Sugar has long been a connecting commodity, linking various global communities in networks of supply and demand. In both my world and western history courses I have long stressed its importance: as a key factor in the expansion of Europe from the Crusades on, as a major cause of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as an initiator and indicator of the increasing globalization of trade and consumerism over the early modern era. From the moment I discovered Sidney Mintz’s classic text Sweetness and Power. The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), sugar has been one of my portals into the early modern past. Because of the inextricable connection between sugar and slavery, I thought I was familiar with the term “blood sugar”, as used by abolitionists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in much the same way that we would use “blood diamonds” today, but I never really understood the full ramifications of that term until I was viewing a current exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University: Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, circa 1600-1800. “Blood sugar” can refer metaphorically to the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of the slaves who were sacrificed on the altar of the ever-increasing consumption of sugar in the western world, but also literally to use of cattle blood in the sugar-refining process. Several sources in the Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition make the explicit connection between sugar and the blood shed by people and animals, including the fascinating 19th century abolitionist “picture book” aimed at children, Cuffy the Negro’s Doggrel Description of the Progress of Sugar (1823).
This might seem like a very graphic association for children, but British abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (like their counterparts across the Atlantic) were not known for their subtlety. The most popular pamphlet of the 18th century, William Fox’s Address to the people of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West Indian sugar and rum (1791) went much farther and set the tone for much of the debate: Nay, so necessarily connected are our consumption of the commodity the misery resulting from it, that in every pound of sugar used, (the produce of slaves imported from Africa), we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.The Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition explores this “Cannibalism” angle and its role in making sugar distasteful for everyone–including the royal family, who were pictured in several contemporary caricatures trying to wean themselves off the substance. Below, a rather grotesquely caricatured Queen Charlotte (who was said to have African blood herself) weighs tiny pieces of sugar on a scale for her guests while King George III says he can leave it altogether.
Isaac Cruikshank, The Gradual Abolition of the Slave Trade, or Leaving of Sugar by Degrees, 1792, British Museum.
Even (long) after the abolition of the slave trade in both Britain and America, sugar continued to foster connections, criticism and conflict. It became a focal point for critics of both economic and political imperialism, as illustrated by the 1906 Puck cover below (from the Library of Congress), criticizing U.S. economic policy in the Philippines. Much more recently, I came across the headline “Coca-Cola Distances itself from Blood Sugar Farms” in Cambodia.