The world’s favorite sweetener was once at the heart of the slave trade.
Your Java Chip Frappucino at Starbucks will never taste quite the same after you’ve read Elizabeth Abbott’s “Sugar,” a sprawling, often fascinating, sometimes annoying history of the world’s favorite sweetener. If you always wanted to know what kind of dessert chefs served to medieval kings, what slaves on Barbadian plantations ate for dinner, how Hershey’s chocolate was invented, or how a wild plant from the Far East changed the world’s eating habits and the Western economy, Ms. Abbott is ready to tell you (and tell you and tell you). “Sugar” is epic in ambition and briskly written, interweaving the invention of the global sugar industry with its far-reaching effect on New World slavery, the environment and, in Ms. Abbott’s words, “the addiction of millions of people to sweetness and to unhealthy, disease-causing diets.”
Sugar was unknown to ancient Europeans. When the Greeks and Romans sweetened their feasts, it was with honey. “The noble cane,” as it was once called, was first domesticated in New Guinea. By the late centuries B.C. it was known in India, and from there it traveled to the Middle East, where Europeans discovered it during the Crusades. In 13th-century England it was so precious that when King Henry III ordered three pounds of it for the royal kitchens, he added, “if so much is to be had.”
Everywhere man’s encounter with sugar was love at first sight. In wealthy Renaissance households, it was used as a medicine, a spice, a decoration and a preservative, and of course as a food in its own right. Best of all, it enhanced the flavor of meals and drinks without altering their essential tastes. Demand for sugar climbed dramatically with the popularization of tea, coffee and chocolate in the 17th century. Suddenly naturally bitter drinks became sweet and delectable. Aristocratic diners ate from sugar dishes and drank from sugar glasses, sliced their bonbons with sugar knives, and even lit their dining rooms with sugar candles. In time, Ms. Abbott explains, sugar became “proletarianized,” becoming “the crutch and delight of toiling millions” in the form of icing on wedding cakes, chocolate Easter bunnies, candy canes and a multitude of other tooth-rotting delicacies.
Though there is much to savor in “Sugar,” it is not without flaws, some trivial, others less so. Ms. Abbott’s fact-gathering is sometimes sloppy. At one point she says that in 18th-century England sugar sold for about sixpence per pound, “the price of a postage stamp” at the time. In fact, stamps were not introduced until the 1840s. She claims that “when the Civil War ended in 1865, one-fifth of military-age white men and hundreds of black soldiers were dead.” Not exactly. Of the three million men who served in the Union and Confederate armies, 20% died during the war (perhaps 4% of the eligible male population), including 36,000 African-American soldiers.
Ms. Abbott also has a penchant for strained oracular utterances. She mars her generally excellent account of the sugar-related slave trade, for instance, by claiming that its “stranglehold monopoly over sub-Saharan external commerce stifled Africa’s economic development . . . stymieing infrastructural or institutional developments that might otherwise have occurred,” including “manufacturing and agriculture [that] failed to develop as they surely would have.” This is well-meaning nonsense. Slaves were exported almost exclusively from the coastal regions of West Africa. Had the slave trade never existed, it is still not likely that Africa would today resemble Western Europe.
Sugar: A Bittersweet History
By Elizabeth Abbott
Overlook, 453 pages, $29.95
That said, the foul relationship between sugar and slavery did create the trans-Atlantic slave trade, wrecked the lives of millions of Africans, and brought fabulous wealth to white planters and absentee investors. “Sugar slavery’s most insidious creation was the racialism that justified enslaving Africans and forcing them into the cane fields,” Ms. Abbott accurately writes. Black slaves, in effect, became “sugar machines.”
Sugar was an economic pillar of the British Empire, part of the triangular trade by which British ships carried trade goods to Africa; slaves from Africa to the West Indies; and sugar, rum and molasses from the Indies back to England. According to Ms. Abbott, field slaves could expect to survive only seven years on average; they died, remarked one 19th-century observer, like “over-driven horses.” Cultivating cane in the Caribbean sun was unimaginably grueling. Failure to meet an hourly work quota might mean a flogging on the spot. “The music of the negro is the whip,” remarked one Martinique planter.
If sugar was “literally polluted with slaves’ blood,” as Ms. Abbott arrestingly puts it, the horrors of slavery also aroused humanitarians and jump-started the abolition movement in 18th-century England. Abolitionists calculated that if every family using five pounds of sugar and rum per week refused to consume slave-grown sugar, every 21 months they would save one African from enslavement and death. Cynics scoffed. But by the 1790s, 300,000 English were abstaining from West Indian sugar, while grocers and importers sought new sources of “free sugar” in East Asia. Parliament voted to abolish slavery in Britain in 1807 and then in the West Indies in the 1830s. These victories, in turn, inspired abolitionists in the U.S.
Oh, about Hershey’s chocolate. At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Milton Snavely Hershey, a Pennsylvania Mennonite, was amazed to see a contraption that roasted, hulled and ground up chocolate beans into a liquid so that, when blended with sugar and other ingredients, it could be poured into molds and hardened into bars. Hershey bought the equipment on the spot and hurried home to his farm in Lancaster County, where he processed milk from his herd of Holsteins until it was slightly sour—”to the horror of European connoisseurs,” Ms. Abbott says—then blended it with the output from his new machine. Voila! North America’s first milk chocolate.
Mr. Bordewich is the author of “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America.”
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704896104575140631370218958.html