An Opiate of the People
By ISAAC CHOTINER
Published: July 1, 2010
The most dispiriting aspect of our belated environmental consciousness is the realization that many of the delightful substances we put into our mouths — like cold bottled water and imported produce — have costs that far outweigh the immediate gratification they deliver. In “Sugar: A Bittersweet History,” her thorough, workmanlike new study, Elizabeth Abbott reminds us that this has been true for centuries. A hundred years before Pushkin described ecstasy as “a glassful of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth,” the demands of the sugar economy had ripped apart African communities and forced slaves across the Atlantic to work sugar cane plantations. Abbott’s book, which discusses the effects of sugar on everything from the Haitian revolution to Hitler’s Germany, serves as a grim reminder that a consumer’s choices register on a gigantic scale, and are therefore as much political as personal.
John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
A Bittersweet History
By Elizabeth Abbott
Illustrated. 453 pp. Duckworth Overlook. $29.95
Abbott, the author of “A History of Mistresses” and “A History of Celibacy,” only briefly discusses sugar cane’s impact before the last 500 years, although sugar appears in two millenniums of New Guinean and Indian legends and records. (Sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea.) By the middle of the 17th century, the French, English and Dutch empires were all actively competing for Caribbean land that would support their sweet tooth. Some early plantation workers were in fact poor Europeans, many of whom perished under the abusive and sickening conditions. The owners managed just fine, however: of the estimated 11 million slaves who traveled to the New World, more than half worked on sugar plantations.
Abbott’s description of the Middle Passage and the gruesome inhumanity that continued upon arrival breaks no new ground, but is appropriately powerful: “Slaves, many of them women, were then working 18 to 20 hours a day, and often fell asleep or faltered as they fed cane through the huge rollers. The rollers easily caught a careless hand and pulled its owner along through the roller, crushing her to death. This was such a frequent occurrence that many overseers kept a hatchet or saber at the ready so they could chop off the trapped limb to save the slave’s life.” Abbott also wisely circles back to the effect that the slave trade had on those Africans who stayed put; they endured social dysfunction and a commodity market that spiraled downward thanks to an influx of European goods — the same goods that had been traded for slaves.
Abbott is on shakier ground when she turns to the Haitian revolution’s relationship with sugar, failing to enliven one of history’s most dramatic chapters. She does, however, explain the process by which a “noble delicacy” trickled down to the middle classes and eventually to entire societies. She offers up a number of fascinating stories, including Hitler’s attempts to ensure a steady supply of sugar through the worst horrors of the war. (Orwell, in “1984,” was canny to present a totalitarian system that understood even its most traumatized citizens would rally at the news of an increase in chocolate rations.) Still, too much of the material about sugar’s role in domestic life is dull: “Children, too, enjoyed ice cream and soda, and accompanied their mothers and fathers to ice cream saloons and soda fountains.”
And even if Abbott’s perspective is generally sound, her overarching theory of sugar’s importance is too grand. “Sugar slavery’s most insidious creation,” she writes, “was the racialism that justified enslaving Africans and forcing them into the cane fields.” Her source here is Eric Williams, the great Caribbean historian (and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago), who himself was much influenced by the Marxist C. L. R. James’s groundbreaking work. Williams noted that “slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” One can appreciate the economic role in the creation and perpetuation of an evil system, but it is much too glib to claim that sugar bears responsibility for racism. There was racism before slavery, and there was cruelty before the rise of the sugar economy.