Sidney Mintz’s book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, focused on the production of sugar in mass quantities in the early modern period in mostly colonial areas of the New World. He studied the lives of slaves and work laborers in the Caribbean area, especially Puerto Rico and Haiti. This was mostly on the every day lives of these workers and their role in the production of sugar, which ultimately became the major source of income for plantation owners and inevitably the workers themselves. Their lives revolved around the production of the sugar cane, most of which they were not allowed to consume themselves.
While to some, sugar is a commodity that we use in our every day lives today, but in the early modern period, it was a commodity that only the rich would consume on a daily basis. This difference in the uses of sugar among the socioeconomic divide shows the role that sugar played in earlier history. As sugar was an expensive commodity in the earlier years of its history, only the rich could afford to use it daily. They would put it in their tea, coffee, food, and sometimes even use it as a decoration. The slave and work laborers were not allowed to use the sugar canes in their lives because this would take away from the profit that the plantation owner would receive. However, there were times that they workers would be allowed to use the cane. On occasions, a piece of sugar cane would be defective or would fall of the wagon during transport, this would allow the workers to pick it up and chew on it or use it for their family. This alone showed the importance that sugar played in history because everyone wanted to be able to use this commodity and it helped in the dissemination of sugar across the world.
One of the other major concepts of the history of the sugar cane was the importance that it played in the workers involved. Their lives revolved around the production of this commodity and were not allowed to worry about other aspects of their lives. This included the production of other commodities for their family’s wellbeing. While they were not paid well, or sometimes at all, they had to purchase their family’s necessities from the local store because they were not allowed to produce important objects, which would inevitably save them money. This was a surprise for me to read and understand because from what I know of the earlier slave history, they were not paid at all and were made to produce their own necessities in their house. This included the sewing of clothes, produce and other food products, and sometimes even the construction of other necessary items. Most slaves were forced to make their lives harder and revolved around their owners, but when they went home, they had to provide for their family as well. Why were the lives of slaves in the Southern United States different from the lives of the slaves in the Caribbean? They both had a role for producing important commodities for their owners. The American South’s slaves had to produce tobacco and cotton, which would then be sold across the United States and across the world, while in the Caribbean, the slaves had to produce one of the most important products that the world had ever seen, sugar. Sugar was a commodity of the rich, which would be the major divide between the two concepts of slavery in the early modern period.
The main source of sugar’s attraction throughout the world was, according to Mintz, that humans have a natural attraction to sweet things. This was the evolution of the modern “sweet tooth” that many people learned about growing up. Most people are attracted to the sweetness of items because they know that it naturally tastes good. This attraction led to the increase of sugar production throughout the Caribbean and the increase in sugar consumption throughout the world.
While slave labor was extremely important for the early history of sugar, people today don’t associate it with sugar because it would bring negative connotations about the commodity that is unwanted in today’s world. People don’t want to think about this sort of thing because they are afraid to know about the history of this important item. However, I think it is important to understand how the earlier slave and work laborer’s lives were forced to revolve around the production of this item and that was the final piece of the puzzle for this commodity. They were not allowed to use the item in their every day lives because the owners knew that this was a rich item and only the rich could afford to use it at the time. They were not allowed to produce any other item for their own gain because this would take time away from the production of the sugar cane, which brought more money to the plantation owner. All of this shows the importance of the sugar cane in the lives of the workers and how the commodity flourished to what we see today, the consumption of an item that we know today is truly not good for you but one in which we all easily enjoy.