Sugar is a blood-soaked product with huge environmental and health costs
Sven Beckert is the Laird Bell professor of American history at Harvard University
Sweets have invaded the English language the way they have invaded our diet, with almost universally positive connotations. Sweet love, sweet people and sweet deals all suggest pleasant experiences, as do the sugary confections that grace our tables and fill our stores. James Walvin’s new book, “Sugar: The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity,” will thoroughly disabuse you of such agreeable associations and may make you reluctant to reach for something sweet. Sugar, he shows, is a blood-soaked product that has brought havoc to millions and environmental devastation to large parts of the planet, premature death to the poorest populations in many parts of the world and huge health costs for societies from the United States to India. After reading this book the mere mention of sugar should make you think of slavery and cavities, imperialism and obesity — and remind you to check the label on the products you consume.
Walvin, the author of several books on slavery, takes his readers on a roller-coaster ride through 500 years of history. Sugar, he shows, was rare for most of human history, with sweetness largely derived from fruits and honey. Sugar was believed to have healing properties and in much of the world it was dispensed by apothecaries; consumption of small quantities of sugar was the prerogative of elites. Then, in the 16th century, Europeans seized large territories in the Americas and quickly dedicated much of that acreage to sugar cane. By killing off local inhabitants and enslaving Africans to do the backbreaking labor of tending the sugar plant, European settlers managed to build a huge production complex. Hungry for power and profit, they turned the fertile soils of Brazil, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, St. Domingue and other places to the growing of sugar for European markets by slave labor, producing extraordinary wealth in cities like Bristol, Bordeaux and Boston, and unimaginable misery for millions of enslaved workers.
Sugar, Walvin argues, was the cutting edge of global capitalism, with the plantations among the largest business enterprises, the most significant sources of profit and, in light of their highly regimented discipline, the most modern work sites. As a major share of the total trade of both 18th-century France and Britain, sugar lubricated the world economy and provided nutrition to the growing number of people who worked in cities and industry. Sugar catalyzed some of the first waves of globalization — notably in British North America, which entered the world economy as a supplier of goods to the Caribbean sugar complex and a processor of its harvest. Boston, as much as Barbados, is sugar’s offspring.
As sugar streamed from the Caribbean, consumption grew. The European elite consumed ever-larger quantities — their rotting teeth in full view of their contemporaries, although discreetly hidden by their portraitists. By the 19th century, the working class in Europe and North America was sweetening its tea and coffee, and putting jam on its toast; by century’s end, it was breakfasting on sugary cereals. Fantastic quantities of sugar, in all its forms, kept stomachs full and workers productive. In 1770, rum — made from sugar cane — provided possibly one-quarter of the caloric needs of British North America. By the mid-20th century, the average annual consumption of sugar in Britain was an astonishing 110 pounds per person. “The fruits of slave labor,” Walvin writes, “had thoroughly permeated the Western world.” Even with slavery abolished in the British and French Caribbean, North Atlantic demand and investments allowed for another huge expansion of sugar slavery, this time in Cuba.
When slavery came to its slow end in the 19th century, the geography of sugar shifted. Brutalized indentured workers from India and China took up sugar production in Guyana and Fiji, Mauritius and Trinidad. Beet sugar producers in Germany and the American Midwest gained market share. And by the late 20th century, American corn growers were feeding huge quantities of high fructose corn syrup into global markets, enabling an ever-increasing quantity of sweeteners to be poured into soft drinks and cereals. Along the way, sugar turned out to be so important that governments came to regulate its production and trade, trying to secure inexpensive sugar for domestic markets and to bolster an ever more powerful food industry addicted to cheap sweeteners. Subsidies and tariffs, as well as imperial exertions on behalf of sugar-consuming industries, Walvin makes clear, shaped the global sugar market in ways that were good for industry and all too often harmful to workers and consumers. The result has been a wave of obesity that has moved at awe-inspiring speed across the planet — fattening up people from Europe to the United States, from India to Mexico, creating a global health crisis that suggests sugar is as toxic as tobacco. If current trends continue, Walvin observes, the majority of the British and American population may be obese by 2050.
“Sugar” is an entertaining, informative and utterly depressing global history of an important commodity. It takes its cues from histories of commodities like salt, tobacco and cotton and makes good use of the possibility inherent in this approach, especially the ability to link diverse developments in distant parts of the world over long time spans. It is less analytically sophisticated than some of its predecessors, and it enters a field — sugar studies — built on Sidney Mintz’s magnum opus “Sweetness and Power,”arguably the book that started the recent boom in commodity studies, and one that Walvin often cites. What Walvin adds to this literature is accessible prose and a more expansive view that focuses on the contemporary moment and, especially, the public health implications of a world addicted to sugar.
“Sugar” could have used another round of edits — it is maddeningly repetitive. Its numbers are often vague, and trajectories — of sugar consumption, for example — would be clearer if shown in a table or graph. Walvin’s arguments are morally forceful, but their lack of precision and specificity makes them analytically nebulous. “Sugar” also reads almost like two books — one focused on slavery, the other on obesity. And despite its global scope, the book remains beholden to a Eurocentric perspective that has little to say about pre-European systems of sugar production in Asia, glosses over the enormous expansion of systems of indentured labor in sugar-growing Asia, and is weak on sugar consumption in places like India, Barbados or Senegal — all currently suffering from a diabetes epidemic. Perhaps it is true, as Walvin asserts, that sugar tainted “all involved wherever it took root,” but how it tainted places and people, and who did the tainting, and how conditions changed over the past 500 years are often left unexplained, as are any resulting lessons we might learn.
By alerting readers to the ways that modernity’s very origins are entangled with a seemingly benign and delicious substance, “Sugar” raises fundamental questions about our world. It does not resolve all those questions, but it provides enough information for its readers to begin to see some answers and to see how troubling and disconcerting they are.