On sugar and slavery

First aired on Fresh Air (22/10/11)

Author and historian Elizabeth Abbott first became interested in the story of sugar because of a family connection. Her ancestors were planters in the West Indies, where the crop was first widely grown. What she found out in the course of her research, however, wasn't so sweet.

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In a recent interview, Abbott talked to Fresh Air host Mary Ito about her new book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History.

"Sugar is something that by the 18th century became an essential foodstuff," Abbott explained. Nutritionally it may be undesirable, but people in Europe couldn't get enough of it once they tasted it. Because of huge demand, she added, "it had to be produced in large quantities and very cheaply."

That wasn't an option in Europe at the time. So the islands of the West Indies were developed as a means of satisfying the world's sweet tooth. But sugar is a very labour-intensive crop. At first, Abbott says, indentured servants and prisoners were brought from Europe to work the sugar plantations, but eventually Africa became the source of forced labour. "They were brought over in huge numbers and as they died off, they were simply replaced with more," Abbott said. "So the whole system of African slavery is due to sugar and our obsessive taste for sugar."

In her book, Abbott describes when the commodity was still a luxury, and available only to the wealthy. "They would have banquets at which they had huge sculptures made entirely of sugar...elephants and trees and so on," she said, adding that even plates and utensils were made of sugar, so these were eaten too.

Abbott also describes how sugar producers and the sugar industry came up with creative ways of increasing consumption of their product. They ran what she called "an amazing PR campaign," fostering the notion that women have a sweet tooth and that a good wife should provide a sweet dessert for her family every day. They invented different kinds of candy, and promoted the idea of giving chocolates as a gift — a tradition that still lives on.

For Abbott, the bitterest part of the story was the enslavement of a staggering number of Africans — "11 million Africans were brought out [to the New World], and six million ended up as sugar slaves," she said — and the racist ideology that was developed to justify it.

"This is how racism developed," Abbott said. "It followed slavery."

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Sugar: A Bittersweet History

by Elizabeth Abbott

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

"Sugar: A Bittersweet History offers a perceptive and provocative investigation of a commodity that most of us savour every day yet know little about. Impressively researched and commandingly written, this thoroughly engaging book follows the history of sugar to the present day. It is a revealing look at how sugar changed the nature of meals, fuelled the Industrial Revolution, generated a brutal new form of slavery, and jumpstarted the fast-food revolution."

Read more at Penguin Canada.

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