The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years by Ulbe Bosma - review by David Edgerton

David Edgerton

Curse of Cane

The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years


Harvard University Press 464pp £30.95 order from our bookshop

There was a time when commodity histories were everywhere. They tended to focus on consumption and trade over very long distances. Ulbe Bosma’s The World of Sugar is much more than this sort of book. It is one of the most accomplished longue durée case studies in the history of capitalism that we have, concerned not just with trade and consumption but with production also. At every turn it subverts both critiques and celebrations of capitalism, and our understanding of much else besides. It is an extraordinary achievement.

It is, for a start, a genuinely global history. Bosma discusses all the sugar-growing places of the world, from Cuba and Java, the largest exporters of the early 20th century, to Taiwan and the Tucumán region of Argentina. He points to Eastern countries as the greatest producers and consumers of sugar up to the late 19th century. But global does not simply mean ‘exotic’. This is a history not just of cane sugar but also of beet sugar, an equally important form of traded sugar over the last hundred years. Beet sugar has been grown mainly in Europe and the United States. It has also been massively subsidised and dumped on world markets. Bosma’s discussion of the changing state of the sugar market in Britain gives a sense of the book’s range. The sweet-toothed British first bought sugar from their own slavery-dependent colonial plantations. Following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, they began importing it from places which retained the practice, such as Cuba and Brazil. Towards the end of the 19th century, they turned to subsidised beet sugar from continental Europe. Only in the 20th century was there a move to revive sugar cultivation in the empire and to develop a national beet sugar industry.

The book is also a global labour history, investigating the wide range of labour regimes associated with growing sugar. Cane sugar production was never just about plantations, whether they involved enslaved labour or one of the many sorts of indentured labour. In India it was often the province of small farmers. The case of Java, a huge exporter of sugar in the early 20th century, is especially interesting in that cane growing was mixed with rice growing and was done in an extraordinarily labour-intensive way by small farmers.

As well as being a story of variety, this is also a story of continuity and similarity. For example, many sugar-production regimes have relied on imported labour, whether enslaved Africans, indentured Asians or temporary migrant workers. Cuba in its post-slavery heyday depended on migrants from elsewhere in the Caribbean at harvest time. The German beet fields employed Polish workers; Mexicans and many others, including Sicilians, were vital to US sugar production. Cane cutting, Bosma shows, remains a poorly paid and brutal business to this day: in many places in the world, labour is so cheap there is no need to mechanise. But the history of sugar is also about the persistence and even revival in places of small-scale sugar growing and artisanal production. In the mid 20th-century, artisanal sugar production dominated in South Asia and Latin America. Even in the recent past, more than half of the sugar produced in Bangladesh was artisanal jaggery.

This is also a history of capitalists and sugar dynasties, as well as corporations that in some cases have remained influential over very long periods. Great firms and great interests have had profound influence on the policies of states. In many places – not just the British Caribbean but Cuba and the Philippines too – a powerful sugar bourgeoisie played a major role in politics. The British sugar market of the 18th and early 19th centuries had to be protected to give the plantocracy its wealth; the American sugar barons were keen on keeping sugar from US colonies out of the country. From the late 19th century, many European countries, starting with Germany, subsidised sugar exports. International treaties put a partial stop to that, but as the 20th century went on, sugar production could not be understood without knowing what trade barriers states and empires had put up. Poor countries came off worse in the battle for control of the industry. All this is explored by Bosma with wonderful subtlety and control.

Sugar production was never just a matter of agriculture. It also involved the quick extraction, close to the place of harvest, of sucrose from the sugar plant, a process which required machinery powered by humans, animals, wind or steam. Further processes involved boiling (from the 19th century, this often involved vacuum systems) and the separation of sugar from other materials (the great modern invention here was the centrifuge), a process known as refinement. From very early on, sugar production was an energy-intensive industrial process, mostly taking place in the countryside and in refineries in centres of consumption, both small and large. The growth of the industry entailed a very rapid diffusion of techniques and technologies around the world. Cuba, for example, developed an extraordinarily dense system of railways to transport workers and cane, as well as steam-powered sugar factories. Particular varieties of cane sugar and beet sugar spread very rapidly across the world, in accordance with local needs and demands. Here too Bosma provides relief in a field prone to overemphasising the role of one particular manifestation of power – empire.

Where once only tiny quantities of sugar could be produced, new techniques, varieties, fertilisers, irrigation systems and much more have turned gleaming white sugar into a ubiquitous chemical. Over the same time, there has been a massive increase in consumption. India consumes more sugar than its income per head might suggest. Once regarded as a luxury and looked down on by the puritanical, sugar came to be promoted as a source of energy as well as a substitute (particularly as an additive to coffee and tea) to alcohol. As the consumption of sugar has increased, so has the harm it does, whether to people’s teeth or weight. In the face of appalling obstruction from the sugar industry, some countries have been forced to tax it to reduce consumption. The sugar industry has a history of attacking its critics and, when it comes to obesity, of trying to pass the buck on to fats, and lack of exercise and self-control. The recent past has seen new developments in mass sweetening. A sweetener called high-fructose corn syrup, made from maize using an enzymatic process invented in Japan in the 1960s, provides a flavour very similar to that of sugar but is far cheaper to produce. In the United States it has been adopted in the making of Coca-Cola, Pepsi and many processed foods.

This is a wonderfully rich book, a model of global history, the history of production and the history of capitalism. Bosma avoids outbursts of emotion, celebratory or critical, even if they might have made his analysis of the multiple tragedies involving sugar all the more powerful. He shows that we could always have done without sugar and today could have all the sweetness we want without it. Yet many of the poorest people in the world depend on it to make a meagre living and to make more bearable the sour realities of everyday life.

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