"To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory, so extreme that it has happened to me more than once to pick up again, as recent and unknown to me, books which I had read carefully a few years before . . . I have adopted the habit for some time now of adding at the end of each book . . . the time I finished reading it and the judgment I have derived of it as a whole, so that this may represent to me at least the sense and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it." (Montaigne, Book II, Essay 10 (publ. 1580))

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Sugar: A Bittersweet Story (Elizabeth Abbott, 2008)

Glowing WSJ reviews from a couple years ago, so I decided to try this. Skeptical - I thought it would be another book about how awful slavery was, and how the local ecology was wrecked. The author covers these, but includes all sorts of other fascinating ideas. Well worth reading.

Some thoughts:

1. Cheap sugar in England was consumed disproportionately by lower classes. Cheap and tasty; the ultimate comfort food; sound familiar? A cheap "treat" for factory workers.

2. In sugar societies (and other commodities no doubt) - whites access slaves, resulting in mixed race offspring; this requires classifications (mulatto, sambo, quadroon, mustee, etc.) Differing rights. Whiter-skinned look down on darker-skinned (sounds like Muhammed Ali taunting Joe Frazier).

3. Breathtaking value created by sugar colonies - Pitt the Younger estimates that Barbados alone was more valuable to British capitalism than New England, New York and Pennsylvania combined. Fuels factories in England.

4. British authors incorporating West Indies sugar magnates into stories (Jane Austen).

5. Further to #3 above - the West Indies planters pioneered many elements of modern day lobbying. The mandated naval rum ration - didn't happen in a vacuum. Planters even hired a friendly "expert" to tout rum's health benefits. Monopolies, price supports, tariffs. Fighting off competition from sugar beets. All sounds very familiar.

6. Distortion of African development - the old question - impossible to know, but how might the continent have developed without the slave trade?

7. I had wondered why many of these small islands etc. had so many races - in many cases, as abolitionists succeeded or black slaves simply became difficult to obtain or control, planters brought in (via indentures or whatever - tantamount to slavery) - other races. Created tensions which survive to this day between races which might have a lot in common.

8. Haiti - so often in the news - self-liberated black republic. Hasn't worked well.

9. Abolitionists pioneer techniques like boycotting the offending product (sugar). This tactic became widespread.

10. Spanish-American War - hadn't realized the extent of American interests in controlling Cuban sugar.

11. 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis - how "fast foods" were pioneered - folks could grab items and eat while walking around the exhibits. Many are sugar-based. "Pop." Ice cream. Techniques to make chocolate more accessible. Resulting spike in sugar consumption.

The cover photo - check out the tattered outfits - cane workers did incredibly difficult work - abolition of slavery (including in US) didn't fix things quickly.

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