Eighteenth Century / Food and Culture

Sugar Production and Consumption


History of Sugarcane

          Scholars have concluded that sugarcane originated in New Guinea about 8,000 years ago, then was traded within Caribbean, Southeast Asian, South American, and European cultures prior to the fourteenth century (The Sugar Association). Sugar was not available to the English public until 1319 since it had to be imported from the West Indies because Britain’s climate was too cold to grow it, and when it became a regular import it could only be afforded by the upper class because it cost more than $80 for one pound (“About Sugar: History of Sugar”). When Britain colonized Barbados and Jamaica in the mid-seventeenth century, the main function of both territories was to grow sugarcane and, as a result, four-hundred ships each carrying 150 tons were dedicated to trading sugar by 1676 (Reed 7, “Sugar”). Consequently, its luxurious status, high price, and increasing sellable amount led to its nickname “white gold” because it was worth its weight in gold (“Sugar”).


Sugar Production: African Slave Labor

          Slave labor was the backbone of sugarcane production. Prior to the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, of the four million African slaves that had been sent to the British West Indies, only 400,000 remained in 1838 when they were finally released after the mandatory apprenticeship stipulated by the Act (“History of sugar”). Sugar plantation owners preferred African slaves because, unlike Native Americans, they were more resistant to smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever, and were also a better economic investment than European indentured servants who would be released after serving a prearranged period of time (“History of sugar”). During their enslavement, African slaves suffered terrible maltreatment such as being overworked, undernourished, ignored if they needed medical attention, and punished, all of which were more prevalent on sugar plantations because of the extreme climate and type of work (“Slavery in the British and French Caribbean,” “Slavery in the British Virgin Islands”). Consequently, death rates often exceeded birth rates, which led to the importation of more slaves (“Slavery in the British and French Caribbean,” “Slavery in the British Virgin Islands”).


Sugar Consumption: An Effective Model of Consumerism

          Domestically, by 1750 Britain had built 120 refining factories that outputted 30,000 tons of sugar each year (“About Sugar: History of Sugar”). Subsequently, this increased production began to transform sugar from a luxury to a good that even the poor could afford, which increased consumption and, in turn, fueled demand then, as a result, led to the expansion of sugar plantations in North and South America and other tropical countries (Kiple and Kriemhild). From the statistics given in The History of Sugar and Sugar Yielding Plants, we can see how eighteenth century sugar consumption in English homes increased dramatically. For example, in 1731, sugar consumption amounted to 722,445 CWTS, by 1759 it increased to 1,030,066 CWTS, and by 1800 it was up to 1,506,921 CWTS (Reed 188-91). In other words, the consumption of sugar in English households was an example of successful consumerism where the supply effectively compensated for the demand. 


Works Cited

“About Sugar: History of Sugar.” SugarNutrition.org.uk. Sugar Nutrition UK, n.d. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://www.sugarnutrition.org.uk/history-of-sugar.aspx&gt;

“History of sugar.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 24 September 2012. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sugar&gt;.

 “How Sugar is Made – the History.” Sucrose.com. Sucrose Knowledge International, n.d. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://www.sucrose.com/lhist.html&gt;

Kiple, Kenneth F. and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. The Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://www.cambridge.org/us/books/kiple/sugar.htm&gt;

Reed, William. The History of Sugar and Sugar Yielding Plants, Together With An Epitome of Every Notable Process of Sugar Extraction, and Manufacture, From The Earliest Time to the Present. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1886. Google Books. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://books.google.com/books?id=_ 44BAAAAQAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=true>

“Slavery in the British and French Caribbean.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 20 October 2012. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_British_and_ French_Caribbean>.

“Slavery in the British Virgin Islands.”Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 14 October 2012. Web. 30 October 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_British_Virgin_Islands&gt;.

“Sugar.” GeorgianIndex.net. The Georgian Index, 2008. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://www.georgianindex.net/ Napoleon/Sugar/sugarbeet.html#TOP>

The Sugar Association. “About Sugar: A Consumer Fact Sheet.” The Sugar Association, Inc., n.d. PDF File. <http://www.sugar.org/images/ docs/about-sugar.pdf>


3 thoughts on “Sugar Production and Consumption

  1. I had no idea that sugar came from New Guinea! That’s pretty interesting. I’m researching Georgian cooking for our final project and I read that sugar became so popular in Elizabethan England, that Queen Elizabeth’s teeth were black with rot! It sounds like the history of sugar and the history of dentistry are intertwined! Have you seen pictures of the sugar statues that used to be made as centerpieces? Pretty amazing.

    Do you know what caused the use of slaves to decline before they were outlawed? Also, what does CWTS stand for?


  2. Hi Vicki – I was surprised that sugar came from New Guinea too because I always assumed it was from the Caribbean probably because of the history that western civilizations have there. I haven’t seen those pictures of the sugar statues, are you going to post some with your project or do you have some that you could post?

    I’m not sure why the use of slaves declined before they were outlawed; I wonder if it had to do with work moving elsewhere, maybe because the soil was being depleted? Or maybe the slave owners were feeling social/moral pressure to let go of as many slaves as possible before it was outlawed?

    CWTS is a unit of mass that stands for hundredweight or centum weight. The British long hundredweight = 112 pounds, and the North American short hundredweight = 100 pounds. The Wikipedia article has some interesting information on how the meaning of the term changed during the nineteenth century because some merchants were exploiting it to make more money.


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