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The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity
By James Walvin
325 pp. Pegasus Books. $27.95.
Sweets have invaded the English language the way they have invaded our diet, with almost universally positive connotations. Sweet love, sweet people and sweet deals all suggest pleasant experiences, as do the sugary confections that grace our tables and fill our stores. James Walvin’s new book, “Sugar: The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity,” will thoroughly disabuse you of such agreeable associations and may make you reluctant to reach for something sweet. Sugar, he shows, is a blood-soaked product that has brought havoc to millions and environmental devastation to large parts of the planet, premature death to the poorest populations in many parts of the world and huge health costs for societies from the United States to India. After reading this book the mere mention of sugar should make you think of slavery and cavities, imperialism and obesity — and remind you to check the label on the products you consume.
Walvin, the author of several books on slavery, takes his readers on a roller-coaster ride through 500 years of history. Sugar, he shows, was rare for most of human history, with sweetness largely derived from fruits and honey. Sugar was believed to have healing properties and in much of the world it was dispensed by apothecaries; consumption of small quantities of sugar was the prerogative of elites. Then, in the 16th century, Europeans seized large territories in the Americas and quickly dedicated much of that acreage to sugar cane. By killing off local inhabitants and enslaving Africans to do the backbreaking labor of tending the sugar plant, European settlers managed to build a huge production complex. Hungry for power and profit, they turned the fertile soils of Brazil, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, St. Domingue and other places to the growing of sugar for European markets by slave labor, producing extraordinary wealth in cities like Bristol, Bordeaux and Boston, and unimaginable misery for millions of enslaved workers.
Sugar, Walvin argues, was the cutting edge of global capitalism, with the plantations among the largest business enterprises, the most significant sources of profit and, in light of their highly regimented discipline, the most modern work sites. As a major share of the total trade of both 18th-century France and Britain, sugar lubricated the world economy and provided nutrition to the growing number of people who worked in cities and industry. Sugar catalyzed some of the first waves of globalization — notably in British North America, which entered the world economy as a supplier of goods to the Caribbean sugar complex and a processor of its harvest. Boston, as much as Barbados, is sugar’s offspring.
As sugar streamed from the Caribbean, consumption grew. The European elite consumed ever-larger quantities — their rotting teeth in full view of their contemporaries, although discreetly hidden by their portraitists. By the 19th century, the working class in Europe and North America was sweetening its tea and coffee, and putting jam on its toast; by century’s end, it was breakfasting on sugary cereals. Fantastic quantities of sugar, in all its forms, kept stomachs full and workers productive. In 1770, rum — made from sugar cane — provided possibly one-quarter of the caloric needs of British North America. By the mid-20th century, the average annual consumption of sugar in Britain was an astonishing 110 pounds per person. “The fruits of slave labor,” Walvin writes, “had thoroughly permeated the Western world.” Even with slavery abolished in the British and French Caribbean, North Atlantic demand and investments allowed for another huge expansion of sugar slavery, this time in Cuba.