What surprised me most about the sugar production was the effort necessary to produce such a desirable good, “Once planted, the cane sprouts and with adequate heat and moisture may grow an inch a day for six weeks. It becomes ripe- and reaches the optimum condition for extraction- in a dry season after anywhere from nine to eighteen months. ‘Ratoon’ cane… is normally cut about every twelve months. Seed cane cuttings in the tropics take longer to reach maturity. In all cases cane must be cut when ready so as not to lose its juice… and once it is cut, the juice must be rapidly extract to avoid rot…” (page 21).
For such a complex process one would expect an increase in technological advances to parallel the growing request for the product; yet from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, “…sugar production grew steadily, as more westerners consumed sugar and each consumer used it more heavily. Yet technological changes in the field, in grinding, and even in refining itself were relatively minor. Generally speaking, the enlarged market for sugar was satisfied by a steady extension of production rather than by sharp increases in yield per acre of land or ton of cane, or in productivity per worker.” (page 35). In other words, striving for efficiency in the process fell below the more obvious answer, adding to their work force.
The level of energy and labor needed to keep up with European demands outweighed paid labor, or even free labor, a concept I am unsure about: “Slaves were decidedly important, perhaps crucial; but a substantial amount of the labor was actually done by free wage earners paid partly in kind- some of them specialists, others temporary laborers.” (page 32). The passage continues to explain that although this sounds odd, it was not as uncommon as one might believe when comparing to present day standards. How could a system survive on free wage earners? What provoked ‘The Canarian system’ to have equal sharing of produce between owners and workers? Such an idea seems unrealistic in today’s society. I’m quite confused with this concept in general but intrigued all the same.
But after a questionable period of time involving the Black Death, the demand for such a large workforce became ever more difficult to fill: “…it was the expanded use of slave labor to compensate for plague-connected morality that initiated the strange and enduring relationship between sugar and slavery.” (page 29). In addition, the “…rapid destruction of the indigenous Arawakan-speaking Taino Indians of Santo Domingo had left too little manpower even for the gold mines, let alone for the experimental sugar plantations…” (page 33). As noticeable within the solution topping in priority over technological advancements as previously mentioned, power figures looked to the same answer that seemed to continuously solve all problems: increase the slavery production. Thus, in order for economic activity to continue, sugar became fully dependent on the slave industry. In 1568, it was not uncommon for plantations to own two hundred slaves, and larger estates owning up to five hundred slaves with “production figures correspondingly high.” (page 34).
Before these numbers could occur though, the amounted slaves available were appointed to the place with the upmost importance: “By 1509, enslaved Africans were being imported to work the royal mines; others soon followed to power the sugar industry.” (page 33) This passage especially put the significance of sugar into perspective for me. By divvying up their limited resources, sugar must be considerably vital to the market, or at least to the players of power. With only a small portion of labor available, and most attending to the royal mines, I am very surprised sugar was perceived a close second. This is implying the value of sugar is equally as beneficial to royalty as actual gold itself, which is difficult to believe!
Tied within this importance is a level of competition that mixed with the age of global colonization. As all countries raced to inhabit and control as much land as possible, ‘sugar islands’ were being produced in equal measure. It was a race between the most dominant supremacies, and no one knew who was going to win: “…England shifted from buying modest quantities of sugar from Mediterranean shippers… to establishing her own sugar colonies… On the one hand, they represent an extension of empire outward, but on the other, they mark an absorption, a kind of swallowing up, of sugar consumption as a national habit.” (page 39). Similar to the way the people felt toward their tea, the inclusion of sugar began to define English character as the good became part of daily activities.
As England grew, as did many other nations, the need to stake their claim quickly followed; marking gained territory, the newfound land, owned by the motherland, protected established trade routes already in use: “Individual entrepreneurs were encouraged to establish sugar-cane (and other) plantations on the Atlantic islands, manned with African slaves and destined to produce sugar for… European markets, because their presence safeguarded the extension of Portuguese trade routes around Africa and toward the Orient.” (page 30). Hence, although the creation of sugar did become essential for satisfying prominent taste buds and defending territory, but the sales surrounding this booming economy should not be overlooked in the slightest. These sugar plantations provoked a game amongst the rich. At the time, the shade of sugar whiteness demonstrated the level of purity; thus, who had the purest? Who could produce more? Who had the best? And so, all aspects became part of the competition, part of the capitalist game. What good business man would look away from such a production?
None. Not the consumers, who were addicted, similar to the spread of opium. Not the business men, who had wealth in estates and control over manpower. Not the royalty, who were constantly competing with fellow countries to have the upper hand. Not a single class or aspect of the world could turn away from the sugar production. In all reality, sugar controlled civilization, our entire race: “From humble beginnings on the island of Barbados in the 1640s, the British sugar industry expanded with astounding rapidity, engulfing first that island and, soon after, Jamaica… As English sugar became price-competitive with Portuguese sugar, England was able to drive Portugal out of the north European trade. From the resulting monopoly came monopoly prices, however, and then stiff competition from the French.” (page 39).
Sugar became a crucial part of the system, and not just one system, it dominated most of the systems around the world: “…By 1700, the value of sugar reaching England and Wales was double that of tobacco.” (page 34). But it did not stop there; the reach of sugar expanded just as the different types of consumption did as well: “At the consumption end, changes were both numerous and diverse. Sugar steadily changed from being a specialized- medicinal, condimental, ritual, or display- commodity into an ever more common food” (pages 37-38). Because this need, this dependency, only expanded, the sugar industry could not shy away from being characterized by slave labor. Just as the need for slaves in America dwindled prior to the cotton boom, slavery went hand in hand with sugar for centuries.
Thus, it is hard to pinpoint the direct reason behind the link between sweetness and slavery. Despite its obvious demand for more than a century, in more than one place, for more than one use, the sugar industry was slow to adapt or advance in a different direction. On one continuous path it traveled throughout history: the simplest for the decision makers, and the easiest for evident priorities. Blinded by money, little thought was put into this direction besides doubling, tripling, or at the very least expanding, earnings. Slavery was not only a steady market, but a bountiful one at that. To those in charge, consumption increasing meant importing more slaves just as 2+2=4. Human nature followed this system. Until human nature ended it.