Sugar and Labor: Tracking Empires

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Sugar and Labor: Tracking Empires

Sugar, the refined granules of crystallized juice extracted from the sugarcane plant, was transformed during the era of European colonialism from a medicine, spice, and rare luxury in parts of Asia, the Pacific, and Europe to a ubiquitous staple ingredient of postcolonial diets. The story of this transformation is entwined with the story of European colonialism and the related forces of change that swept the globe since 1450.

In contrast to the ever-increasing demand that takes sugar for granted, and the ease with which it has been consumed, the sugarcane plant is in fact notoriously delicate, disease prone, and resource hungry during cultivation. Moreover, it only yields sugar through a labor-intensive process of extraction and refinement that is unforgiving of any time lag between harvesting and processing. Unprecedented levels of exploitation of labor, land, and environment have therefore characterized the economic viability of its mass production. Sugar demanded endless acres of tropical and subtropical land for cultivation, as well as armies of cheap enslaved, indentured, or enforced labor to grow, harvest, and process it. As such, sugarcane worked its way into the heart of the economies and trades that would fund and drive European expansion.

While sugar was used as a spice and sweetener in Asia and the Pacific before the colonial era, in Europe it remained a medicinal and luxury item. This status would change after 1492 when Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) took sugarcane to the New World, and throughout the sixteenth century, sugar was produced in Brazil for export to Lisbon and the European market.

Brazilian sugar was grown with the use of African slaves and plantation-based cultivation and production, which was a system founded in relations of exploitation that would continue to characterize sugar production well into the twentieth century. Until the middle of the seventeenth century, while Portugal and Spain supplied Europe with sugar, the majority of sugar production worldwide occurred in Asia in Bengal, Java, southern China, and Taiwan. Here it was produced for local consumers and exported to Europe through trading links established by such companies as the Dutch East Indies Company. From early in the seventeenth century, however, the prominence of Asian sugar as an export commodity would be overtaken by sugar grown in the Caribbean.

The arrival of the British and French in the Caribbean in the early seventeenth century marked the beginning of the never-ending expansion of sugar production and the deepening of its identification with slavery. For the first half of the seventeenth century, plantation cultivation relied for labor on varied combinations of African and indigenous slaves and European indentured laborers. From the middle of the seventeenth century, however, sugar was exclusively produced by enslaved Africans on plantations that monopolized land use and transformed entire islands like Barbados and Jamaica into virtual "sugar factories" (Ashcroft 1999, p. 44).

By the end of the seventeenth century, sugar had become an inextricable link in an economic triangle that entwined the fates, desires, and wealth of people in three continents. While sugar and molasses were traded from West Indian possessions to ever-expanding European and New England markets, the finished goods exported from Europe and New England, such as rum, clothes, or tools, were traded in Africa for slaves, who in turn produced the raw sugar products that would be exported for trade in Europe and European colonies. Sugar was therefore integral to the three-way trade between colonial possessions (the West Indies), colonies of exploitation (the African continent), and imperial centers (Britain). This was an interrelationship that turned sugar from being a byproduct of colonial expansion to an enabling and driving force.

As Sidney Mintz explored in his classic Sweetness and Power (1985), the eighteenth century saw a growth in the demand for sugar in Europe and North America that was driven by the increased production in the Caribbean, which was fueled by the roaring slave trade. To create demand, British sugar producers, as represented by such organizations as the West India lobby, actively promoted the consumption of other colonial products, such as bitter coffee and tea that was imported from Asia by the British East India Company and rendered palatable and desirable with the addition of sugar.

Aided by falling prices, by the middle of the eighteenth century, sugar was no longer a luxury item. It had become a basic dietary ingredient indicated by the twentyfold increase in consumption that took place in England and Wales between 1663 and 1775. So successful was its promotion that by the end of the century, sugar was not only being widely consumed, it was also well on its way, along with other such colonial products as tea, tobacco, cocoa, and coffee, to being thoroughly appropriated as icons of European cultures. As James Walvin (1999, p. 24) put it in relation to Britain, where consumption had increased by 2,500 percent in the hundred and fifty years preceding 1800, what could be more British than a sweet cup of tea?

By the middle of the nineteenth century, sugar was a necessity in many European and North American households. British consumption alone increased in sixty years from 572,000 tons in 1830 to a staggering six million tons by 1890. Still, sugar production continued to rise, outstripping and, as a consequence, driving demand.

In the United States, sugar became so cheap and available that North American sugar refineries deliberately lowered production. The reason for this massive increase in productive capability was multifaceted. First, from 1850, beet sugar, which was grown in temperate climates in Europe and the United States, had expanded to supplant cane sugar by 1880. Second, slavery was abolished in the European colonies from 1838 onward, so that by 1884 all the major sources of sugar in the Caribbean were being produced by varied forms of contracted and paid, and therefore relatively expensive, labor. Finally, the rapid expansion of European colonies from the eighteenth century led to an opening up of new land for cane cultivation, along with seemingly inexhaustible pools of cheap labor. By the end of the nineteenth century, sugar production was diversified and was flourishing throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, southern Africa, the Pacific, and northeastern Australia. Hence, while the plantation-based Caribbean was the sole producer of export-oriented sugar at the opening of the nineteenth century, it had been displaced by the century's close. By 1900 Germany was the biggest producer and exporter of sugar from beets, followed by Cuba and Java as the second and third largest producers of sugar from cane.

The combination of the economic crises caused by this increased competition and the added expense of labor forced sugar producers to modernize and industrialize during the nineteenth century. From mid-century, steam-powered technology aiding both harvesting and refining was introduced to most sugar-producing centers. Although this helped to lower the cost of production, the demand for cheap, unskilled, and coercible labor remained strong in the post-emancipation period. With few exceptions, many sugar producers turned to indentured or contracted, and usually imported labor supplied by colonial empires.

The French West Indies, for example, used labor from French India. British planters transferred labor from the Pacific to Australia, from India to the Pacific, and from southern Africa and the Caribbean. Dutch planters in Sumatra used labor imported from Java. While not using indentured or contracted labor, the sugar exported from Asian industries in Taiwan, the Philippines, or Java was produced utilizing existing social relations to extract labor and sugar from peasants. In Java, for example, the existing sugar industry was co-opted, centralized, and enforced by the Netherlands Indies state after 1830 when, under the so-called Cultivation System, Javanese peasants were obligated to grow commercial and export crops. The essential low cost of labor and land that characterized colonial sugar production was therefore retained.

Although the production of sugar for ever-expanding and disparate European and American markets diversified in the nineteenth century beyond the antiquated Caribbean-style plantations, essential features remained unchanged into the twentieth century. The global sugar industry continued to dedicate vast tracts of productive and fertile tropical land to a single crop, at the same time that the economic viability of such cultivation remained reliant on supplies of cheap, expendable, and usually nonwhite labor. For this reason it remained an essentially colonial crop, dependent for its production on the land and labor made available through European expansion and appropriation of territory.

Sugar, or the industry and market that grew up around it, has been described by Sidney Mintz (1985, p. 71) as one of the most powerful demographic forces in world history. Sugar, perhaps more than any other tropical product, funded and necessitated the transformation of millions of acres of forest, ecosystems, and indigenous lands into enormous agricultural factories. This resulted in the displacement of indigenous agricultures, technologies, and economies, and the uprooting and dispossession of entire populations.

While European nations leaked their populations all over the globe in search of sugar-fed riches, African, south Asian, and Pacific countries hemorrhaged their populations to produce these riches. More than eight million enslaved Africans were displaced to produce Caribbean sugar. So too, 1.25 million Indian laborers were moved around the British Empire for sugar, and hundreds of thousands of Pacific Islanders were moved around the Pacific and to Queensland for sugar industries in Kanaky/New Caledonia, Fiji, Hawaii, and Queensland. Indeed, the demographic diversity of the postcolonial world can be traced to the diasporic force of sugar.

In five hundred years of colonialism, sugar has become a staple item in every Western kitchen, and an almost mandatory ingredient of processed foods. As a cheap, rapidly consumed, and high-energy food that so perfectly suits the demands of time-disciplined industrial societies, its production and demand continue to grow. But more than a food, as a demographic, social, and economic force, sugar both reflects and encapsulates the era of European colonialism. It was, and arguably remains, a thoroughly colonial product steeped in the social relations, political phenomena, and economic drives and imperatives that shaped the colonial era.

see also African Slavery in the Americas; Caribbean; Sugar Cultivation and Trade.


Ahluwalia, Pal, Bill Ashcroft, and Roger Knight. "Introduction." In White and Deadly: Sugar and Colonialism, edited by Pal Ahluwalia, Bill Ashcroft, and Roger Knight, 1-20. Commack, NY: Nova Science, 1999.

Albert, Bill, and Adrian Graves. "Introduction." In Crisis and Change in the International Sugar Economy, 1860–1914, edited by Bill Albert and Adrian Graves. Norwich, U.K.: ISC, 1984: 1-7.

Ashcroft, Bill. "A Fatal Sweetness: Sugar and Post-Colonial Cultures." In White and Deadly: Sugar and Colonialism, edited by Pal Ahluwalia, Bill Ashcroft, and Roger Knight, 33-50. Commack, NY: Nova Science, 1999.

Burrows, Geoff, and Clive Morton. The Canecutters. Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1986.

Knight, G. Roger. Narratives of Colonialism: Sugar, Java, and the Dutch. Huntington, NY: Nova Science, 2000.

Lal, Brij V., Doug Munro, and Edward D. Beechert, eds. Plantation Workers: Resistance and Accommodation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Marks, Shula, and Peter Richardson, eds. International Labour Migration: Historical Perspectives. Hounslow, Middlesex, U.K.: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 1984.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985.

Robbins, Richard. Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon, 2005.

Saunders, Kay, ed. Indentured Labour in the British Empire, 1834–1920. London: Croom Helm, 1984.

Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World: 1450–1680. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Shineberg, Dorothy. The People Trade: Pacific Island Laborers and New Caledonia, 1865–1930. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Stoler, Anne Laura. Capitalism and Confrontation in Sumatra's Plantation Belt, 1870–1979, 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Walvin, James. "Sugar and the Shaping of Western Culture." In White and Deadly: Sugar and Colonialism, edited by Pal Ahluwalia, Bill Ashcroft, and Roger Knight, 21-31. Commack, NY: Nova Science, 1999.

Wertheim, Wim F. "Conditions on Sugar Estates in Colonial Java: Comparisons with Deli." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 24 (2) (1993): 268-285.

Woloson, Wendy A. Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.