The bitter-sweet story of sugar (IANS Book Review)

March 10th, 2011 - 9:28 am ICT by IANS  

Book: “Sugar Changed The World - A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science”; Author: Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos; Publisher: Clarion Books; Pages: 166; Price: $20.

Sugar was the oil of the 17th and 18th century which fuelled the world’s economy, according to the husband-wife team of Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. Their book relates the history of sugar - from a wild grass to a major cash crop.

It was sugar that led to the rise of slavery, for the hungry crop needed large numbers of agricultural workers. The workers came from Africa, brought as slaves to work on sugar plantations that were coming up in the colonies of the new world.

It was the demand for sugar or ‘white gold’, not cotton or tobacco, that drove the bloody Atlantic slave trade, taking thousands of Africans across the seas to slave on plantations, say the authors.

Later, when the slaves were freed, they were replaced by indentured workers - since the hard labour of a sugarcane plantation required workers who could not run away from the misery of life on the plantation.

The sugarcane required to be cut, crushed and the juice processed into white crystals, all within a short period of time. The indentured workers came from Asia - from India and China to the Caribbean.

An absorbing book, it takes the story from the first traces of sugarcane grown in New Guinea through the first written record of sugarcane used in religious rituals in India to the Muslim rulers who loved elaborate, edible sugar sculptures till it reached Europe.

As the demand for the white gold crystals grew and grew, sugarcane was planted in the newly-discovered colonies of Brazil, Hispaniola (now part of Haiti), Barbados and Jamaica.

The demand grew as sugar, from being the preserve of royalty, became an essential commodity in the diet of all levels of society when it came to be added to the warming cup of tea or coffee.

During the 1600s-1800s, sugar drove the entire economy linking Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Goods from India and Asia went to Africa to be traded for slaves whose labour produced the sugar that was exported to Europe.

It was also the time when 900,000 Africans were taken as slaves to Barbados and Jamaica. From the 1800s to early 1900s, over a million Indians went as indentured workers to different imperial colonies.

Aronson and Budhos decided to write the history of sugar when they found that each of them had a link to the sweetener in their own family history.

Aronson’s ancestor, a serf in Russia, discovered how to make sugar from beets, while Budhos’ grandparents were Indian indentured workers who were taken to work on the sugarcane estates in Guyana.

The plantation story changed and sugar lost the misery attached to its making after beets were planted in European countries and converted into sugar without the need for hundreds of workers.

The authors have put together maps of ancient days, old illustrations, sepia-tinted photographs, slave songs, narratives and oral histories of indenture to show the different stages of the sugar story.

The book is a highly interesting and informative story of the interplay of global politics and economy that helps understand the saga of sugar.

(10.03.2011 - Shubha Singh can be contacted at

Related Stories

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in Life Style |