Professor Charlene Makley
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The Rise of Sugar as a World Commodity
according to Sidney Mintz (1985)

1100 Sugar first introduced to Europe, grouped w/spices

13th century on: center of sugar refining in Antwerp; then to Bristol, London

  • -control of final product passed into European hands, but not Portuguese
  • -prescriptions for medicinal tonics containing sugar
  • -sold by loaf and pound, could be had in remote towns; but only wealthiest
  • -sugar's popularity spreads

late 14th century: first English cookbooks w/sugar recipes
1493 sugar cane first carried to New World by Columbus on second voyage.

15th century: Early: growing imp. of the feast
as symbolic validation of powers and authority
Late: first time tropical agricultural products important in "world trade"
Portugal and Spain vie for sugar-prod. Atlantic islands
Increasing demand for sugar in both countries
Recipes for baked sweet dishes increasingly common in England


16th century: Brazilian century for sugar production

1516 sugar first grown in Santo Domingo and shipped back to Europe by Spaniards. Spain pioneered plantations, slavery in Americas.

Early 16th century: plantations first established in New World with African slaves.
Inventions of Europeans: "overseas experiments"
Portuguese and Spanish entrepreneurs set up sugar plantations in Atlantic Islands;
intimate links w/W. European centers, espec. Antwerp
Decorative uses of sugar in Europe spread from nobility to lower classes
Map: Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900
Map: Volume and direction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from all African to all American regions

1526 Brazil shipping sugar to Lisbon in commercial quantities

sugar industry in Sicily declined to only producing for domestic market

1580 on, Spanish? sugar production in Caribbean region ceased. European market changed, production passed out of Spanish hands.

1585 Sugar refining center in Europe shifted to London

1650 on: sugar changes from luxury and rarity to commonplace
necessity in many nations; increased consumption
accompanied "development" of the West
Sugar as first or second of such commodities;
"epitomizing the productive thrust and
emerging intent of world capitalism" (p. xxix)
Radical and rapid changes in uses of sugar from previous use as spice


17th century: "pre-industrial", "General Crisis": period of gradual economic contraction=reorient flow patterns of world exchange

  • -Early decades: French, Dutch, British establish Caribbean plantations
  • -aim of acquiring colonies that could produce sugar pre-dates 17th
  • -tremendous activity of English merchants, agents, many colonies established
  • -century of European naval wars in Caribbean
  • -growth of 2 triangles of trade in 17th, matured in 18th: Britian-Africa-New World ; New England-Africa-W.Indies
  • Map: Triangular Trade (17th-18th centuries)
  • ="collision course" of Americans w/British
  • -Rapidly increasing urban populations in N. Europe
  • - England slowly evolving into free labor system; but also system of coerced labor in colonies
  • -sugar monopolized by privileged minority in England
  • -Late: slavery as preferred: number of African slaves on islands rose sharply
  • -place of dessert as firm course of a meal stabilized.
  • -alcohol and tea consumption in Great Britain increase

1603: Spanish diplomats in England struck by English nobility's sweet tooth.

1607: Jamestown settlement established; first English colony in New World.

1619: Sugar cane to Jamestown

1622: turning point for British sugar: settlement of Barbados
Qualitative difference btw. Spanish experiments w/plantations of late 16th
and English "achievements" of 17th and 18th: scale and market changes


1645-80: increase in sugar production leads to 70% fall in prices

1655 on: Barbadian sugar begins to affect home market; British invade Jamaica

  • -after this, sugar supply in England mostly from within the empire until 19th
  • -England drove Portugal out of N. American trade
  • -steady expansion of English plantation production
  • -sugar imports exceed all other combined imports from colonies
  • -tea, coffee and chocolate drinks become popular in England
    1660: Tea touted in London advertisements
  • -British East India Company chartered
    End 17th century: sugar surpassed tobacco as main world product.
  • -English foreign trade transformed; woolen cloth replaced by other products
  • -new re-export trade based on tropical products

18th century: apogee of British and French slave-based sugar production
Maturing of commercial and military navies in W. Europe
1750 on: popularization of sweetened tea and treacle in the UK
Late: Zenith of sugar's imperial role during rule of George III
Vast new sources of demand in Europe as
prices for plantation goods come down
=Commercial Revolution: for first time in history,
critical connection btw. will to work and will to consume
Increasing purchasing power for workers in England;
but quality of nutrition declined
Sugar becomes affordable to commoners, more widely used
Workers spend up to half their income on alcohol through 19th.


1791-1803 Worst drop in world sugar production: Haitian revolution loss of largest colonial producer

1807 End of British slave trade

1830s British East India Company's monopoly on tea trade broken, tea prices fell.

1834-38 Slavery abolished in British colonies

Mid-19th century: Period of transition from protectionism
under Navigation Acts to free trade

Political battles in England over equalizing duties;
special protections for W. Indies planters removed.
Cuba and Brazil main centers of New World production
-intensified competition in world sugar market
-now immense improvements in tech,
Sugar prices fall precipitously over next decades
1850 on: opening up of mass consumption:
=qualitative difference with 100 years earlier:
dev. of industrial economy and changing relat. btw. it and colonies.
-Caribbean sugar industry absorbed into overseas European capitalism
But preserved link btw. manual and nonwhite colonial labor despite end of slavery
-product still to metropoles; goods to colonies
East India Company monopoly on tea from India
fruit preserves mastered
Sugar consumption among poorer classes in UK exceeds
that of wealthier after 1850; ingrediant in more and more daily meals
Rise in prepared/conserved foods: cans, bottles, packages


1870 on Jam widspread among working class in England

  • -data from industrial cities in Scotland show diets deficient in protein and excessive use of bread, butter and tea

1884 slavery in Cuba abolished; all Caribbean sugar production by proletarian labor

  • -sharp decrease in sugar production before rising again
    1890s sugar production in world over 6 million tons; 500% increase from 30 years before
  • -90 lbs of sugar/person/year
  • -total consumption over a billion pounds/year

1919-1920 Dance of the Millions", world sugar prices rose extremely, then fell="classical demonstration of oversupply and speculation in a scarcity-based capitalist world market"

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