Like many other books that claim a single edible as their subject, Sugar is more than just the history of a popular commodity. It is an opportunity to canvass change and continuity in the material culture of the West, and a chance to examine power dynamics among disparate groups of people across space and over time. If these sound like ambitious projects, it’s because they are, but Elizabeth Abbott manages a narrative that is insightful, plausible, and easily absorbed.
Sugar began to gather momentum in the mid-1500s, as millions of African slaves were dragged across the Atlantic to the sugar islands, brutal Caribbean colonies controlled by European powers. Although long a luxury in medieval courts, sugar was transformed by the Industrial Revolution into a daily necessity, where it became for workers and their families a source of cheap and convenient satisfaction. Cheap and convenient are buzzwords of the new millennium, yet Abbott demonstrates that sugar was beloved for some of the same reasons hundreds of years ago. It had the power to confer bourgeois respectability when served in working class households at high tea and, by the late 19th century, was training children to become eager consumers as they purchased penny candy. Sugar as cultural currency is an important theme.
Although sugar is easily characterized as the “handmaiden of celebration” (408), Abbott insists her readers bear in mind, always, the dark underside of its production. Greed, corruption, environmental degradation, and especially slavery are the real stars of this drama, with the latter’s rise and ostensible fall dominating two-thirds of the chapters. Abbott, herself a fair trade advocate, argues that little changed in the sugar world from the 17th to the 19th centuries, where “white prosperity, security, and even survival depended on the relentless domination of the bodies, if not the souls, of the denizens of slave quarters” (120). But even after the slave trade was abolished, there existed diasporas of indentured labourers from India, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere whose lives were (and continue to be) marred by the very same injustice. For example, Abbott insinuates, the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who cut sugar cane in the Dominican Republic are potentially even worse off: they lack civil rights and almost all are considered illegals. Unlike the slaves of West Indian plantations who could sometimes grow their own vegetables, contemporary sugar workers are forbidden to garden and live in shanties without water, toilets, or cooking facilities (389-90). This example, along with discussions of the lobbying power of Big Sugar, the public health implications of a high-sugar diet, and the environmental effects of sugar cane farming, is saved for the final chapter, a walloping indictment of the high hidden costs of contemporary sugar dependence.
Sugar accomplishes a remarkable panoramic sweep and benefits from a rich array of sources, which, though largely secondary, are carefully chosen. Abbott is at her best when colouring in her characters, describing, for instance, Martinique planter Pierre Dieudonné Dessalles’ relationship with his male slave Nicaise—a love that spanned decades and continents, but which failed to undermine Dessalles’ racial assumptions as a slaveowner. Abbott has written popular histories of celibacy and mistresses, and her interest in her subjects’ personal lives remains evident in frequent, often moving analyses of sexuality, relationships, and social mores.
Almost none of the issues covered in Sugar are given short shrift. The exception is Abbott’s less-than-thorough discussion of sugar-derived ethanol. True, she acknowledges some of its drawbacks—for instance, the dislocation of non-sugar farmers who then must move on to ecologically sensitive areas—but she ultimately rules in its favour, suggesting that “biofuel derivatives have a redemptive quality… A classically happy ending would be to describe the enshrinement of sugar biofuel as the ideal energy source for most of the world” (405). I wonder how Abbott would respond to critics like Robert Bryce, who condemn the burning of food to make fuel and charge ethanol with increasing water and air pollution, escalating water consumption, and hiking food prices, a problem that disproportionately affects poorer populations—including, ironically, the disenfranchised labourers for whom Abbott has so much sympathy. That this somewhat wanting analysis occurs in Sugar’s final pages does take some of the wind out of the narrative’s sails. Still, it should not detract from the work’s overall contribution. Sugar is a vivid critique of industrial capitalism and a captivating resource for anyone interested in the global history of race, slavery, colonialism, and labour.
Lana Povitz is a doctoral student in History at McGill University in Montreal. When not reading, she is lately perfecting the savoury madeleine.