The exigencies of sugar have shaped the modern world. This ‘noble condiment’, which was virtually unknown in the West before the Crusades, became by the 15th century as valuable as pearls and as sought after as musk. Over the next couple of centuries desire for the commodity dubbed the ‘white gold’ grew exponentially across all social classes; and so thousands of adventurers from the Old World ‘took ship’ for the New in order to cultivate sugar cane and become rich. Their migration precipitated another mass movement of people, this time a forced one in which millions of African slaves were transported to territories as varied as Brazil and Barbados, Cuba and Louisiana to labour in the cane fields. By the 18th century sugar was as significant to the geopolitics of the age as oil in the 20th century.
The history of sugar after emancipation is almost as tumultuous and bloody as the centuries that preceded it, as Gaiutra Bahadur explores in her remarkable book, Coolie Woman. She chronicles the extraordinary but neglected saga of indentured labour that evolved when the British began to replace slavery on their sugar