Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott (Review)

Somebody tipped over a bag full of a white powdery substance. Most of what fell out splayed across the dirty wooden table, but about a cup poured onto the dirt floor of the open-air Baraza at our research site in a remote part of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. Embarrassed about tipping onto the ground more of this valuable substance than most people living within 50 kilometers would ever see in one day, the tipper started to push loose dirt onto the powder to cover it up. But the spill had been noticed by two children lounging nearby; in what seemed like a fraction of a second, the boys were face down on the ground licking up the spilled material, taking with it mouthfuls of dirt and who knows what parasites and other kooties. It was a sudden and short lived fiasco and a scene etched hard into my mind. To this day, decades later, when I think of this I breathe a sigh of relief that it was not me who tipped over the bag of white sugar.

These kids and everyone else in the Baraza that day were very familiar with sugarcane. Everyone grew at least a little. Sugarcane was to the Ituri Forest villagers what Hastas is to urban gardeners in the US. Everyone grew at least a little where it would fit and not get trampled or take up extra gardening space for real food.

The sugarcane was eaten raw. You would use a machete to cut a off a long section of the giant grass plant, and carry it around. With your teeth or with the help of a knife you would slice open a section of the cane and chew on it, sucking out the sweet water inside. When the sugarcane was ripe, the pathways and, really, any open surface would be littered with spent wadges. But still, not much sugarcane is grown in the Congo compared to other crops then or now. Sugarcane, originally from the Pacific and India, was, however, grown for centuries in large quantities where it was transplanted in the New World. You probably know of it as one of the vertices of the Triangle Trade (sugarcane = rum). But there is still a connection to these kids, the two who scarfed up the dirt and sand and sugar spilled on the baraza floor.

No sense sugar-coating it. The story of sugar is the story of slavery. The Congo was probably not the biggest source of slaves for the Caribbean and South America. The eastern Congo, especially, was on the Indian Ocean slave route. But generally speaking, West and Central Africa supplied millions of people, captured, owned and sold, to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Over the centuries since its introduction to West Asia and Europe, and by extension, the New World, sugar grew in importance from a rarity to a common element in the diet, often carrying with it symbolic importance as an indicator of class or by its use in food art. Sugar is distilled and concentrated solar energy that preserves well and is easily transported. The production and distribution of sugar is one of a handful, maybe the most important of engines for the rise of Immanuel Wallerstein’s global system (that I almost did my PhD on by the way).

You’ve got to love it when a molecule changes history. Primates (and a few other groups of animals) lost their ability to synthesize and use ascorbic acid because fruit producing plants had evolved to have their seeds dispersed in exchange for Vitamin C rich pulp. Therefore, the British Mercantile System. Similarly, C12H22O11, one of a class of molecules used by plants to store energy (and sometimes entice monkeys or ants to do their bidding) drove the most momentous of historical changes and its production, in one form or another, makes up an inordinate percentage of the effort expended to feed our species.

Nobody really questions the importance of sugar, but how aware is the average person of the details of its sweet success? More so than before for those who have read Elizabeth Abbott’s “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” Before you go check and yell at me for not restricting my writing to things that happened during the last five minutes, I’ll admit that the book came out in 2010 and I’ve only just now noticed it. I was focusing on other things, I promise. But I am pretty sure that no major revisions of history of the last thousand years or so have been made that would make this engaging book out of date or less relevant.

We all like to consume knowledge, but if you also like knowledge of what you consume you should read this book. It will make you feel bad, and likely awed, but also, a lot smarter, hopefully enough to offset the shame.

One of the most important things that ever happened in history is really a category of things and took a few centuries. This was the transplantation of crops and to a lesser extent horticultural technologies across the globe beginning with the Portuguese and extending at a quickened pace with all the major colonial ventures. This is probably more pervasive than you think. The lifeways and culture of the Yanomamö were greatly transformed, in my opinion, buy the introduction of south and southeast Asian (and possibly African) crops, mainly the plantain. The earliest records suggest that the Yanomamö were foragers, but all the later ethnography shows them as horticulturalists. The difference between “typical” equatorial foragers and the Yanomamö may well be the inclusion in their economy and society of a key crop that is also a highly vulnerable resource. Vulnerability of one's resource base can shape one's attitude at the socio-cultural level. What crops are mainly grown in swidden fields in Africa? South American ones. There would have been no Irish potato famine had there been no potatoes. They come from the Andes. And as mentioned sugar/rum was one of the vertices of the Triangular Trade and along with a few other crops (like Cotton) formed the agricultural structure of the slave-based economy that made up the largest single capital component of the rise of the United State’s economy. If the modern US economy is the fat bank account, slavery was the first big deposit in that account and New World Slavery happened because of this small number of transported crops.

By the twentieth century, sugarcane had circled the globe, traveling north and west from New Guinea then back again to the Pacific, and its legacies mark its global passage even where it is no longer grown… In the Caribbean, where King Sugar is now expiring as a major industry … and where most former colonies have become independent, political and commercial unions remain skewed along historical lines. Sugar culture is at the root of why Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians and Guyanese are mired in political enmity, why Hawaii and Fiji endure perpetual conflict between their Native and their Asian populations and why the official currency fo Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, is the rupee and its population is primarily Indian…

It is a good book. Overlook Publishers, available for the Kindle. I am probably going to work this into this week’s lecture in Intro to Archaeology.


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