Smyser, and Marissa Rhodes
Edited by Averill Earls
Transcribed by Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Averill: What happens when you build an empire on sugar? Since the 18th century, sugar has been one of the most demanded commodities in the West. By the 1700s, technological advancements and production made sugar accessible to even some of the poorest Americans and Europeans, and imperial governments poured millions of dollars into the shaping of sugar colonies around the world. From the Caribbean to southeastern Africa to the Indian Ocean, sugar was king. But just as few today think on where their granulated white sugar comes from, those who consumed the White Gold between the 17th and 20th centuries knew little of the back-breaking, harsh, and unfree labor that went into producing that glorious sweetness, or the lengths to which their own governments went to float those potentially profitable sugar colonies. Empires built on sugar rotted away like teeth too long exposed to that sweetness.

I’m Averill
I’m Marissa
And I’m Katie

And we are the History Buffs.

Welcome to the History Buffs Podcast. After today’s episode, go to iTunes, rate us, and leave a review. We hope you avoid the episode!

Marissa: We have promised you a tale of sugar, and that is one we shall tell, but we should probably note now that we will not even scrape the surface of sugar history in this episode. People have dedicated their entire academic careers to looking at sugar in single locations, like Sidney Mintz’s work on Puerto Rico. So there is plenty more to learn about sugar beyond what we talk about today, and we’ll post some of the more recent scholarship in our Show Notes for your perusal.

Katie: Sugarcane is a type of giant grass, like maize or rice. It is native to the South Pacific and South East Asia, and has been cultivated in that part of the world for millennia. Early use of the plant involved splitting the tall stalks open, allowing the juice of the interior to dry out in the sun, and then forming the resulting into cakes or shapes. The development of sugar mills revolutionized our ability to process cane into the granular sugar we know today. Mills shred and extract the juice, separate the sugar from the juice through one of several processes, and then heat the juice to evaporate remaining water. This process produces raw sugar – a product that is popular among the hip and young – and can then be further refined into the white sugar crystals by the extraction of the molasses from the raw sugar, giving it that white sheen, and producing the thick, sticky by product that makes excellent cookies.


Averill: For our purposes today, however, we are going to focus on the establishment of the sugarcane as an agricultural product of the European expansion westward across the Atlantic Ocean. Sugarcane requires a hot and humid climate, where temperatures remain above 80 degrees F, and rain is regular. So, a tropical climate. There aren’t many such places in Europe, and even the regions along the Mediterranean coasts that would permit the growth of sugarcane had no sources of cheap timber needed to fuel the sugar mills for processing the cane. Thus sugar was scarce, imported, and immensely expensive. It was truly a luxury item reserved for the very wealthy who could afford it.

Marissa: By the 15th century, the Spanish crown wanted more. You are probably already familiar with this story, but we will reshape it with the sugar angle really quickly. Their Iberian rivals, the Portuguese, had outpaced them in sailing and exploration, and access to unique trade markets in the Indian Ocean and the coasts of West Africa. The Spanish held the highly desirable and profitable Canary Islands, where they set up their first sugarcane plantations. Investors and the Crown saw the immense profitability of this desirable product, and sought to expand on the success of the Canary Islands. Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile had unified the Spanish crowns under a Catholic monarchy, an investment they took seriously, forcing through bloody warfare the expulsion of the Muslim and Jewish populations of the Iberian peninsula. When the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus came to them with promises of heathens to convert and more islands to cultivate with sugarcane, plus access to the Indian Ocean trade network that would circumvent the Portuguese routes along the Horn of Africa, they agreed to fund his venture.

Katie: Recent archaeological evidence confirms that the first sugar plantation was set up in Jamaica by the Spanish, specifically Christopher Columbus’s son Diego, who founded what came to be known as Seville la Nueva, one of the first European settlements in the New World. By 1515, the colony’s second governor oversaw the construction of a sugar mill with the capacity to churn out 150 tons of sugar per year. The 60,000 or so native Taino men who lived on the island, were taken from their towns and homes and forced to labor on the plantations, and, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, the European settlers took Taino women as wives. Through the various exploitations of the indigenous population, the Europeans learned the good things to eat in the region, and made a home in Seville la Nueva; there is even archaeological evidence of a Spanish sculptor’s work at the site, with hundreds of carved limestone blocks in the Renaissance style. But, despite colonists best efforts to extract a profit from Seville la Nueva via slave labor, most Europeans abandoned the site in 1534 and moved to Jamaica’s southern coast.

Averill: But it was painfully evident by then that these tropical islands were perfect for sugarcane cultivation–and Europeans just needed a population to work those cane fields that was not susceptible to European diseases. The Canary Islands proved the model, then, not just for large scale growth and milling of sugarcane. When the Spanish first began the conquest of the Canaries, there was a small group of indigenous peoples known as the Guanches living there. By the end of the 15th century, the Spanish had enslaved or absorbed (through marriages and concubinage) the Guanche peoples, and were bringing additional slave labor from the continent in to work the sugar plantations. After their wars of conquest, diseases, and exploitation decimated the native populations in the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese, and of course later the British and French, used the slave labor of West African men and boys shipped in by the thousands to work their sugar operations.

Marissa: We’ve discussed the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade before, and will refer you to our episode on Forced Migrations rather than rehash too much of that here today. But most of you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the barbarous system. In that episode we discussed in particular the toll that the Atlantic Slave Trade had on West and Central African social, economic, and even religious life. It permanently altered the way that people lived for centuries, and not just because of the sheer drop in population numbers over the course of the system, with some 12 million men, women, and children being sold into chains on the shores of the “New World.”

Katie: In total historians estimate that up to 20 million Africans lost their lives to the Atlantic Slave Trade. That range accounts for those who died in the marches to the coasts, those who died on the passage across the ocean, and those who died in the “seasoning camps” where new slaves were kept to acclimate to the new environment. Most new slaves were funneled into sugar work; in 16th century Jamaica, for example, 60% of slaves went into sugar production; but the 19th century, 90% went to sugar plantation. This was largely because of the grueling toll that sugarcane production took on the human body. Slaves had to work up to 18 hours a day, from building terraces to grow the sugarcane on, to tending the fields, to the back-breaking work of harvesting. Not only was it constant and arduous, it was dangerous. Sharp cane leaves could leave a man blind, but even more treacherous were the tools one used to harvest – the sharp blade slipped all too often, and a cane slave was universally recognizable by the deep scars on their legs. The average lifespan of slaves who worked on sugar plantations was 7 to 9 years after arrival in the Americas.

Averill: Brazil, under Portuguese control, was the first large-scale sugarcane production center, though for most of the 16th century colonists actually focused on other agricultural exports, because there was a decreased demand for sugar back in Europe. By the 17th century, though, sugar was again in demand – and even more widely than ever before. The large scale production required huge numbers of slaves, and because of the short life expectancy, it was cheaper for Brazilian plantation owners to work these people to death and just bring in new slaves. By the time slavery was abolished in in Brazil in 1888, 4 million African men, women, and children had been transported to work the various economic operations of the colony, with a large majority filtered into the sugarcane business. By the start of the 17th century, sugar became far and away the most profitable agricultural venture anywhere in the Americas or Europe. In 1612 alone Brazil exported 14,000 tons of sugar to Europe. The Portuguese by then, relied by then on Dutch support, and shipped their extracted raw materials to Amsterdam for refinement and sale in Europe. Despite its careless destruction of human life in the pursuit of profit, Brazilian sugar lost its grip on the market by the end of the 17th century. Some sort of scuffle with the Dutch prompted the Portuguese to expel the Dutch and some of their Sephardic Jewish allies from northeast Brazil, who in turn fled to the islands of the Caribbean. The Dutch then focused their considerable investment and resources on producers like the English colonists of Barbados.

Marissa: While the Spanish and Portuguese were making bank off of gold and silver extractions from the New World, the British found no such deposits in the places they set out to colonize. Thus the extraction of agricultural materials became the only really viable methods of profiting off of the colonies. But when Spain flooded the market with silver, devaluing their precious “pieces of eight,” Britain’s failure to find deposits of mineral wealth actually benefitted them in the end. Edibles, smokables, and textiles quickly proved to have more longevity in the imperial game. When silver deposits dried up, Spain hemorrhaged its precious metals to pay for the things that people actually needed to live and wanted to consume – sugar, tea, coffee, cotton, and the like. These were the goods that the British colonies produced around the world.

Katie: Though Brazil continued to be the largest by volume producer of sugar, Barbados elbowed it out as the king of sugar in the 18th century. The investment of the Dutch, and then the crown support of an official trade monopoly for the British East India Company, and more direct proximity to the triangle trade routes of European ships made the British Caribbean vastly more profitable than Portuguese South America.

Averill: Private English investors financed the colonization of Barbados in 1627. In the first two decades of occupation, the English settlers grew tobacco, as most did as they first did when the came to the new world, but quickly shifted to sugar when the Virginian colonists to the North flooded the market with their high quality product and prices dropped dramatically. By the time the English arrived, the original inhabitants of the island – relatives of the Jamaican Tainos, the Arawak peoples – had already been wiped out by European contact in the prior century. Neither the French nor the Spanish contested the English occupation of the island, and the colonizers quickly imported Amerindian slaves from their continental colony of Guiana to work the tobacco plantations. But like the Brazilians before them, the British ultimately turned to the slaves who came in apparent abundance from equatorial Africa.

Marissa: Barbadian journalist, Andrea Stuart, traces the history of her family, descended from 17th century English colonist George Ashby, in her book Sugar in the Blood. Like many men of modest means who emigrated to the New World, Ashby first got into the tobacco growing business, because it required little up-front investment. Just, as Stuart notes, “the plants, a few hoes and an Indian digging stick for making holes in the ground.” Tobacco produced quickly, and had a vast market back in England. But Barbados proved unfriendly to the tobacco plantation – tobacco depletes the soil, and the small island did not allow for regular crop rotation. So the tobacco industry quickly collapsed in Barbados, and rich planters turned to sugarcane production.

Katie: Sugarcane is not really picky when it comes to soil conditions, as long as it is well irrigated and hot. So the dense clay and lime-rich terra of Barbados was not much of an obstacle. The support of the recently arrived Dutch merchants was also invaluable; their ships transported the raw sugar to Amsterdam for refinement, and then around Europe for delivery to markets. By the end of the 17th century, there was a thriving sugar industry on the island – and none too soon. The failure of other cash crops bankrupted a number of planters, and others fled for better opportunities in the continental colonies.

Averill: After the successes of the bigger planters, the knowledge and infrastructure trickled down to the little guys like Stuart’s ancestor George Ashby. But with the shift to sugar, Barbados also shifted its labor force dramatically. Some historians estimate that in 1630 – when Ashby first emigrated to Barbados – there were no more than 2,000 slaves on the island, and may have been as few as 800. By 1643, just 13 years later, that number had increased to no less than 6,000, and by 1655, just 12 years after that, when sugar dominated the island, there was a staggering 20,000 slaves, all born Africa, hauled across the Atlantic, and sold to sugar plantation owners in Barbados. And we really see this number increase in the actual proportion of white to black inhabitants of the island- shifted as well. And by 1786 the white population of Barbados was 21% with black inhabitants at 62,000 at 79% of the island’s inhabitants.

Marissa: So those demographics mean that the majority of people who were living there were enslaved.

Averill: Indeed.

Marissa: As land became scarcer, the number of European settlers continually decreased, and the number of African slaves continually increased to meet the harsh demands of the sugar labor. The Ashbys, like the rest of the white planters of the island, turned to slave labor to survive as a smaller planter on the island. Down at Bridgetown, where the slave ships docked, one of the Ashby men went to make their first purchase. Stuart describes the grotesque experience of the auction block with sharp honesty:

“Traumatized slaves were sold…straight from the ship…. In a desperate attempt to make them appear more healthy, the sailors would have shaved the slaves’ heads, covered their sores and oiled their skin to remove the ashen hue it had taken on during the long and dreadful Middle Passage. Those who were suffering from dysentery would often have their bottoms plugged to disguise their symptoms. So the slaves stood, arranged in rows, shuddering and silent with shock. Once the auction began, planters examined the slaves like so much cattle, palpitating their muscles, checking their orifices, forcing their hands into their mouths to examine their teeth. Then the bidding started.”

By 1680, the Ashbys had 9 slaves. In the evolution of the family on the island – the core of which remained in Barbados into the 21st century – the Ashby’s descendants would own many, many more.

Katie: The colonists changed the demographics of the island with their sugar kingdom; so too did they change the very landscape. They clear cut the forests to make way for field after field of the tall cane, which could grow as tall as 20 feet in height. Records of the 17th & 18th century describe it as an immense garden, plotted and planned and divided. Shaping the land for the growth of sugarcane encompassed some of the most back breaking of the work of the process. Usually in the sweltering heat of August, the slaves of Barbados were sent to first clear the fields with slash and burn methods, and then to prepare the cane holes – digging trenches 8in deep and 3 feet long to insert cane tops into, which were then surrounded by manure.

Averill: Today we have automated sugar mills which do much of the hard work for us in the production of sugar from cane. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, slaves did that work. Stuart describes the process in her book:

“The cane was transported from the fields to the factory either by mules or on the heads of the labourers. Then slaves fed the lengths of cane through the vertical rollers of the mills, while others cleared away the desiccated trash. Meanwhile, the sweet grayish liquid poured through the gutters straight into the boiling house. In this humid inferno, the cane juice was crystallized by evaporation. After being allowed to stand in several large receivers, the juice was initially heated into shallow pans called clarifiers where it was tempered with lime. The calcium carbonate acted as a catalyst, prompting the sediment to sink to the bottom and the impurities to rise to the surface. Slaves continuously skimmed this ‘crust’ off the liquid until it was tempered. Then the juice was boiled in a series of progressively smaller ‘coppers’ until it was ready to enter the ‘tache’ in which it was finally crystallized or ‘struck.’”

And just to sort of, reemphasize slaves are in this inferno, everyday, near naked, sweating, suffering in these sugar mills.

Marissa: Striking was a delicate process that required a skilled individual known as the boiler man who judged a batch of sugar finished – by pulling the bubbling mixture between his fingers to see if it could form a strand of a certain length. At that perfect point it was ready to granulate. Then it was ladled into barrels for curing, draining, and maturing, before being weighed, transported, and shipped. The by product of this process was molasses – which was exported raw, or processed into rum.

The human costs of sugar, or molasses, or rum, didn’t translate to the consumers. And even as the supply increased steadily over the 18th and 19th centuries, lowering the price and making sugar available to even the poorest Londoner, sugar was still the White Gold, on which the British Empire hung its every hope of profitability on.

Katie: Sugar had been popularizing in 17th century Europe because of its inclusion in recipes, but also in its preservative properties for jellies and jams. The 18th century, however, caused a sugar explosion, as tea, coffee, and chocolate – all bitter products in their natural state – were deemed significantly better with the addition of sugar. We could easily do an episode for each of these commodities – and like sugar, never do them justice because people have dedicated lifetimes to studying these things even within the slightly smaller niche of empire. But suffice it to say that all of these things are wrapped up in each other and the big bucks that they made for the empires that exploited native and African labor to produce and peddled them.

Averill: Britons in particular developed a sweet tooth, combining domestic dairy with imported tea and sugar for one of the daily rituals of UK life that is it absolutely fused to British and Irish and now Indian, identity. By the 19th century, tea – the morning or afternoon repast, rather than the simple beverage itself – was observed by near every Briton, from the working class folk right up to the royal family. Britain’s annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, and a staggering 90lbs of sugar per person in 1901. That’s Every. Single. Person. 90lbs of sugar. Go to the store, pick up a 5lb bag of sugar, and then imagine 18 of those. Per person! And really we see this shift in the 18th century – the British consumed five times as much sugar in 1770 than they had in 1710. By 1750 sugar surpassed grain as “the most valuable commodity in European trade — it made up a fifth of all European imports and in the last decades of the century four-fifths of the sugar came from the British and French colonies in the West Indies.” As Americans, clearly we appreciate the British struggle with sugar. It’s probably safe to say we’ve surpassed the sugar threshold set by the British. In 1822, Americans consumed only about 7lbs of sugar per year. That’s pretty reasonable. Less than the British! In 2012, that was up to 130lbs per person! [laughter] Oops.

Marissa: And a lot of that would be what’s already in processed food. It’s not like people actually buying that much sugar and putting it into stuff. ‘Cause like, people aren’t cooking their own stuff.

Averill: Sugar is in everything.

Marissa: There is a parallel story of the emergence of a minor sugar kingdom in the North American colonies – maybe better called a sugar dukedom? From the very early settlements at Jamestown, colonists were growing sugarcane. As it became clear that the conditions were not ripe enough to match the pace of the Caribbean and Brazilian output, sugarcane plantations sort of melted to the edges of the map – concentrating mostly in Florida. But the discovery and exploitation of the Earthly heaven that is the Hawai’ian islands changed all that. Today there are only remnants of the sugar infrastructure in most of the islands, except Maui, where the last remaining sugar plantation still thrives. But in the middle of the 19th century, American entrepreneurs invaded Hawai’i to get on the agricultural gold bandwagon – with a focus on pineapple and sugar. In the interest of not making this a 4 hour long podcast, we are going to leave this story for another day – but we don’t want you to think that forced and slave labor in the interest of feeding a Western sweet tooth was the domain of just one imperial power. The United States’ interest and ultimate annexation of Hawai’i was imperialism at its 19th century finest, and like the earlier story of the English in the Caribbean, built around the White Gold.

Katie: The launch, however, of the American sugar empire in the 19th century is kind of amusing. It was in this same era that the profitability of the sugar colonies became questionable. And the British had spread their sugar empire from the Caribbean to Natal in South Africa to India – it was as much a part of Britain’s global presence as tea and Irish soldiers. (That’s not a good joke?)


Averill: That’s not a good joke? I thought it was a good joke.

Katie: I’m not sure that’s a good joke to anyone but you Averill.


Marissa: [in background] I didn’t listen, sorry.

Katie: There’s a super interesting article about the disruption of the Natal sugar production in the 1920s because of several years of widespread dengue fever that we will post in the show notes that’s worth a read – but for now I just want to throw that in the mix to evidence the extent of sugar at the center of British imperialism, stretching all the way back from our original story in 17th century Barbados to 20th century South Africa. Huge.

Averill: But while the US was sprinting to have its cake and eat it too, the model of imperial agricultural success was burning the bundt.

Is that too cheesy? Probably too cheesy.

Marissa: [in background] Yes.


Averill: The sugar colonies, so long the economic miracle, grew more problematic, less profitable in the 19th century. From very early in the 17th century, the slave population had revolted again and again, rising up with their numbers and machetes to try and resist the white planters – who, of course, were armed with guns. A number of ad hoc laws were created to further disenfranchise and suppress the black men and women of the British Caribbean, and to keep the White Gold flowing back to Europe. The most effective measure the British took in Barbados was the establishment of a well-armed police force, tasked specifically with keeping the enormous slave population in check. These laws achieved their goal, and there were no slave revolts in Barbados in the 18th century.

Marissa: It might be worth noting, another consequence of this demographic of having very few white slave owners and many black slaves is that, in the Carribean specifically, we find that there were more elements of African culture that was preserved. Because more Africans were living together, they had less supervision in the sense that they weren’t working alongside whites, um, so we find that some of their language and religious forms…

Averill: Music, etc…

Marissa: Right.

Averill: Preserved.

Marissa: Exactly. In the aftermath of the successful Haitian Revolution, the slave and free black citizen revolt that threw off French rule on the San Domingue half of Hispanola and expelled almost all white people, the British government was terrified that the revolution would spread to Barbados, Jamaica, and the other central American British colonies. Then, in 1816, the slaves of Barbados rose in revolt.

Katie: Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807. Many slaves throughout the British Empire thought this meant that they would be freed. When the Barbados governor returned from England in 1815, most assumed that would be their emancipation; but it did not, and it became clear that slavery would remain in the British Empire indefinitely. A man named Bussa, who was an African-born slave and granted the position of “ranger”–he patrolled the borders of his plantation and dealt with the day-to-day operation of the estate and neighboring estates–connected with older slaves from several area plantations. In April 1816, Bussa led 400 men and women–all slaves–against the island police. Martial law was declared as the Barbados police fought to suppress the revolt; the fighting went on for over two months before it was finally put down. In the course of the fighting, only two members of the police/military were killed; 50 enslaved died, and an additional 70 were executed for the uprising in the field. Another 144 were executed after trial at Bridgetown, and 132 exiled to another island.

Averill: After slave revolts in the early part of the century, and the entrance of American sugar into the market at mid century reducing the profitability of sugar production worldwide, by the end of the 19th century, times were tough in the British sugar colonies. In many ways, Britain’s sugar colonies were more and more obviously unsustainable. Instead of cutting them loose, however, the British government doubled down — and did so at a time when, in every aspect of domestic policies, they were letting laissez faire decimate the Irish in the face of famine, and their own working poor suffer in abject poverty and harsh industrial conditions.

Marissa: Historian James Patterson Smith posits that sugar colonies were protectionist and socially engineered, despite the laissez faire model of the metropole. London approved money to educate the poor, with emphasis on trade schools for black students in Jamaica, etc. While the amount actually spent was just a drop in the overall budget bucket – $2000 pounds spent on education in Jamaica in 1873, out of a 500k budget – the expenditure and its intent is very peculiar, in the larger scope of British policies.

Katie: With the abolition of the slave trade, and then the ultimate abolition of slavery in 1833, the British continued to prop up the sugar colonies by funding the importation of indentured coolie labor well into the end of the 19th century. These were primarily Indian migrant workers, because free blacks preferred self-employment to plantation sugar production, so the British government allowed government-subsidized indentured labor systems. If nothing else, this evidences just how strong the sugar lobby remained in London, despite the adverse conditions of the market. Sugar seemed the best way to prevent the burden of the colonies from falling on the British tax payer — but required that sugar stay in the hands of the large plantation production. Small independent producers were ignored in favor of the large scale plantation lobbyists’ interests, and so saving the plantation with imported coolie labor as James Patterson Smith notes, “served an imperial purpose, not a local one.” Indentured servitude of Indian coolies lasted until: 1910 in Mauritius — at which time Indian coolies made up 71% of the total population; lasted until 1917 in British West Indies, and made up 42% of the total population. It lasted until 1911 in Natal, and 1916 in Fiji, where they made just under 40% of the total population. So they really changed the demographics of these places, as much as the slave trade did.

Averill: Absolutely. Yeah. While the British took a harsh and unforgiving approach to controlling the slaves in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean, they ultimately changed their tune when it came to the indentured laborers. Fear of revolt (and thus loss of the colony) prompted the Liberal government of Britain, to reform colonial justice. While the Victorian middle class loved to interfere in the lives of the working poor in England, those “good works” were largely spearheaded by the private charity societies. In the sugar colonies, justice came right down from the British government, and was supported by the administrators of the colony – like Gov Arthur Hamilton Gordon of Mauritius, who described the conditions in Guiana as a “breach of contract” of the indenturing. With malnourished and sickly workers evidence lack of food and medical care. So commissioners gathered evidence in Guiana and Mauritius, and immigration officers in sugar colonies were granted authority to “remove indentured labor from plantations not meeting minimum standards for working conditions, food, housing, and medical care.” In addition, a government health service was created specifically to address the needs of coolies in sugar colonies! Plantations owners were required to issue daily food rations as partial payment to workers. And all these other measures, that were really quite clearly inteded to protect this population. Which was kind of unheard of. This, perhaps more than any other policy, surpassed anything ever done for the working poor in Britain.

Katie: Or for the slaves for that matter.

Averill: Or for the slaves. Absolutely.

Katie: So by this point it was so entrenched that they needed to keep the workers to keep it going.

Marissa: And it’s not like a humanitarian thing. They are protecting their investment.

Averill: Right. The works of the Victorian middle-class in Britain was a humanitarian effort. But this was just literally to hold on to these failing sugar colonies.

Katie: Because they now needed the workers, that were indentured, they needed some sort of volunteerism in order to get them there, as opposed to just holding them in bondage.

Averill: Right.

Marissa: Even when the sugar was increasingly less profitable, the British government poured more money and resources into the sugar colonies. Even in the mighty British empire, sugar proved a fragile base on which to build. On the one hand, yes, when it was profitable, it was the kind of money that kings dream of. But on the other, it became like coffee or tea or opium in some ways – an addictive substance that, once the people were hooked on it, became increasingly more difficult to break ties with, despite unprofitability. And addicted the British, and Americans, and to a lesser extent Europeans, were.

Katie: So we only talked about sugar in this episode, but our goal today was to think about commodities like sugar, but not only sugar, and the ways that imperialism and consumerism have everything to do with each other. Elizabeth touched on this a bit in the last episode on NAFTA and Mexican produced goods. There are people who rail against globalization, and shipping jobs overseas, and how that’s bad bad bad for Americans. It’s important, however, to remember that so many things we take for granted, like 50 cent avocados or $20 blue jeans or a $2 5lb bag of white granulated sugar — these products, which we (Americans) readily consume, are that cheap and readily available because of America’s place in the global market. And I guess it’s important to note that even with the coolie system gone, even with the slave system gone, sugar is still really important and still very profitable.

Averill: But, I mean, now that we have all these other industrial capabilities it requires less human suffering, I guess, to harvest it…

Katie: Yeah, less human capital…

Averill: But still, it’s not like sugar has disappeared because even in 2012, 130 lbs per person, is being consumed in America. That’s because we’re putting it into everything. From the pasta that we eat, to pizza sauce, and candy, although that’s also high fructose corn syrup. That’s a whole other story.
Various sweeteners.

Katie: And the lobbies. There’s a corn lobby that rails against the sugar lobby. And there’s a sugar lobby that rails against the corn lobby. That’s a whole other thing.

Averill: And we didn’t even talk about beet sugar, which was more popular in the 18th and 19th century U.S. but was sort of supplanted by the sugar, the cane sugar, industry. So I mean… we are only scraping the surface of sugar here.

Katie: People literally spend their entire lives [academic careers] talking about sugar. And they are much smarter than we are.

Marissa: And furthermore, that all of these things that we consume have a much longer history. America’s sweet tooth grew around our 20th century imperial control of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and other islands where we established or took over cane sugar production. The history of North American sugar production is obviously much longer still, but no matter what period we talk about, it’s not some kind of friendly exchange of equal nations, in which the peoples of Hawaii or Puerto Rico or Barbados grew some sugar cane and then sold it to the peoples of the United States or Britain or Spain. This is straight up imperial exploitation.

Averill: Which, again, as Elizabeth emphasized in our last episode, is not to chide you for buying 50 cent avocados or enjoying a little granulated sugar in your coffee. Quite the opposite. It’s just good, I think, in general, to be aware of the world beyond our little bubbles of comfortable consumerism. That what we consume comes with a price beyond the sale sticker. And that even something as basic, as every day, as sugar, has a history, and it’s kinda fun and responsible and also sad, and important to know a little about it.

Marissa: Yeah, and I think, something that I find really interesting is that these long histories of commodities that we’ve sort of mentioned before, whether it be sugar or coffee or chocolate or tea, what’s so interesting about them is that they all have addictive properties to them. So it’s not like um, wheat, where you just need wheat to make bread to survive. It’s not like that. We’re talking, you know, commodities that people don’t need but that they are addicted to and they really want. And that’s….

Katie: Or opium…

Marissa: Right, opium. That’s probably the best example. I think….


Averill: So addictive…

Marissa: So it’s super interesting that these huge commodities grew up around something that we nutritionally don’t need. We just want.

Katie: And they all grew up around the same time because they feed off of each other. Chocolate comes from imperial possessions, tea comes from imperial possessions, sugar makes them better. And so there is a whole consumer economy that grows up around imperialism. And it all happens around the same time, and feeds off each other.

Marissa: And kind of just comes from people being like OMG I really need more coffee. Because it’s so good and it gives me that buzz that I need. I just -it’s super interesting…

Katie: Not as high a buzz as opium…

Marissa: No, not the same kind of buzz. And chocolate too, I don’t know if chocolate, is it official? I know it has caffeine but is it actually addictive or if people just like it so much that, they need chocolate.

Averill: Hmmm, it’s probably a little bit addictive.

Marissa: So I didn’t know that there was such a big difference in the 18th century and sugar consumption, from the beginning to the end. You would think that you would see a massive decline in oral health, and things like that. But I don’t know, oral health was kind of crappy the whole time… so I don’t know, for whatever reason….yeah

Averill: We should do a history of dentistry

Marissa: That would be fun. Maybe they just figured out how to clean their teeth better at the same time they ate ten times more sugar? And it just kind of evened out, so their teeth fell out at the same age as their grandparents did. [laughter] You know, maybe it’s something… you just wonder, you think what, I just want to know what affect that really drastic increase consumption, like what effect did it have on people’s bodies. You know?

Katie: One interesting thing about this is that because it was slave labor, there were revolts, there wasn’t war over sugar like there was over opium. So that’s a little bit of a difference to point out. But there was violence, there was violence to all of these.

Averill: Well there’s talk of…something I was reading was talking about um, because it was high calorie but no actual nutrition, that it seemed like a really good idea to be stuffing children full of sugar but then they started getting diseases in various…

Marissa: Like Rickets or whatever…

Averill: So they were like, “oh what’s the cause of this? They’re fatter but they’re not healthy anymore.”

Marissa: That’s something that Jan De Vries points out in his book, “Industrious Revolution.” Is that people, because these were commodities- coffee, tea, sugar- commodities that people wanted but didn’t need- people were like working harder and spending more money on stuff that wasn’t bringing them any real nutrition. Just stuff that made them happy and also more socially, they were social lubricants. Like “hey, let’s get together with this at Lloyd’s coffee house,” or whatever. So they had more social significance more than they had any nutritional significance. And it shows that we’re getting smarter and smarter when it comes to nutrition. Like, I don’t know, it’s not like a curve, it’s not a positive progression and we’re sort of, it’s sort of up and down.

Katie: Waves.

Marissa: Waves.

Averill: I think we’ll end there. We hope you enjoyed the episode today. We hope you will go on iTunes and give us a review and leave us a nice rating. You can always follow us on various social media platforms. We’re at historybuffspod on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And on and if you enjoy the episode you can give us a shoutout on social media or send us an email at Thanks for joining us today,

For the History Buffs I’m Averill
I’m Marissa
I’m Katie

Marissa: Bye! See you next time and eat some sugar for me.

Averill: Aw she’s keyed up.

Katie: Yeah, no more sugar for Marissa.


Show Notes and Further Reading:

James Patterson Smith, “Empire and Social Reform: British Liberals and the ‘Civilizing Mission in the Sugar Colonies,’ 1868-1874,” Albion 27.2 (1995) 253-77

Philip D. Rotz, “Sweetness and Fever? Sugar Production, Aeses aegypti, and Dengue Fever in Natal, South Africa, 1926-27,” PSAE Research Series 12 (2014)

Bussa’s Rebellion,” UK National Archives 

Carol MacLennan, Sovereign Sugar : Industry and Environment in Hawaiʻi (University of Hawaii, 2014)

Alice G. Walton, “How Much Sugar Are Americans Eating?” Forbes (Aug 2012) 

Britain is built on sugar: our national sweet tooth defines us,” The Guardian (Oct 2007)

Karl Watson, “Slavery and Economy in Barbados,” BBC (2/2011) 

Barrie Cook, “Pieces of Eight,” History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC & British Museum) 

Emma George Ross, “The Portuguese in Africa, 1415-1600,” Met Museum 

Matthew Edel, “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of the West Indian Competition,” Caribbean Studies 9.1 (1969) 24-43.

Mark Johnson, “The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil between 1492 and 1700,” University of Minnesota Expansion of Empire Seminar 

Sidney W. Mintz, “The Culture History of a Puerto Rican Sugar Cane Plantation: 1876-1949,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 33.2 (1953) 224-251.

Heather Pringle, “Sugar Masters in a New World,” (January 2010)  

Feature image: Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (p51) modified by Averill Earls.


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