Sugar: the spice that changed history–part three

Long ago, sugar became the most popular Asian spice in Europe. During the 1400s, Portuguese investors built large sugar plantations on islands near Africa. Work on these plantations was done by slaves from Africa. When the lands of the western hemisphere were discovered by Europeans, sugar farming was the first industry to be transported to the New World. Millions of Africans were brought to work on sugar plantations (as well as tobacco farms, cotton farms, and so forth) between 1500 and 1800.

Slavery has existed since ancient times. Slavery was considered natural in all parts of the world. Conditions of slavery were regulated by governments; in most places, slaves maintained certain rights under the law. Slavery is mentioned in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. It is not specifically condemned in the Bible, although the Law of Moses forbids one Israelite from owning another Israelite as a slave.

Plantation slavery was harsher and crueler than most previous forms of slavery. Early death was expected of slaves, and plantation owners figured on an average of five years of work from a slave before he had to be replaced. Treatment of slaves was different on different plantations, but brutal beatings, separation of families, and other abusive treatments were common. Some slave owners did not want their slaves to learn about Christianity, because the owners knew that Christian slaves would merit better treatment as human beings. Most slave owners did not want their slaves to know how to read and write, because illiteracy made them easier to control.

Opposition to slavery existed before the nineteenth century, but at first it had little success. By no coincidence, abolition first took hold in Great Britain, the country where the Industrial Revolution began. Slavery was not opposed successfully until machines were designed that could replace the work of slaves. Only then did European and American societies begin to recognize the human rights of workers. Slave trading from Africa was banned at first, and eventually slavery was entirely abolished. In the United States, a four year Civil War was needed to bring slavery to an end. Other countries, such as Brazil and Cuba, continued to allow slavery for years after the United States ended the practice. In some places, slavery continued to be practiced legally until the 1960s.

Industrialization made abolition possible. Industrialization also found new ways to process sugar. What had once been a spice now became an essential ingredient in many factory-produced foods and beverages. Sodas, breakfast cereals, candy bars, salad dressings, barbecue sauces—all of these contain high amounts of sugar, and during the twentieth century, they became increasingly large parts of people’s diets. Sugar is highly addictive, and the more sugar people consume, the more they want. Businesses succeed by giving people what they want, and over the past several generations, people have wanted a lot of sugar.

The politics of sugar turned a corner on January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union assumed that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and, therefore, “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Castro overthrew a government that was allied with the United States, so the Eisenhower administration assumed that he was a communist. Getting no help from the United States to set up a new government, Castro decided to agree that he was a communist, and he turned to the Soviet Union for help. The United States placed an embargo on Cuban exports, including cigars, rum, and sugar. These products became popular in the Soviet Union and its allies, while the United States and its allies needed to find a new supply of sugar.

While some sugar was available from other Caribbean islands, not enough cane sugar was being grown to meet the desires of the Western world. Therefore, American factories began to produce sugar from beets and from corn. Much of the sweet stuff Americans eat today is sweetened by high fructose corn syrup. We pour it on our pancakes and waffles, we spread it on our sandwiches and burgers, and we pour it on our salads. Our desserts and snacks are filled with sugar, much of it made from corn.

The medical reaction to sugar in the modern diet will be covered in part four. J.

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