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Sugar: A Bittersweet History

James Walvin looks at how history was affected by our damaging addiction to the sweet stuff

Published: January 15, 2010 at 9:15 am
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Reviewed by: James Walvin
Author: Elizabeth Abbott
Publisher: Duckworth
Price (RRP): £20


 Sugar sweetens our drinks, makes possible the cooking of favourite dishes and brings comfort. But its risks are well-known, from its damage to teeth to its harmful impacts on physical well-being. For many, life’s daily routines could not be sustained without a spoonful of sugar. 

All this is so commonplace that we tend to lose sight of sugar’s presence: it is simply part of the world as we know it. But when it is in short supply, we begin to realise how much we like – need – it. Yet it wasn’t always so. The history of the world’s addiction to sweetness is a remarkable story, told before, most brilliantly and influentially by Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power. Abbott offers a new interpretation, written with a zestful style, which returns to the historical and sociological features of sugar’s story.

Europeans encountered cane sugar relatively late, when Crusaders discovered sugar grown on plantations in the Holy Land. That was just the latest stage of sugar’s protracted journey westward from its home in the south Pacific. But it was in the Americas that sugar was transformed from the luxury of the elites, to the daily essential of the people. Sugar’s early medicinal functions were soon transformed (as it got cheaper) into a daily necessity, sustaining workers in gruelling occupations, and adding to the fashions of polite society as they took tea and coffee. 

The voracious appetite of Europe, and later of the wider world, for sugar was sated by the plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean, where cane was cultivated and processed by armies of imported Africans. Indeed sugar, above all, was the engine behind the slave trade and all that followed. In their turn, sugar (and rum) transformed the tastes of the world at large. Sugar created the demand for millions of African slaves – later for huge numbers of indentured labourers from India. 

It sweetened the tastes and the habits of the world. 

From these American plantation strongholds, sugar moved on again, to Africa, to the Indian Ocean and to the south Pacific, then Australia. Each time, sugar producers sucked in outside labour, normally on the most exploitative of terms. Sugar thus transformed the geography, the human landscape, sometimes re-peopling entire regions, and in the process, creating a global market of sugar consumers. Sugar damaged millions of people snared in its production (notably on the plantations); it created harmful economic dependency (what do small islands do when sugar collapses?); and it created a string of health problems (more recently in the form of widespread obesity.) Despite all this, we still consume it, now often in the form of beet or chemical substitutes rather than cane sugar.

This remarkable historical and social phenomenon is the essence of this book. It belongs to that recent genre of food histories which have had huge public appeal (even when telling a tale that has long been familiar.) Abbott’s breezy and energetic style will doubtless find an enthusiastic readership among people keen to make sense of the world around them via the history of this remarkable commodity.


Professor James Walvin’s books include The Trader, the Owner, the Slave (2007)


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