A Dark History of Sugar (book review)

Book review: A Dark History of Sugar, Neil Buttery (Pen & Sword Publishing)

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas they enslaved the local people to dig for gold. African slaves were then imported when the native labourers died from exhaustion or of European infections from which they were not immune. The Portuguese did likewise when they began cultivating sugarcane in Brazil. Yet it was the English who, by the end of the 17th century, were shipping slaves from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies by the tens of thousands. “The English planters of the West Indies were the first Englishmen to practise slavery on a vast scale, and they took to it like ducks to water, says Neil Buttery in his new book A Dark History of Sugar.

The English colonists who first settled in the West Indies went there hoping to make money by growing tobacco, the successful crop of Virginia. The climate and soil of the Caribbean islands was found to be wrong for tobacco but perfect for sugarcane and it would make their fortunes in the sugar boom of the mid-17th century. Sugar became the new gold and the English Caribbean islands the most valuable real-estate in the world. Wars were fought between the English, Dutch and French for their control and the right to trade with the islands. As Buttery puts it: “Without sugar, the British Empire probably wouldn’t have existed…and the British couldn’t be exposed as being ruthless, cruel and exploitative to its colonies’ inhabitants”.

Sugar was complicated and expensive to manufacture and required a large investment in land, labour and production facilities, beyond the means of most of the early colonists. Initially indentured servants were employed, their passage across the Atlantic provided in return for land at the end of the term of servitude. Once the sugar boom took hold in the late 1640s a land grab was undertaken by wealthy Englishmen and soon there was no more land available. It became more economically viable to use enslaved labourers for the work. Slave-trading became so important that it was monopolised by the English monarchy. “Above all else [the sugar planters] were reliant on a steady supply of African slaves who were transported and traded by the Royal African Company during England’s peak sugar-producing years”. The RAC was headed by James, Duke of York, brother of Charles II, at Whitehall Palace. Its shareholders were the aristocracy, the upper classes, and London’s overseas merchants.

Although it is not stated within this book, the point to remember for London historians is that London ships dominated the triangular slave trade until the end of the 17th century and were actively involved until the abolition of the business in 1807. For the most part, it would not have been possible without credit provided by London merchants. Plantation owners “were dependent upon merchants who provided them with credit to buy slaves and brought with them new equipment, clothing, and fancy goods.” Planters had to either arrive wealthy or at least be credit-worthy. A hierarchy quickly evolved: “At the very top were the big planters, then the small planters, tradesmen, then indentured servants and finally the black slaves.” The leading plantation owners became super-rich, while those with only a small landholding could barely feed and clothe themselves.

Slavery, as practiced by the English and other European nations, was an immensely cruel business. Yet, as Buttery states: “An empire was being built on sugar and slavery”. In large part it happened for economic reasons. Plantation owners were making fortunes, only possible using slave labour. Manufacturers and traders in Britain were earning good money by supplying the overseas colonies, and the government was receiving income from duties. The terrible cruelty meted out on the enslaved labourers was either unknown to the vast majority of British people or simply ignored. It was out of sight and out of mind, or as Buttery observes, it was “something that happened elsewhere”.

When Carolina was founded by plantation owners from Barbados in the 1660s they took their slaves with them to cultivate rice and cotton and thus began the large-scale use of enslaved labour of African-heritage people in the English North American colonies and, later, the independent United States. “All the cruelty, violence and genocide that was to follow in North America was based on English sugar-slavery management”.

The wealthy plantation owners of the West Indies moved back to Britain and formed a powerful lobby group, with many of their number sitting as MPs in Parliament. Tax was formulated by Westminster to ensure that only sugar produced in the British West Indies could be consumed in Britain and its colonies. Yet at the same time there was also a growing realisation of the cruelties inflicted on enslaved labourers in the colonies. People began to realise: “Buying sugar meant that you were part of the slave trade,” say Buttery. It took immense effort and much lobbying over many decades by abolitionists, however, to eventually persuade Parliament to end the slave trade, and then another couple of decades to finally abolish slavery in the British Empire in 1834. The plantation owners were rewarded, the former slaves left in poverty.

This new book takes us on a journey from the origins of sugarcane cultivation in New Guinea, its spread through the Islamic world and then to Europe, production by the Portuguese in their Atlantic colonies, and then across the Atlantic to what was, to the Europeans at least, the New World. Buttery provides us chapters on the colonisation of the Caribbean, the lives of the planters and their enslaved labourers, the early production of sugar, and the abolition of slavery. We learn how during the 19th and 20th centuries sugar became a major ingredient in many of the manufactured foodstuffs we consume, with negative effects on our health.

I am dubious about the odd claim made in the book. It also gets into a slight muddle regarding the English slave-trading organisations of the 17th century, largely ignoring their failings. It misses out the Guinea Company, the first of those companies, altogether. The book provides much historical background, however, providing an introduction to how sugar arrived in British and American kitchens, cultivated using enslaved labour, and providing one of the cornerstones of the British Empire.

Buttery is a food historian. He draws upon, and acknowledges, many sources and existing studies, condensing the history of sugar into a reasonably slim and concise volume that is easy to digest – no pun intended. There is not a great amount here that is new for those who have studied the subject, and it covers similar ground to James Walvin’s earlier ‘How Sugar Corrupted the World’. Yet these points do not take away from the overall account. It is well illustrated and provides useful notes on Buttery’s sources of information. It is a welcome publication for those wishing to know about the rise of sugar in our diet, the past involvement in slavery that helped bring that about, and the rise of the ‘Big Sugar’ manufacturing industry.