Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sugar- A bittersweet history

I bought this book from the legendary Citylights book shop in San Francisco.True to the history of the bookshop, this book entertains you to the core in spite of its rather scholarly structure. The writer, Elizabeth Abbot is the former Dean of Women Trinity College, University of Toronto. She explains the evolution of sugar production along with the anthropological milestones it achieved on its way. In today's world, where sugar has already caused enough havoc, it is amusing to read about the initial reactions to the sweetener. It was a regular custom at Royal gatherings to make plates and spoons out of sugar and eat the cutlery when the dinner was over. To regale the grand audience, sometimes sculptures were made out of sugar. Sugar sculpture was a booming business in the early eighteenth century. Hollow sculptures were built around live doves and frogs. When the guests ate enough of the sculpture, the helpless birds flew out for their lives and the frogs jumped at the ladies' elaborate dressing gowns. Crazy as it may sound, in today's health and safety obsessed world, it was a big part of entertaining guests for rich people.
During the industrial revolution, sugar fueled the workers in factories in the form of tea breaks. The concept of high tea evolved during this time, when working women could not organize elaborate meals for the family.
This is just one face of sugar-evolution. It has a more serious and almost literally, dark face. Sugar Industry started slave trade across Africa. African slaves were sent to all the European colonies to work in cane fields. Abbot describes the plight of sugar slaves in well referenced, yet immensely moving descriptions. Although blacks were considered totally inferior to the whites, white men did not hesitate to devour their women. After a few generations of inter-racial mixing, the masters devised, like the writer puts it 'bizarre and complex' ways to categorize the offspring.
The offspring of a black and white was a mulatto. The offspring of a mulatto and a black was a sambo; the offspring of a sambo and a black was a black. The offspring of a mulatto and a white was a quadroon; the offspring of a quadroon and a white was a mustee; the offspring of a white and a mustee was a musteephino; the offspring of a musteephino and a white was a quintroon and the offspring of a quintroon and a white was an octoroon. Most of the last two classifications were 'white' enough to pass off as whites and therefore were considered whites!
Brazilian, French and Spanish sugar colonies had racial distinctions with as many as 128 permutations of mixes between native and white, native and black and native and mestizos (people of mixed European and native ancestry).
Skin color dictated the amount of back-breaking labor the slaves were 'destined' to perform. Slaves with a lighter skin tone were given domestic duties. As the skin tone got darker and darker the jobs went further away into the hot cane fields. This also lead to an establishment of hierarchy between the slaves which served the master's ultimate objective of keeping the slaves divided.
As the French chefs were inventing their irresistible chocolate mousse, slaves in Haiti and Jamaica were taking whiplashes on empty stomachs. Ironically, just like her creators, even sugar was subjected to color discrimination. Initially it came in a brown loaf, just like bread, as it was coated with molasses. However, towards the end of the eighteenth century sugar refining became just as lucrative as sugar plantation. The colonizers started shipping raw sugar back to the refineries in Europe in order to keep a monopoly in making the finest white sugar.
As the British strong hold in cane sugar manufacturing increased, Napoleon commissioned his scholars to discover ways of making sugar from sugar beet. Beet sugar is still produced in parts of Europe with climate that is unfavorable for sugarcane. Sugar trade played an important part in post-war treaties.
As the men and women in England began to realize the abject exploitation behind their cups of tea, an abolition movement was started. This motivated the British to move bases to East India (or India). The East Indian sugar was free of exploitation as it was not made by slaves.

Before I read this book, I had never thought of globalization in this perspective. Sugar trade put Africans in Louisiana and Florida, Indians in Fiji and South Africa and led to so much of mixing of races even in a time where it was completely against the social structure. And as sugar refining met international standards with the help of scientific commissions like ICUMSA, the minds and motives behind the commodity also underwent great refinement. My mother works as a referee to ICUMSA. It is not unusual now for black, brown, white, male and female sugar scientists to sit together at a table and exchange methods. However, if we look back to the times when it all started, this day feels like some sort of a Divine intervention!


Rajeev said...

Saee, Good collection of data and a lot of empathy, but beet too much for my plate this time.
Read my blog yet?

meera said...

wonderful review! --sounds so fascinating and I marked it as a 'to read' in my long list :) Thanks for the recommendation.

Pipa said...

You should read the anecdote (if you haven't already) of how Shasikant Phadnis invented the sugar substitute Splenda as a graduate student. It was splendid :-)

Saee said...

@Pipa..Long time!!
No I haven't read it. I should.
How have you been? Actually I lost the link to your blog when I got a new template. Could you give it to me?

Pipa said...

My blog --OK here it is and I will post the S.Phadnis story sometime :-)