Sugar, Slavery, and Capitalism: On Ulbe Bosma’s “The World of Sugar”

By Dinyar PatelMay 9, 2023

Sugar, Slavery, and Capitalism: On Ulbe Bosma’s “The World of Sugar”

The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years by Ulbe Bosma

WHAT MIGHT DONALD RUMSFELD have in common with Frederick Barbarossa, Mormons, and Queen Elizabeth I’s rotting teeth? The answer is simpler than you might expect: the power and influence of sugar, a crystalline specimen of world-historical significance dissolved in your morning coffee or tea. A warmongering neocon, a Holy Roman emperor, pious Utahns, and a heavily cavitied pair of Tudor gnashers are part of an expansive cast of characters in Ulbe Bosma’s new work on the sweet stuff, The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years. This book is a tour de force of global history, one that helps us better understand the genesis of both modern capitalism and globalization.

Nearly four decades ago, anthropologist Sidney Mintz published his classic account of the world of sugar, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985). This was a world, Mintz made clear, of breathtaking extremes: on one end were early modern European aristocrats who decorated their salons with sugar sculptures; on the other were millions of enslaved men and women, overwhelmingly of African origin, who were overworked so mercilessly on Caribbean plantations that they regularly lost fingers, arms, or even their lives when they collapsed on whirring mill machinery or fell asleep atop boiling vats of sugarcane juice. Bosma, like Mintz, seizes upon these extremes. The World of Sugar draws from an ever-increasing body of scholarship that has inextricably tied the creation of modern capitalism to slavery and imperialism.

But Bosma breaks some new ground when he asks what a universal human craving for sweetness tells us about precisely how, when, and where capitalism developed. The World of Sugar brings Asia to the forefront, particularly India, China, and—a little later—the Indonesian island of Java. A sophisticated sugar economy existed in Bengal and North India by the time Marco Polo visited in the 13th century. It employed professional boilers and entrenched systems of monetization and wage labor within the village economy. “If we define capitalism as a continuously advancing commodification of labor and nature for profit by private entrepreneurs,” Bosma writes, “then India’s sugar sector clearly exhibited a capitalist dynamic.” Ming China became a global hub of sugar trade, with cane dominating the landscape, and with new technological innovations—perhaps introduced by Egyptians in the early Islamic era—increasing the efficiency of refining. Elsewhere, Barbarossa, fresh from crusading in the Holy Land in the mid-12th century, brought skilled Syrians to breathe new life into the sugar economy of Sicily.

Egyptian technology in China and Levantine labor in Sicily provides but two examples of the dazzling global links that stitch together Bosma’s work. Any study of a commodity reveals intricate networks of global trade, finance, and technology: American cotton experts trudging through the fields of Western India in the mid-19th century, for example, or the multinational money trail that sustained opium barons such as the Sassoons. What seems unique about sugar is the utter complexity of these global connections—how sugar has been, for centuries, a commodity transacted by citizens of the world. Some of these accounts boggle the imagination. In the late 1600s, sugar confectioneries were introduced into Siam by a Catholic woman of Japanese and Portuguese descent, Marie Guyemar de Pinha (also known as Marie Guimard in French), who married the king’s Greek prime minister. Two centuries later, a sugar planter like Leonard Wray could effortlessly move between the Malay Peninsula, Natal (in today’s South Africa), and the American South, receiving land in Algeria from Napoleon III and conducting sugar experiments under the auspices of the former governor of South Carolina.

Bosma traces the rise of a sugar bourgeoisie in places like Java, the Caribbean, Louisiana, and Brazil that was, by its very definition, transnational. Sugar, after all, constantly required new commodity frontiers as cane monoculture ravaged the soil and turned lush tropical forests into wastelands. Politics and war accelerated this scramble for new frontiers. A man like John Gladstone—father of British prime minister William—had to quickly pull up stakes in Demerara (in today’s Guyana) and Jamaica in 1840 and try his luck in deltaic Bengal instead. When mercantilism threw up barriers to international trade, sugar planters simply ensured that the next generation acquired citizenship in a different country so that their commodity could continue to trickle across borders.

Of course, many of those transnational connections were sealed through acts of unspeakable brutality. If the world of sugar was one of extremes—in terms of both global connections and socioeconomic disparities—then no people better expressed these dichotomies than the unfortunate African men, women, and children who were captured and hauled across the Atlantic to cut cane and boil sugarcane juice in the New World. The workings of the slave-sugar economy, Bosma makes clear, guaranteed that the enslaved were reduced to the absolute wretched of the earth: more likely to die than their companions working in cotton and tobacco fields, subsisting on a diet of vermin and lizards, and subject to the regular loss of their limbs while handling equipment. Slaves were shuttled across the Atlantic’s western littoral as new sugar frontiers developed and as European colonies were gained and lost. One of the only escape routes for these slaves was to fling themselves into the boiling vats—then, at least, their corpses could inflict some economic damage upon their masters’ produce.

The World of Sugar puts the sweet stuff front and center in the abolitionist movement: Britons, especially British women, organized popular boycotts of West Indies sugar. They turned instead to alternatives from Bengal, which they proudly displayed in bowls engraved with the words “East India Sugar Not Made by Slaves.” But Bosma unearths a darker side to the story of abolition and emancipation. Saint-Domingue sugar workers might have cast away their chains during the Haitian Revolution, but French planters simply carried those chains across the Windward Passage to Cuba, where they got to work establishing a new, brutal sugar frontier powered by yet more slaves. Equally unsettling, Bosma demonstrates that the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 was followed, a bit more than a decade later, by the resumption of British mass imports of slave-grown sugar from areas beyond London’s imperial control. Sugar from Brazil and Cuba was simply cheaper, and business and consumer interests trumped any questions of morality.

Sugar thus presented a conundrum to students of capitalism. As it evolved into a full-blown industry, with massive refinery complexes lining the waterfronts of American and European cities, the commodity remained utterly reliant on slavery, coerced labor, and—in places like Java, where the Dutch designed a system of forced cultivation—suppressed land rights. Lofty dreams of emancipating labor through mechanization were punctured by the economic reality that grossly impoverished workers were cheaper and more easily dispensable. Sugar, Bosma concludes, “exposed the misguided belief that industrialization would be incompatible with slave-based production systems.”

The industrial side of sugar did, at least, display impressive innovation. Sugar planters in the 18th century had already turned to science and technology for agricultural improvement: they sponsored learned societies from Saint-Domingue through Batavia (Jakarta) and later helped establish an emerging global network of botanical gardens and experimental farms, some of which employed Ivy League dons. Technologists, managers, and chemists increasingly peopled the world of sugar. They developed steam-powered cane crushers—which Bosma asks us to see as a major innovation in the Industrial Revolution, something like the tropics’ answer to the spinning mule—and searched for alternatives to cane as a source of sugar. After failed attempts with mushrooms and grapes, German scientists in the late 18th century perfected the process of extracting sugar from beet roots.

And just in time. The Napoleonic Wars cut off continental Europe from the British sugar-producing empire when the commodity was fast becoming a product of mass consumption. Napoleon’s Continental System formed an early chapter in the role of the state propping up sugar economies. Over time, the German Zollverein (customs union), British imperial tariffs, and American protectionism all helped create vitally important national beet-sugar industries. Removed from the tropics, sugar could now get mixed up with local white-supremacist politics, as anxieties about African, Hispanic, or Asian immigrants led Europeans and Americans to search for white sugar workers. Germans and the Dutch turned to poor Poles while, in a particularly bizarre twist, a New York sugar baron found commercial salvation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons had fallen afoul of the federal government due to their polygamous practices, which dashed any hope of further integration into the United States. Beet-sugar farming provided an unusual method of redemption: Utahns could farm for the promise of statehood and Christ.

Today, sugar continues to generate mass profits and mass poverty in shockingly different doses. From the early 20th century onward, scholars of the Global South (including Mintz) explored how the sugar industry hobbled national economies, perpetuated truly awful standards of living among workers, and impaired incipient labor movements. Sugar was only profitable when churned out in mass quantities: consequently, sugar industrialists deliberately overproduced, which artificially drove down prices (and workers’ wages). Governments, meanwhile, helped save corporate sugar from a race to the bottom. They realized that national sugar industries, increasingly financed by Wall Street and the City of London, were “too big to fail” and thus protected them behind stout tariff walls. Today, national governments spend around $50 billion a year to subsidize the global overproduction of a commodity responsible for serious health epidemics. How did we arrive here?

For some answers, we can finally turn to Donald Rumsfeld and Elizabeth I’s rotting teeth. Sugar corporations, while perpetually ramping up supplies, actively sought out new uses for their commodity: processed food, sweetened beverages and cigarettes, and even a botched attempt to sweeten French baguettes. Bosma writes about how this dynamic pushed the global sugar industry into overdrive, promoting dubious academic work on sugar as a vital source of energy—and suppressing scientific study of sugar’s harmful links with disease and obesity. Mass-marketing sugar as hygienic and even healthy was a profitable solution to overproduction. This transpired despite long-standing medical observation of the dangers of too much sugar consumption. As early as the 1600s, European doctors drew an obvious causal link between an elite penchant for sugary sweets and the awful dental hygiene of Queen Elizabeth I and her fellow monarchs on the Continent. But sugar producers—whether colonial-era planters or modern-day corporate behemoths—always shielded themselves through important political connections, dashing or diluting public health warnings.

Enter Mr. Rumsfeld. Decades before he experimented with “shock and awe” and pondered “unknown unknowns,” he was the CEO of Searle, a pharmaceutical company that was anxious to put even more sweet stuff on the market by reversing a US government ban on aspartame. A pliant Food and Drug Administration, led by a director handpicked by Rumsfeld, complied in the Reagan years. Rumsfeld is only one example of how, over centuries, politics has greased the wheels of global sugar overproduction. Today, things like aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, and—most recently—Splenda have left the world awash in a veritable tsunami of sweeteners, spreading obesity and diabetes epidemics into developing countries. Sugar farmers in places like Florida, Uganda, and the Indian state of Maharashtra continue to labor in dreadful conditions. Yet, Bosma is hopeful that movements such as conscious capitalism and green capitalism will prod the global sugar industry into reform: he establishes a parallel with the consumer-driven activism of the abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is easy to be skeptical about such arguments. For products of mass consumption like sugar, conscious capitalism remains a fringe movement whose writ does not extend far beyond the nearest Whole Foods or hipster coffee joint. The abolitionist movement, as Bosma notes, was itself undone by consumer demand for cheaper (and thus slave-produced) sugar. Writers such as Amitav Ghosh, meanwhile, have assailed the greenwashing practiced by supposedly environmentally conscious governments and corporations—especially in places like India, the cradle of the global sugar industry. We should, of course, welcome consumer-led demands for change. But, as Mintz observed so many years ago, the human desire for sweetness is a powerful, violent thing.

The World of Sugar is a welcome addition to a growing crop of historical literature on commodities and global capitalism. Bosma has turned the humble sugar crystal into a mighty prism for understanding aspects of global history and the world in which we live.


Dinyar Patel is assistant professor of history at the S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR) in Mumbai and a research affiliate at the Mittal South Asia Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism (Harvard University Press, 2020), which was awarded the 2021 Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize.

LARB Contributor

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR) in Mumbai and a research affiliate at the Mittal South Asia Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism (Harvard University Press, 2020), which was awarded the 2021 Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize.


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