How Sweet It Is

A few months ago, a television ad in promoting its product challenged the notion that high fructose was a bad thing. In our culture the origin of sweetening and our conditioning to it has its roots in transatlantic slavery. This is no stretch.

If one crop could be targeted as providing the major impetus for the transatlantic slave trade it would be sugar. The demand for “free” labor under the plantation system of cultivation and production, and development in the Western Hemisphere resulted by the 1820s in the transport of 11,000,000 people – 8.5 million Africans (approximately 77%) and 2.5 million Europeans. By the 18th century Brazil alone was importing 20,000 Africans per year primarily to grow sugar.

The Spanish, mainly in Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, and the Portuguese in Brazil were creating a demand for Africans devoted principally to support sugar production. There were other crops – indigo, rice, tobacco and cotton; and other tasks such as mining, but sugar was supreme. Throughout the 20th century, certain nations (Cuba, Barbados, Jamaica for example), historically dependent upon sugar, scrambled to develop industries no longer based on sugar production which had become increasingly less profitable on the global market.

Two major factors enabled the Europeans to select African workers:
(1) Precedent had been established in using enslaved Africans on the off-shore African island plantations where sugar was being produced for the European market; and
(2) Native American labor could not sustain or meet the ever-increasing demand. These people escaped, became ill or died quickly.

Perhaps it is fitting that diabetes, especially Type 2, is a pervasive disease throughout the world. The ingredient which made the every day once exotic beverages (tea, coffee, chocolate) from distant lands palatable for the European market may very well kill us all. High fructose and sugar is in almost all processed foods, the sweeter the better it tastes. There have been treatises, books, dissertations, studies on the global sugar economy. Comparisons have been made between the benefits of cane and beet sugar production, and sweeteners are ranked as natural or artificial. The discourse continues. Consumers now have to read carefully product labels to determine “how sweet it is.”

What is definitely known is that entire geographical landscapes were altered by the sugar industry. Windmills dotted the land in the Caribbean, Central and South America; all were devoted to the pervasive business in sugar. The first use of the word “factory” was not associated with the European Industrial Revolution but with the sugar industry. Increased market demand and the wealth it generated is directly related to the increased demand for Africans to cross the Atlantic and be forced to do this back-breaking work. These Africans “cultivated crops that changed the tastes and habits of Europe” and later the world wrote James Walvin in The Slave Trade. Sugar is an easy example of the development of a global economy. As one desired product becomes more available in cost and amount to more people, auxiliary demands are created for other related products. The major consideration in reducing sugar’s cost and increasing its supply has to be African enslavement in the Americas (1510-1888).

Next time while drinking that cup of coffee, tea or chocolate try it without sugar. It may demonstrate a bit of history.

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