Sugar Studying sugar may seem like an ineffective way to approach the Caribbean’s rise to a globalized economy. It is quite the contrary, sugar rose to be an extremely popular and profitable staple for the international food economy. It grew to play a major role in what we know of today as the global food market. Sugar started developing immense popularity around the 1960’s due to colonial slavery, the industrialization of a global economy, and an increase in tea consumption. Sugar was introduced to the English as early as 1000 AD. However, it was more renowned for being used as a spice or for medicinal purposes.
Sugar was considered to be a delicacy for the elite and was not thought of as anything someone of another class could consume until around the early 19th century. Mintz states, “by 1750 the poorest farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea” (Mintz 45). What created this socio-economic shift in the consumption of tea? Mintz describes plantations as being very highly speculative enterprises. Across the board most sugar plantation owners would have to anticipate that their international investors would desire a large amount of raw sugar.
The attitude of the plantation owners was partly due to an increased amount of optimism and partly because of the difficulty of international communications in the 17th century. This shared attitude brought a lot of farmer’s to debtor’s prison while some extremely prospered. Although overtime, the amount of farmers in debt steadily decreased due to an, “unceasing increases in demand. ” The sugar began to work its way into all aspects of life due to a declining unit price that was brought about by more worker productivity in the Caribbean (Mintz 44-45).
Mintz speculates that sugar consumption increased about 2,500 percent in merely 150 years (Mintz 73). What lead to the increased worker productivity and declining unit price of sugar? In my opinion the most important aspect of the global sugar revolution was the usage of African slaves. Originally the sugar plantation owners primarily grew only tobacco and cotton for export and used white European sharecroppers on their plantations. Plantation owners generally had temporary workers from the middle class of colonizers to permanent sharecroppers from the lower classes.
This servile act was not looked down upon in society but as an act of trying to better oneself (Dunn 52). It wasn’t until 1640 to 1660 that the plantation owners switched to sugar as their primary staple crop. This crop switching was also met with several plantation personnel changes as well. The production of sugar was very labor intensive so more workers were required but more workers meant more pay. To keep their capitalistic gains up plantation owners started using free slave labor.
This system of labor only became more and more prominent after 1640 (Dunn 59). This switch from servants to slaves affected the global market tremendously: “land changed hands rapidly, populations boomed, commerce accelerated, and (sugar) prices climbed sky high” (Dunn 59). The change in crop and labor brought about the official planter elite. Sugar was becoming a large staple product for the Caribbean’s. Prior to the introduction of slave labor something else helped lay the way for sugar’s large global expansion.
Starting in 1544 England began refining the sugar sent from the Caribbean. This difference in production allowed farmers to focus all of their slave labor towards the picking and harvesting of sugar and away from the processing and refining of it. “After 1585 London was the important refining center for European trade” (Mintz 45). A similar trend occurred in the shipping of sugar. Mintz states that the first documented shipload of sugar brought to England was in the year 1319. However in 1551, Captain Thomas Wyndham returned straight to England from Morocco.
By the year 1675 there were over 400 shiploads of sugar coming directly from the Caribbean to England. This trend towards industrialization turned the global market of sugar into a capitalist economy based on efficiency, which turns into profitability (Mintz 45-46). One of the largest problems surrounding the boom of the Caribbean’s export on sugar was its socio-economic status. Sugar, as aforementioned, was essentially a spice and medicine for the elite. This however changed rapidly with its rise in production and its decline in unit cost.
Since the influx of sugar into the English society there was increasingly more applications for it. Sugar became a staple for coffee, chocolate and most importantly tea. Sugar slowly changed from a medicine and a spice to a sweetener, which had positive effects on its consumption (Mintz 79). Sugar, which was once a cultural status marker for power, was now becoming something else. With added help of tea the use of sugar was becoming ritualized in the English community of both the poor and the wealthy (Mintz 110).
In conclusion, the rise of sugar had numerous effects both internationally and in the Caribbean. Internationally it changed two different cultures. Firstly, it shaped the way that international food trade is done through a system of exports and imports. Secondly, the consumption of it did not necessarily reorder the socio-economic system in England but it did provide luxuries to the lower classes. The spread of sugar throughout all classes in England positively affected their diets and lead way to a new age of caloric intake (Mintz 110).
On the home front in the Caribbean the massive demand for sugar affected them not only culturally but also economically. It turned diversified agricultural colonies into a powerful sugar monoculture fueled by rich aristocratic plantation owners (Higman 211). The influence of the demand in production also caused a cultural change in the form of labor force required. Middle and lower class Englishmen were replaced with African slave labor. This trend in a massive monoculture makes Virginia in North America an interesting empirical study.
To say the least the sugar revolution influenced the economic, historical, and cultural trajectory of not only the motherland England but also the Caribbean colonies. Works Cited Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Inst. of Early American History and Culture, 2000. Print. Higman, B. W. “The Sugar Revolution. ” The Economic History Review 53. 2 (2000): 213-36. Print. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Peguin, 1986. Print.