In 1791, when the British Parliament rejected a bill to end slave trade, thousands of pamphlets were printed to urge Britons to boycott sugar produced by slaves. As per an estimate put out by the BBC, some three lakh Britons gave up sugar, leading to sales crashing by a third to a half. To beat this, some shops even advertised sugar produced by ‘freemen’, ostensibly from India, where slavery wasn’t practised. Britain finally ended slavery in 1833, but hundreds of thousands of slaves, whose ancestors were shipped to British colonies to produce sugar and rum, were still doing pretty much the same. In short, when the West acquired a sweet tooth, millions were condemned to slavery to ensure the beverage mugs didn’t run out of sugar. The result was a bitter aftertaste for generations to come. But that’s one part of the story. The preserve of the elite during 16th-century Europe, sugar is a staple of the masses now. Once the offshoot of slavery, sugar itself has made many a slave now.
This remarkable journey from a luxury item to a staple, with all its squalor, is the quintessence of James Walvin’s book, titled Sugar: The World Corrupted From Slavery to Obesity. Walvin, a professor of history emeritus at University of York, dwells upon the morbid history of slave trade for cane plantations and the increasing health hazards posed by excessive consumption of sugar these days, projecting the sweetener as a sin product throughout the course of its existence. The sugar industry was born out of a sweet craving and nurtured, for a fairly large part, by the sweat and blood of slaves. Now, sugar is being blamed for a number of diseases. Do sugar’s past and present make it a sin product? Walvin feels so.
The author also reveals some personal costs of sugar consumption. His father got all his teeth removed at 21 years of age and his mother lost her remaining teeth in her mid-30s. “Grandma, uncles, aunts and close family friends—all had dentures,” Walvin says. He also worked in a Jamaican sugar estate in the late 1960s, although “… in the beginning, I didn’t make the connections between Africans in Jamaican sugar fields and the world I grew up in, in the north of England”. “Yet, both were intimately linked.” These two pretty much sum up the object of the book.
In its early history, sugar was produced in limited quantities in India, China and Indonesia, and was solely aimed at domestic markets. But when it was taken to the Mediterranean and then into the islands of the Atlantic, the story changed, says Walvin. By the 19th century, as Europeans and Americans traded with the outside world, they took commercial cane cultivation to new locations, like the islands in the Indian Ocean, Africa, Indonesia, Pacific Islands and Austria. Wherever they faced problems with local labourers, they substituted them with imported ones. “From one sugar region to another—from Brazil to Hawaii—the sugar plantation became the home of alien people—people who had been uprooted and shipped vast distances to undertake the gruelling, intensive labour on sugar plantations,” Walvin writes.
Where Walvin loses the plot is when he seeks to juxtapose physical distortion caused by excessive sugar consumption with the moral corruption of slavery. He is so disproportionately distracted by the wide-scale existence of abscessed gums, rotten teeth and fat people that he demonises sugar for nearly all human ills. In doing so, he overlooks the basic fact that a product can’t be blamed for the moral turpitude of its producers or lack of self-control of its consumers. So, to cast a commodity as the vehicle of slavery or public health hazards and to force others to believe they are sort of complicit in crime against humanity if they consume it, serves as a poor excuse to absolve man of his own share of guilt. If science says too much of sugar is bad for health, it says so for a rather long list of items, the catch phrase being “too much”. In fact, too much of everything is bad. So why single out sugar?
Not that the description of sugar as a sin product because of its history of association with slave trade is appropriate. No doubt, the British aristocracy used slaves to flourish in trade. Thousands of slaves were transported by ships from places like Liverpool in 18th century to British colonies to produce sugar and supply to the world. The chilling brutalities inflicted on them have put humanity to shame. However, if it was not for sugar, it would be for some other commodity. Slave trade was widely used to produce cotton in the US. In fact, excerpts from a Times article that appeared in Manchester Guardian in 1861 suggested American president Abraham Lincoln had called for a ban on raw cotton picked by slaves and persuaded European importers that such a move would be a key tool in beating the Confederacy and restoring the union. Capitalism had flourished with the aid of racism and the existence of both was closely interlinked. Why is it then that we must find a scapegoat in sugar to denounce crime against humanity?
Interestingly, Walvin also draws attention to the latest fashion for sugar-free diets. Indeed, much of the demonisation of sugar as a huge health degrader started in recent years. Companies that extensively use sugar, like cola producers, are also rolling out “sugar-free” products, with higher price tags. In a recent interview to this writer, London-based International Sugar Organization executive director José Orive had this to say: “We continue to emphasise that any such narrative must be based on scientific evidence. There is overwhelming evidence that at least 44% of our daily energy needs must come from carbohydrates. Life is about choices. What we don’t like is this demonisation of sugar… by some people who stand to gain from doing so.”
Putrid cavities and wooden dentures are not the ugly sides of sugar; these are prices humans pay for lack of self-control and for being lax about the after-effects. Perhaps a simple lesson on frugal consumption, regular brushing of teeth and a workout regime that prevents a sedentary lifestyle would serve humanity’s interest better than advocating a ban on sugar.