Sidney W. Mintz’s ambitious attempt to analyze the history and global spread of sugar cane is Sweetness and Power, The Place of Sugar in Modern History. His approach is thorough; history and the spread of cane, technology and change of processing, the biology of taste, the anthropology of eating, slave driven agriculture, mercantilist regulation of colonial economies, upper-class display and lower-class nutrition (Goldfrank 1987:641) are all covered in just two hundred pages. The end goal is “to decipher the codes of meaning that account for the transformation of an upper-class, luxury good into a commonplace, working-class necessity” (Marino 1987:549). By evaluating the pre-19th century production, the 17-20th century consumption and addressing the meaning and usage, Mintz confronts the social, economic and political impacts of sugar.
Mintz dedicates the first chapter to establishing sugar as a learned phenomenon versus a biological imperative (Ross 1987:103). There is no gray area for Mintz; some predisposition to sweetness is indeed built in to the human equipment, but it cannot explain differing food systems and degrees of preference “anymore than the anatomy of the so-called organs of speech can ‘explain’ any particular language” (Mintz 1985:18). Mintz does not argue that humans do not have a predisposition for liking sweetness, rather he aims to look into the circumstances under which that predisposition is intensified by cultural practice. The cultural practice of living with sweetness is relevant to how strong the “sweet-tooth” is (Mintz 1985:16). According to Mintz, the fact that “everyone everywhere likes sweet things says nothing about where such tastes fit into the spectrum of taste possibilities, how important sweetness is, where it occurs in a taste-preference hierarchy, or how it is thought of in relation to other tastes” (Mintz 1985:18).
The meat of Mintz’s work aims to analyze production and consumption by investigating the history of cane, its cultivation and the efforts and effects of its production and consumption. Sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea. Botanists Artschwager and Brandes believe that three diffusions from New Guinea occurred, the first around 8000 BC. Two thousand years later, cane was present in the Philippines, Indonesia and India (Mintz 1985:19). Processed sugar first made its appearance in the historical record in India Sanskrit around 400-350 BC. Sugar was used in food mixes and fermented beverages, but there is no evidence to suggest that crystallized sugar was achieved at this time (Mintz 1985:20). Sugar is a newcomer in the historical record (when compared to honey, for example) and spread slowly during the first millennia of its existence, only gaining steam in its diaspora in the last 500 years (Mintz 1985:16). The two main sources of processed sucrose are sugar cane and sugar beet. Sugar cane has been the prime source of sucrose for over a millennium while the sugar beet was not economically important until the nineteenth century.
Europe’s introduction to sugar cane came with Arab expansion into Italy and the south coast of Spain. Along with other traditions, the new occupiers brought their culture of sugar. Their method of cultivation, the art of sugar making and the preference of sugar over other sweeteners were absorbed by the Spanish in particular. Sugar cultivation and production around the Mediterranean gradually gained steam and spread north. However, due to environmental factors (namely climate), production inefficiencies and Arab retraction from Europe, the epicenter of sugar production began to shift across the Atlantic to the New World (Mintz 1985:31). Climate problems and resulting low yield were simply not an issue in the colonies of the west Atlantic. In addition to better growing conditions, the introduction of African slave labor in the New World placed the Spanish as the pioneers of sugar cane in the Americas. The Spanish sugar endeavor quickly stagnated and was surpassed by Portugal’s production in Brazil. Within a century however, and with Spain and Portugal focusing on the extraction of precious metals, France and Britain seized the opportunity (Mintz 1985:35).
All European powers that attempted to cultivate sugar cane in the New World endured a process of trial and error. In many cases, such as that of the Spanish, small gains were subsequently thwarted by lack of motherland resources, bad management, and drought. However, the turning point in the British sugar endeavor came with the settlement of Barbados in 1627 and the later acquisition of Jamaica as part of Britain’s Western Design (Mintz 1985:37). Over 6000 tons of clayed sugars from these “properties” cemented sugar production as a luxury goods and profit center.
From around 1650 on, the production and consumption of sugar by the British Empire increased aggressively. The British colonies succeeded by exporting the unfinished product to the metropolis and imperial laws to control the flow of sugar and to stipulate the goods for which they were exchanged were enacted. Out of goods and trade policy was born the triangles of trade. The British employed two transatlantic triangles. The first encompassed finished goods traded between Britain and Africa, African slaves traded to American colonies and American tropical commodities (sugar) traded back to mother country. For the second, from New England went rum to Africa, from Africa went slaves to the West Indies, and from the West Indies went molasses back to New England (Mintz 1985:43). The triangles hold historical importance for the use of a “false commodity” – human beings. To obtain slaves, products were shipped to Africa. The slave labor generated the wealth in the Americas that ended up in Britain. The slaves of Africa were at the end of this vicious cycle; they were exploited in the creation of wealth for the British (Mintz 1985:43). As call and response is to musician and audience, so was the supply and demand of sugar. The more the plantations of the colonies supplied, the more Britons consumed. By 1750, only a century after the establishment of British colonies, sugar was transformed from luxury of the elite to staple of the proletariat (Mintz 1985:45).
As the overall production and consumption of sugar increased, so did plantation efficiencies. Mintz argues, contrary to most Western historians, that the plantations were the first instance of true industry that later emerged in Europe. Mintz is careful to trace the course of plantation development, however, to the Mediterranean. The term industry here refers to the combination of agriculture and processing under one authority. Mintz sees the system of these plantations as precursors of industry to come in Europe. This is an essential concept in Mintz’s assertion that the common wisdom that Europe modeled the colonial world after the European heartland is actual the reverse (Mintz 1985:52).
The increase in sugar consumption and the development of the plantation systems in the 17th century, according to Mintz, is at the hands of a European economic realignment. This time period marks the last phase of the transition from feudal to capitalist systems. The growth of an expandable consumers’ market in Europe with ties to changes in production elsewhere, the seizure of colonies abroad that promoted European development and the creation of colonial enterprises to produce those consumer goods swung the balance of economic power from the Mediterranean and Baltic regions up to England. At once, production and consumption of tropical commodities were a cause and consequence of Britain’s growing influence in world trade (Mintz 1985:66). During the early 19th century, mercantilism and its protections gave way to free trade. With free trade, the production landscape changed; while the West Indies plantations fell out of favor, sugar supplies increased and prices plummeted. The result was cheap sugar in healthy supply, thus affordable by the working class. This change coincided with the appearance of tea, coffee and chocolate across Britain. The supply of sugar increased and the price dropped, which resulted in the increased use of sugar in tea, coffee, and preserves. Together, these trends conspired to serve the nutritional and symbolic needs of the masses (Wright 1986:111).
The rules of the game suddenly changed and the points of leverage shifted. The power elite, who once leveraged the plantations, now could leverage the masses, and to much better ends on larger scales. This was not an accident. The growth of demand for sugar was a machination of those in power (Mintz 1985:64).
It is argued that by the mid 19th century, the increased production and seemingly ubiquitous consumption of sugar, among other factors, can be traced to the meanings of sugar to both the elite and lower classes. Mintz defines these meanings of sugar as a relationship between “inside” and “outside” meaning. Outside meaning of power refers to the overt actions of the power elite and the brokers of sugar production. Planters, bankers, slaves, shippers, refiners, and others constitute the outside and are both directly and indirectly responsible for the policies and laws designed to protect and increase the trade and availability of sugar (as well as other tropical goods such as molasses, rum and tobacco). The inside meaning takes a page from Clifford Geertz’s “webs of significance” and refers to the internalization of codes of behavior and food habits (Stein 1986:363). While perhaps simplistic, it is argued that to the elite, while no longer important as an ingestible, sugar was critical to economic growth and political gain, and to the proletariat, sugar became an symbolic, but illusory elixir to the hardworking, powerless realities of a life of labor.
“Sugar, declining in price, increasing in its convenience, and finding itself used in more and more ways appreciated by the population, became a major source of calories for the British” (Ross 1987:104). Furthermore, sugar increased the caloric content of the proletariat diet without increasing quantities of meat, fish, and poultry (Mintz 1985:193). In this way, sugar as a dietary staple of the proletariat, was a propeller of labor force output and productivity. Mintz argues that the cultural, economic and political realities based around sugar, helped determine the means by which capitalism developed during the 19th century (Wright 1986:111). Therefore sugar had a hand in the success of Britain’s industrial revolution and economic acceleration, and “is closely connected to England’s fundamental transformation from a hierarchical, status based, medieval society to a social-democratic, capitalist and industrial society” (Mintz 1985:185).
Mintz’s claim that sugar’s production and consumption played a key role in the creation of a capitalist and industrial society in Britain is bold. While the perspective is illuminating, it is perhaps grandiose to imagine that a single commodity alone could have triggered the wealth acceleration and economic and political transition that resulted in Britain’s ascension as the focal point of economic control in Europe, and at the time, the world. While sugar alone may not be the single determinant, Mintz’s analysis of sugar does serve as an important lens through which to understand the strategic machinations of trade, manipulative consumption, and power.
Goldfrank, Walter L.
1987 Review of Sweetness and Power. In Theory and Society 16(4):640-641.
Marino, John A.
1987 Review of Sweetness and Power. In The Journal of Modern History 59(3):549-551.
Mintz, Sidney W.
1985 Sweetness and Power. United States: Viking Penguin Inc.
1986 Review of Sweetness and Power. In Man 21(3):575.
Ross, Clark G.
1987 Review of Sweetness and Power. In Ethnohistory 34(1):103-105.
Stein, Stanley J.
1986 Review of Sweetness and Power. In The American Historical Review 91(2):362-363.
Wright, Winthrop R.
1986 A Nexus of Transformations. In Science 232(4746):111.