The World Of Sugar, Reviewed

Our thanks to the LA Review of Books for this review by Dinyar Patel:

Sugar, Slavery, and Capitalism: On Ulbe Bosma’s “The World of Sugar”

WHAT MIGHT DONALD RUMSFELD have in common with Frederick Barbarossa, Mormons, and Queen Elizabeth I’s rotting teeth? The answer is simpler than you might expect: the power and influence of sugar, a crystalline specimen of world-historical significance dissolved in your morning coffee or tea. A warmongering neocon, a Holy Roman emperor, pious Utahns, and a heavily cavitied pair of Tudor gnashers are part of an expansive cast of characters in Ulbe Bosma’s new work on the sweet stuff, The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years. This book is a tour de force of global history, one that helps us better understand the genesis of both modern capitalism and globalization.

Nearly four decades ago, anthropologist Sidney Mintz published his classic account of the world of sugar, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985). This was a world, Mintz made clear, of breathtaking extremes: on one end were early modern European aristocrats who decorated their salons with sugar sculptures; on the other were millions of enslaved men and women, overwhelmingly of African origin, who were overworked so mercilessly on Caribbean plantations that they regularly lost fingers, arms, or even their lives when they collapsed on whirring mill machinery or fell asleep atop boiling vats of sugarcane juice. Bosma, like Mintz, seizes upon these extremes. The World of Sugar draws from an ever-increasing body of scholarship that has inextricably tied the creation of modern capitalism to slavery and imperialism.

But Bosma breaks some new ground when he asks what a universal human craving for sweetness tells us about precisely how, when, and where capitalism developed. The World of Sugar brings Asia to the forefront, particularly India, China, and—a little later—the Indonesian island of Java. A sophisticated sugar economy existed in Bengal and North India by the time Marco Polo visited in the 13th century. It employed professional boilers and entrenched systems of monetization and wage labor within the village economy. “If we define capitalism as a continuously advancing commodification of labor and nature for profit by private entrepreneurs,” Bosma writes, “then India’s sugar sector clearly exhibited a capitalist dynamic.” Ming China became a global hub of sugar trade, with cane dominating the landscape, and with new technological innovations—perhaps introduced by Egyptians in the early Islamic era—increasing the efficiency of refining. Elsewhere, Barbarossa, fresh from crusading in the Holy Land in the mid-12th century, brought skilled Syrians to breathe new life into the sugar economy of Sicily.

Egyptian technology in China and Levantine labor in Sicily provides but two examples of the dazzling global links that stitch together Bosma’s work. Any study of a commodity reveals intricate networks of global trade, finance, and technology: American cotton experts trudging through the fields of Western India in the mid-19th century, for example, or the multinational money trail that sustained opium barons such as the Sassoons. What seems unique about sugar is the utter complexity of these global connections—how sugar has been, for centuries, a commodity transacted by citizens of the world. Some of these accounts boggle the imagination. In the late 1600s, sugar confectioneries were introduced into Siam by a Catholic woman of Japanese and Portuguese descent, Marie Guyemar de Pinha (also known as Marie Guimard in French), who married the king’s Greek prime minister. Two centuries later, a sugar planter like Leonard Wray could effortlessly move between the Malay Peninsula, Natal (in today’s South Africa), and the American South, receiving land in Algeria from Napoleon III and conducting sugar experiments under the auspices of the former governor of South Carolina.

Bosma traces the rise of a sugar bourgeoisie in places like Java, the Caribbean, Louisiana, and Brazil that was, by its very definition, transnational. Sugar, after all, constantly required new commodity frontiers as cane monoculture ravaged the soil and turned lush tropical forests into wastelands. Politics and war accelerated this scramble for new frontiers. A man like John Gladstone—father of British prime minister William—had to quickly pull up stakes in Demerara (in today’s Guyana) and Jamaica in 1840 and try his luck in deltaic Bengal instead. When mercantilism threw up barriers to international trade, sugar planters simply ensured that the next generation acquired citizenship in a different country so that their commodity could continue to trickle across borders…

Read the whole review here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s