Up until the rise in sugar production that began in the early 18th century, sugar, as well as foods that were high in sugar were considered food for the upper class. Until the 1700’s sugar was not mass produced so it was very expensive and thought to be a luxury. This soon changed and although it meant sugar could now become affordable for middle, even lower classes, another group of people took a negative hit.
Prior to the English Restoration, sugar was mostly produced by European servants. However after 1660, the English Monarchy turned to transatlantic slave trade, essentially beginning the widespread trade of African Slaves. Sugar production was a major force behind the slave trade. This form of trading was referred to as “Triangle Trade”. Ships would embark from Europe to West Africa, where they would trade goods for slaves. From there they would sail the “Middle Passage” to the Caribbean where the slaves would be sold to plantations for sugar as well as other goods which would be brought back to Europe. This Negro slave trade became more prevalent in the 18th Century. In fact, it is recognized as “one of the greatest migrations in recorded history”(Williams 152). Most of these slaves were brought to the Caribbean and constituted a majority of the population there for over 200 years.
Barbados was the most valuable colony for the English, and the increase of sugar production only served to increase this worth. Prior to the introduction of the sugar economy, Barbados had roughly 5,000 slaves inhabiting the island. After the sugar economy was introduced, this number increased to over 80,000. With this necessity for slaves increasing, the transportation and trade of slaves naturally increased as well. The conditions on these ships, however were usually terrible. Upwards of 500 Africans were crammed onto ships, leading to poor health conditions and eventually death of many on board. The mortality rate of “cargo” on slave ships was more that 20%, on average. To add onto the loss of slaves in the transportation process, harsh conditions and tough work on the sugar plantations led to shorter life-spans for the slaves working. Thus the necessity for more slaves to replace them became evident. The sad fact at the time was that “Negro slavery was essential to the preservation of the sugar plantations” (Williams 150).
Where one group of people suffered, another experienced great changes. During the mid-1700’s Britain had over 100 sugar refineries. This mass production led to a severe decrease in prices. With sugar now at a reasonable price, it was no longer just the upper class who could afford it. Sugar was still viewed as a sign of status though, so it was widely purchased throughout England. In addition to the mass production, tariffs on imports were removed by the British government which “allowed more competition and a lowering of prices so that nearly all levels of British society could afford sugar”(Shah). This was an extraordinary time period for the middle to lower classes, as they were now able to purchase goods they once thought to be only suitable for monarchs.
There is some good news on the side of the slaves though. With the slave trade being extremely popular during the 18th century, it was not long before antislavery groups urged for abolition of it. These desires were not fulfilled until 1772, when slavery was ruled illegal in Britain by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield. This decision freed thousands of slaves in Britain. The slave trade, however continued for many years after.
Sugar may be something that is taken for granted today, however in the 18th Century, sugar had a huge impact on the economy, politics, and even the well-being of other human beings. Such an impact can only force one to believe “magnum est saccharum et prevalabit” or “Great is sugar, and it will prevail”(Williams 153).
“Caribbean Islands – The Sugar Revolutions and Slavery.” Caribbean Islands – The Sugar Revolutions and Slavery. Ed. Sandra W. Meditz and Dennis M. Hanratty. U.S. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
Shah, Anup. “Sugar.” Global Issues. N.p., 25 Apr. 2003. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <http://www.globalissues.org/article/239/sugar>.
Williams, Eric. “Capitalism and Slavery.” Race and Racialization: Essential Readings. Ed. Tania D. Gupta. Toronto: Canadian Scholars, 2007. 149-54.