Sugar demand and production in Georgian England were the cause of much conflict and strife. Something seemingly so innocent as a simple sweetener increased the demand for slave labor, and put nations at odds with each other, fighting over Caribbean territories. Matthew Parker’s novel “the sugar barons – a new history of the rise and fall of the British West Indian Empire”, describes the prosperity envisioned by British entrepreneurs in the West Indian colonies. Parker describes how “Sugar itself would shortly become the most important commodity to the world – enjoying a position in the eighteenth century akin to steel in the nineteenth and oil in the twentieth.”. He goes on to recreate writer Ned Ward’s experience from “A Trip to the West Indies”, saying that the West Indies in this time period were the place where English emigrants go to get rich quick. When England discovered the ability to grow sugar beets in the West Indies, it created a gold rush type of phenomenon. People referred to the export as “white gold”.
Parker writes how the sugar revolution made the English “…a nation of voracious consumers.” As production ramped up, the sugar industry experienced an economy of scale effect, drastically reducing the cost of exporting sugar. This led to a substantially lower price, giving the middle classes access to sugar in their regular diet, while allowing the producers to keep their relatively large profit margins. From 1663 to 1775, sugar consumption in England and Wales increased twentyfold. The reduction in cost of sugar allowed lower income segments of the population to add this symbol of high status to their diet. This blowing up of the sugar industry in the West Indies created a small economy within the British West Indies, rapidly expanding the usage of slave labor and land for plantations. Another side effect was the increase in the number of local rum distilleries. (Robbins)
Symbolically, the sugar revolution represents a greed that is inescapable in human nature. More than anything other food that we consume, sugar is an indulgence. Not only does it lack nutritional value, it is bad for us and can lead to disease if consumed enough. Sugar is so sweet though, that we continue to indulge in our sugary treats. In Georgian England, the sin associated with sugar production and consumption was much more significant than our present day increased risk of metabolic disease and tooth decay. Slavery and colonization for profit were the indirect effects of the general public’s craving for confections.
Whether it is the desire for a high society luxury, or the drive to make a fortune off of a growing industry, the sugar rush in Georgian England exemplifies the market based nature of a society. The West Indies held their dream of success and wealth, symbolized by the production of sugar cane. By creating a commodity desired by the upper classes, entrepreneurs were able to get their cake too, so to speak.
Parker, Matthew. The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies. 2011. eBook.
Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. 215-216
“Western Sugar.” About Sugar. The Sugar Association, Inc.. Web. 10 Mar 2013. <http://www.westernsugar.com/pdf/AboutSugar.pdf>.